A.P. Smithwick recap: Action Hero

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Doug Fout sat across from Carl Barnes and patiently waited to intervene. They were en route to Colonial Downs for High Action’s U.S. hurdle debut on Sunday, June 15. Fout listened, smiled, bit his tongue, and bided his time as his new owner proudly proclaimed High Action a better horse than Hirapour, the 2004 steeplechase champion Fout trained to five Grade I wins over his career.

Barnes finished, and Fout tactfully picked his opening.

“I listened for about 10 minutes while he went on and finally I said ‘I don’t know, Hirapour beat some mighty good horses and he won an Eclipse Award,’ ” Fout recalled. “He looked back at me and said ‘You know, I owned Hirapour. You bought him from me.’ ”

Doug, meet Carl. Carl, meet Doug.

An Englishman, Barnes campaigned Hirapour in partnership and sold him to Fout and Eldon Farm in the summer of 2003.

“He went on to explain it to me and I just laughed and said ‘Oh my God.’ I just never met him because we bought Hirapour through an agent,” Fout said. “I hadn’t met Mr. Barnes for the first nine months I had High Action because he didn’t come over until the night before the Colonial Downs race.”

High Action won his race at Colonial by 4 1/2 lengths and though he still has a long way to go to match Hirapour’s accomplishments, he continued down the path on Thursday in the Grade II A.P. Smithwick Memorial Steeplechase Stakes. Barnes’ High Action (Paddy Young) scored a comfortable 1 1/2-length victory over barnmate Dark Equation (Matt McCarron), and Salford City (Paul Carberry) in the $85,600 Smithwick, getting the 2 1/16 miles over National Fences in 3:52.45.

High Action, an 8-year-old son of Theatrical, broke in good order and settled in fourth, about 6 lengths off Irish invader Salford City, who set the early pace while the star mare Guelph kept him company. Fout’s other entry, Dark Equation, tracked the leading pair in third, just ahead of his stablemate. Salford City, a five-time hurdle-winner in Ireland and 2-1 favorite in the Smithwick, barreled through a quick first lap and held a tenuous lead over Guelph, who moved in on the favorite as the pair hit the clubhouse turn for the second and final time.

The leaders spread out single file as the field made their final run down the backstretch. Salford City led Guelph, Dark Equation, and High Action, who were clear of Spy In The Sky, Meneef, Duke Of Earl, and Orpington. As the leaders approached the final turn, Guelph attempted to turn up the pressure on Salford City as Dark Equation sat the perfect trip back in third. Young drafted in behind the leading trio and the foursome widened over the rest of the eight-horse field as they approached the final turn. Guelph began to tire as the field left the final bend and Salford City quickly scampered clear, opening up a 3-length lead while straightening away in the lane. Dark Equation picked up the chase in second and Young produced High Action on the inside as the leaders approached the last fence. Salford City jumped that last fence with a diminishing lead while High Action soared over it, gaining in midair and hitting the ground just a half-length behind. An instant after landing, in just two strides, High Action was in front and pulling away from a tired and weary Salford City. Dark Equation rallied belatedly on the outside to get the place.

High Action was purchased by Barnes from Saeed Suhail in the fall of 2003 after making the first nine starts of his career in Europe in Sir Michael Stoute’s barn. Sent to Ian Williams, High Action made 24 starts, including six over hurdles, with varying degrees of success. Highlights were a pair of hurdle wins, three flat scores, and a fourth-place finish to Yeats in the 2006 Group I Ascot Gold Cup. Clearly, as Barnes insisted to Fout, the talent was there.

After disappointing efforts in a pair of Group II’s, in which High Action struggled over the soft courses that reign supreme throughout Europe, Barnes decided it was time to look to the U.S. and the firmer ground. With the considerable success that Hirapour enjoyed Barnes knew of Fout and his talented stable. The owner sent High Action to Fout in the spring of 2007 but had to wait a full year for his plan to come to fruition.

“When I got him and he got off the plane he had a tendon. He wasn’t in my barn 13 hours and we had to stop on him. So, when he came back this year I didn’t know what I had,” said Fout. “I mean, he hadn’t run for a long time. We had him and were getting him ready for Saratoga last year and it just didn’t happen. He was good enough on the flat but you don’t know. When I got him back this spring he was actually too good of a jumper. He was almost like a show horse; he would just hang in the air. And that’s why it took me so long to get him to the races. I must have schooled the horse 20 times – I just couldn’t get him to jump the brush. He didn’t want to get down in them. Once he did he figured out quick he was a good horse.”

And a fast horse. High Action made his first afternoon appearance for Fout at Fair Hill May 24, winning a 1 1/4-mile training flat race that served as a perfect tightener for his U.S. hurdle debut at Colonial. With Young aboard High Action sat in third for much of the running, split horses in mid-stretch, and drew off. Fout circled Saratoga, gave High Action a flat prep at Open House (where he ran third to Dark Equation), and eagerly awaited the Smithwick. So did his rider.

Young won his first U.S. hurdle race in the fall of 2003 at Shawan Downs and enjoyed his best season to date in 2007, finishing second in the jockey standings.

But none of his career accomplishments included a win at Saratoga. The Irishman took a contract this winter to ride first-call for Brigadoon Stable, one of Fout’s main clients. He came to Saratoga optimistic that this would be the year. Fout gave him a little help in the paddock.

“Last week on Rainiero I was in the same position (turning for home) and switched out around everybody and he flattened out a bit. Dougie (Fout) reminded me of that this morning and we talked about it. I messed up and went wide on Rainiero. I told myself I was going to stay down in there today and if it opened up, it opened up. I was slapping him down on the shoulder to keep him there on the turn, but I thought I would just wait,” Young said. “It’s brilliant (to win at Saratoga). I didn’t sleep that well last night and didn’t feel that good this morning, just nervous. It’s nice to get it off my back. I haven’t ridden here that much, but I rode more or less every race here last year. Unless you’re riding some of the better horses you think it’s never going to happen. This was probably my best chance ever at Saratoga.”

Barnes headed to the Trustees’ room, sipped champagne, and shook more hands than John McCain after accepting his nomination.

His cell phone logged more roaming minutes than Ronnie Lott did during his playing days. From testing Yeats at Royal Ascot to posing for pictures in the winner’s circle at Saratoga, Barnes and High Action have seen the best racing the world has to offer.

“He’s just the horse we needed to send here to get the firm ground. He got it at Colonial and ran huge and then he got it today and we saw what happened,” Barnes said. “In Europe there’s just too much give in the ground and he struggled. We knew if we brought him over here and he got his course he would be bouncing off of it. He showed his class over there, running against Yeats and the like, and showed it again today. I nearly got sick earlier when the rain was coming down so hard. But we were here to run and we had to take a chance.”

High Action will take another chance in the Grade I New York Turf Writers Cup on Aug. 28, a race Fout won with Hirapour in 2005.

The comparisons will have to wait. For now.

“He’s obviously a serious horse. You could tell that at Colonial and you saw it again today,” Fout said. “Better than Hirapour? I’m not sure he’s there yet.”