Jump champ Rawnaq eyes English trip

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Rawnaq won the Eclipse Award as champion steeplechaser of 2016 Saturday night to elevate his trainer Cyril Murphy into a rare class.

Just three trainers – Bruce Miller and Jonathan Sheppard are the others – have won back-to-back steeplechase Eclipses with different horses. Hall of Famer Sheppard did it twice, with Café Prince and Martie’s Anger in 1978 and 1979 and again with Jimmy Lorenzo and Highland Bud in 1988 and 1989. Bruce Miller turned the double with Lonesome Glory and All Gong in 1999 and 2000.

And now there’s Murphy.

The Irishman turned Marylander sent out Irv Naylor’s Dawalan to the Eclipse in 2015 after wins in the Grand National and Colonial Cup. When that star went to the sidelines with a tendon injury, Rawnaq more than filled the void with three wins in four starts. He captured the Temple Gwathmey in April, the Iroquois in May and the Grand National in October. Only a second in the season-ending Colonial Cup prevented a perfect record, but the $387,000 year was more than enough to win the Eclipse Award. The Irish-bred garnered 171 first-place votes to outdistance Colonial Cup winner Top Striker (31). No other horse received more than two first-place votes.

“Really and truly, his body of work was far superior to anyone else even though he got beat at Camden,” Murphy said Thursday morning, two days before the award was announced. “That’s what it should be about, the body of work from one end of the year to the other as opposed to one race. If he wins, it will be nice to say we’ve won back-to-back. To do it with two horses is saying something. We’ve always thought the world of him.”

As rare as Murphy’s feat was, Naylor became the first owner to win back-to-back steeplechase Eclipses with different horses. The former amateur jump jockey campaigns the largest stable, based mainly with Murphy outside Baltimore, on the National Steeplechase Association circuit and has been rewarded with back-to-back Eclipse Awards and three of the last six (with Black Jack Blues in 2011).

Rawnaq came to the Naylor/Murphy barn in 2015, after an Irish career with four hurdle and two chase wins with trainer Matthew Smith. The son of Azamour, bred by Jim Monaghan and once in the flat-racing program of Shadwell and trainer Mark Johnston, finished a strong third in the Grand National and second in the Colonial Cup (both races won by Dawalan) to grab some attention in the Grade 1 division. In 2016, Rawnaq was the story from start as Dawalan emerged from a flat prep with an injury and missed the full season.

The understudy proved plenty capable – dominating the Gwathmey, then ousting Irish-based foes Shaneshill and Nichols Canyon in the Grade 1 Iroquois. Rested over the summer, Rawnaq returned as good as he left with a triumph in the Grade 1 Grand National (the year’s richest race at $350,000) over a field that included English visitors Days Of Heaven and Sharp Rise. That win all but locked up an Eclipse, though Rawnaq went postward in the Grade 1 Colonial Cup to wrap up the season in November. Coming off a win a month earlier at Great Meadow, Top Striker won that battle with Rawnaq finishing second.

“The last hundred yards, his race was run,” jockey Sean McDermott said when he got off Rawnaq that day. “It wasn’t like he got done for speed, he was just fading a little at the end. The Rawnaq of Far Hills or Iroquois when they came to him turning in he’d have gone again. He’s a lovely, honest horse. One horse got by him all year.”

Though he would have loved an unbeaten season, Murphy was similarly pragmatic after the Colonial Cup.

“We’re disappointed but the way (Top Striker) won, he showed that he was the best horse on the day,” said Murphy. “There was no hard luck. It would have been nice to win another one, but . . . our horse still gets the accolades. He had a great year. At the end of the day, one horse gets by him. The rest of the field could follow him around again and not get past him.”

Rawnaq gets an even tougher assignment in 2017 as Naylor and Murphy have mapped out an English excursion for the now 10-year-old. With the Iroquois win, Rawnaq won the first leg of the Brown Advisory Irqouois-Cheltenham Challenge and can capture the second – and a $500,000 bonus – by winning the Sun Bets Stayers Hurdle at the famed Cheltenham Festival March 16.

Rawnaq got a short break after the Colonial Cup, and has been training steadily since.

“He seems fine at the moment,” Murphy said. “We’ve been very fortunate with the weather so far. We left him alone for a few weeks after Camden, just to let him pick his head up a little bit and from Christmas onward we’ve had a clean run with him. He’s done a couple pieces of work and he’ll do a few more. It’s gone as well as we could ever hope for.”

Rawnaq will leave for England the first week of February and train at Neil Mulholland’s yard in Somerset. Murphy plans a prep race at Fontwell Feb. 26. Jockey Jack Doyle, who partnered with Rawnaq in the Gwathmey and Iroquois, is expected to ride. Doyle missed the fall season with injuries sustained in a fall at Belmont Park in September, but has been cleared to ride and was aboard Rawnaq for a workout last week.