Aiken recap: Right Side Up

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Jonathan Sheppard arrived at Aiken with a multiple Grade I-winner and an unknown quantity. An earner of $457,730 and a horse that hadn’t met the starter since July. One with eight lifetime jump victories and one that hadn’t won a race in 19 months.

Mixed Up, meet Mixed Up.

Just which Mixed Up came to South Carolina wasn’t immediately clear, but somewhere between the top of the stretch and the wire of the $45,000 Southern Bank & Trust Imperial Cup Grade I talent won the race against injury and inactivity. Bill Pape’s Mixed Up (Danielle Hodsdon) proved a game and determined nose winner over Paradise’s Boss in a thrilling renewal of the 2-mile stakes that helped usher in the 2009 NSA season in Aiken, S.C. March 21. Welcome back, old friend.

“It sure is good to see him run like that,” Sheppard said. “He didn’t win a race last year and it had been a long time since he showed himself. We were looking forward to running him at Saratoga last summer but he ended up having some soundness issues, so it all got to be very frustrating.”

Mixed Up put out those past frustrations and rekindled future promises in the Imperial Cup. The 10-year-old Pape-Sheppard homebred broke running and secured a forward position behind Hip Hop and Spy In The Sky from the inside during the first lap. Paradise’s Boss (Xavier Aizpuru), the 2004 novice champion who missed all of 2008 due to injury, took a surprising spot at the back of the six-horse field, though never more than 6 lengths from the leader.

Hodsdon stayed glued to Hip Hop’s inside as the field hit the line for the second time, while Paradise’s Boss moved up to her outside. As the field entered the final turn Hodsdon guided Mixed Up through along the inside, while Aizpuru negotiated traffic while following that move.

Turning for home the two veterans raced in tandem. They approached the last on even terms and Paradise’s Boss appeared to stick a nose in front as they took flight. Mixed Up jumped it better, and put that momentum to good use.

They landed inseparable and continued that way to the line. Only the photo-finish camera – after a lengthy review by the placing judges – could tell for sure that Mixed Up put his nose in front to get the win. He stopped the timer in 3:44 2/5. Rare Bush (Padge Whelan) held third.

Hodsdon admitted the path to victory doesn’t always go according to plan.

“I didn’t intend to sit second or be that close, but he set the tone after the first jump. He tried to run off on me so I had to keep him tucked in and covered up right inside Hip Hop’s tail,” Hodsdon said. “Getting the jump up the inside was the key. It was such a tight finish and to be able to save that ground was huge.”

Hodsdon has long regarded Mixed Up as a personal favorite and the 2006 champion jockey has ridden the star in all but one of his 22 hurdle starts. She even climbed aboard for a stakes try on the flat at Colonial Downs in 2007. She got on at Aiken hoping for the best but also realistic in the chances of a 10-year-old that had been away a long time.

“Going in we really didn’t think he would like Aiken or 2 miles, and I would have been happy to ride around and get up for third,” Hodsdon said. “As a younger horse he liked the distance and he was versatile, but now he’s a bit older and not as speedy.”

With the dominance of Good Night Shirt, the resurgence of Preemptive Strike and the budding potential of Be Certain, Mixed Up had been all but forgotten over the past 18 months. In the “what have you done for me lately?” world of racing the New York Turf Writers and Royal Chase trophies can get dusty in a hurry.

The only horse not named McDynamo to beat Good Night Shirt since 2007 (in the April 2007 Royal Chase at Keeneland) has struggled to get past his stall door since.

Last May at Nashville, on the day Good Night Shirt won his second consecutive Iroquois, Mixed Up checked in a disappointing fourth in the Grade III Marcellus Frost.

Sheppard regrouped and pointed to Saratoga, where Mixed Up had won the Grade I Turf Writers in 2006 and the Grade II A.P. Smithwick in 2007. But the son of Carnivalay never made the Spa races in 2008, turning up with an injury shortly after running second in a training flat at Open House. Instead of rushing to make the fall season Sheppard showed the patience of an ice fisherman and skipped the rest of the year.

He gave Mixed Up pointed to 2009. After initially contemplating the Carolina Cup and a potential tilt with Good Night Shirt, the trainer opted for  the Imperial Cup, which had been shortened 2 furlongs from last year’s 2 1/4-mile distance. Like his jockey, Sheppard entered and hoped for the best over the speed-favoring course. Racing without Lasix for the first time in a jump race, Mixed Up came through for the team.

“We were a bit concerned because he’s not as speedy as he once was and he doesn’t have that burst of speed that he used to, so we wanted to keep him a bit closer to the pace. Aiken, going 2 miles, you can’t make up as much ground,” Sheppard said. “He ran against a real good horse in Paradise’s Boss and it proved to be quite a race. They came to the last together and both fought very hard and in the end class shows.”

– On paper, the $25,000 allowance left little to the imagination. Sunshine Numbers would blast off to a monumental lead, tire entering the far turn and by midstretch be relegated to nothing more than a minor award. Since breaking his maiden at Stoneybrook in April 2008 the theme had played out in all five of his subsequent NSA races.

But a funny thing happened around the far turn of the $25,000 allowance. Sue Sensor’s charge kept going, fended off a late challenge from Sermon Of Love (Hodsdon) and posted an overdue 3 1/2-length win for trainer Arch Kingsley.

True to form, Sunshine Numbers (Jody Petty) broke in front and assumed command, drawing off by 10 lengths at the mile marker. The lead blossomed to 25 with just a half-mile remaining before the others began to draw in. Miss Crown and Sermon Of Love seemingly cut a length off with every stride and turning for home Sunshine Numbers held a tenuous 5-length lead. Once again the inevitable was becoming reality.

As the field came out of the final turn Sermon Of Love picked up the chase, and cut the margin to 2 lengths in mid-stretch. But this time, Sunshine Numbers braced for the challenge, dug in gamely and held sway under the line. Zozimus (Aizpuru) rallied late for third, some 10 1/4 lengths behind Sermon Of Love. The winner covered the 2 miles in 3:44 2/5.

The 7-year-old son of Polish Numbers had shown signs of talent in his brief hurdle career but the Quarter Horse mentality doesn’t play out well when you’re running and jumping for 2 miles. The pop-and-stop had become his custom last year until November, when he opened up 20 lengths and held on for third in a Camden starter allowance. Things brightened considerably at Little Everglades Point-to-Point March 8 when Sunshine Numbers went flag-to-wire and won by 17 lengths. Kingsley left for Aiken confident.

“We’ve worked really hard in his training and his races to get him to relax a little more so he can have something left for the stretch,” Kingsley said.  “In the stretch he wasn’t giving anything and they weren’t getting anything. I guess you could say getting an early run at Little Everglades helped, but you know the others in there were ready to run as well.”

– It’s hardly surprising to see a steeplechase horse return from more than a year off. Nor is it surprising when the horse’s trainer says she doesn’t know what to expect in that first start back. Janet Elliot wasn’t about to deviate from the norm. Elliot sent out Laura Thiel Shull’s Silent Vow (Bernie Dalton) for the first time in 16 months and he delivered a 1 1/2-length win over Rusty Reign (Robbie Walsh) and Bethpage Black (Carl Rafter) in the third, a $10,000 maiden claimer.

“He had a really bad suspensory injury in 2007 but the owner was good enough to give him the time to come back and we were able to take it slow and let him tell us when he was ready,” Elliot said. “I wasn’t quite sure how he would run or jump because we really didn’t do a lot of schooling with him. We wanted to just send him out there and get a nice sensible run in him and see what we had. We didn’t want to overdo it, but if he’s there for you, go for it.”

He was there like a shadow.

Silent Vow tracked in fourth for much of the running, while Bethpage Black and Red Monkey Kid battled on the lead. The 6-year-old drafted into contention nearing the final turn, ranged up in the stretch and drove clear late.

Silent Vow showed promise in 2007 for trainer Paul Rowland. He crossed the line first at Tyron only to be disqualified from the win and then followed that effort with a pair of fourths.

– Elliot always knew how to get Bounding Cat to the winner’s circle; she just needed a little afternoon cooperation. The 9-year-old homebred has long been regarded as difficult to ride. If you can tuck him in and get him to settle, odds are you’re riding the winner. If he wins the battle of wills, odds are you’ll be heading backward at the finish.

Walsh got a briefing from Elliot and Aizpuru prior to the finale, a $10,000 conditioned claimer, and carried the instructions out to perfection en route to a 5 1/2-length score over Bold Turn (Petty) and Summersville (Rafter).  

Bounding Cat settled at the back of the seven-horse field, 20 lengths behind runaway leader Waracha, before passing the entire group on the far turn and drawing off for an easy win.

“I had talked to Xav (who’d ridden the horse twice) and Janet and they both told me to keep him covered up or he’ll run off on you,” Walsh said. “I just dropped him off the back, about 2 or 3 lengths behind and just sat on their tails for a bit. He jumped his way into it down the backside and turning for home I tipped him out and he just took off going to the last.”

Bounding Cat made his hurdle debut in 2003 at Middleburg and spread 10 more jump starts (and several flat tries) over the next five seasons. Bounding Cat lost his first eight starts, often because of his inability to relax early, before breaking through with a last-to-first move at Montpelier in November. He refused to start in his next race at Camden, but Elliot didn’t panic.

“He’s an old homebred so I thought at Aiken that it wasn’t a big deal because he’s my own horse and I use him as a pony as well, so if he didn’t want to run, then that would be OK,” Elliot said. “But maybe now he’s starting to come into himself a little bit. He improved last fall, before Aiken, and he’s showing consistency. If you cover him, he relaxes and finishes quite well and that’s what we saw here.”

– Sheppard, Pape and Hodsdon started out an Aiken double when Dugan drew off to a 6-length win over three rivals in the second, a $25,000 Sport of Kings maiden.

Dugan stalked early leader So Amazing (Liam McVicar), took charge entering the far turn, and powered home to an easy 6-length win in an effort that stamps the son of Forest Wildcat as a name to remember in the novice division. So Amazing easily held second, 11 1/4 lengths ahead of BK’s Double Jade (Rafter).

Bred by George Strawbridge, Dugan raced for Augustin Stable on the flat with Sheppard from 2006-2008, scoring a pair of wins in 14 starts. Last fall, as Strawbridge downsized his vast operation, Sheppard mentioned the horse to Pape, along with one major selling point to go with him.

“I like to give all my horses a try over something, be it a log or a baby hurdle, when they are younger. It helps me get a line on their personality. I did that to Dugan last spring at Camden and he seemed to like it, so I knew he had some talent, which I knew Bill would like as well,” Sheppard said. “Once they learn to jump they don’t forget it. I haven’t had a great deal of luck converting racehorses into hurdle horses, and that’s why I think this works a lot better. At Aiken he was very poised and composed for a horse making his first start over hurdles.”