It comes down to this. Tom Voss leads Jonathan Sheppard who leads Richard Valentine. Three trainers, two wins apart, five races at Camden, 23 starters between them, a title in the balance. Drop the flag.
First race. Maidens.
Voss delivers flat stakes winner Followmyfootsteps, Sheppard sends out first-timer El Season and veteran Sergeant Karakorum and Valentine counters with stakes winner Ice Bear. Voss’ arrow bends first when Followmyfootsteps fades early, leaving the race (not THE race) to Sheppard and Valentine.
Ice Bear pulls hard through the race, circles wide around the final turn and rallies to the outside of Sergeant Karakorum who lasts by a hard-earned head. Sheppard staves off an Augustin horse with a horse he traded for a board bill.
Valentine shrugs as he walks down the steps, knowing one slipped away. Sheppard smiles, his patented smirk, as he walks onto the track. Voss grimaces, alone, in the middle of the stretch, knowing it won’t be pretty either way.
“I needed that,” Sheppard says as he walks back to the barn to saddle a pair of 3-year-olds for the next. “We’ll see how Mr. Voss will do. It would be fun if it was a tie, I’d be very satisfied with that.”
A tie seems appropriate in a season where no trainer has dominated and one trainer will win a title with the lowest amount since 1974.
Sheppard and Voss tied at 15. Valentine two back. Four races to go.
Second race. Three-year-olds.
Voss is locked and loaded with Gladstone winner Wanganui, Sheppard unveils Slice Of Gold and Bruno Frigerio and Valentine reloads with British import Gawaarib.
Valentine, in white shirt and sweater, watches from the stands. Voss, in turtleneck and NSA pullover, watches from the infield big screen. Sheppard, in tweed and tie, hides somewhere, wherever he’s watched so many races for so many years at Camden.
Wanganui pulls hard on the lead but controls the race throughout. Gawaarib clutches and claws but can’t reel in the winner. Sheppard’s pair finishes third and sixth, good for first-timers, not good enough for a title assault.
“Good run,” Valentine says, proud of a horse who has come a long way in a short time.
Voss meets Paddy Young at the finish line. Relieved for the win, sure, but also relieved his 3-year-old came back safe from an acid test.
Voss: “All right?”
Young: “All right.”
Voss up again, by one. Sheppard down one. Valentine third, by two. Three races to go.
Third race. Timber.
Sheppard, reticent about timber racing, passes (he will finish the year with 106 starts, all over hurdles). Voss and Valentine produce half the field in the timber. Voss comes back in 13 days with two-time winner Mussiecoocoo while Valentine throws paint, with veterans Music To My Ears and Professor Maxwell. Voss looks strong, a win here and it’s a tie at the least.
With a circuit to go, Music To My Ears struggles for speed, he needs a miracle. Professor Maxwell flattens the fence in front of the stands, his day is over. A jump later, Mussiecoocoo adjusts too late, jamming in a short spot, hits the top board with his knees, the rail holds and the Irish-bred twists, falls, slides on his belly before tipping over. He lies on the ground, struggles, gets up. Unknowing fans clap when the horse stands. Valentine, Sheppard and certainly Voss know it’s over. The horse is gone.
Hot Rize and Gather No Moss pick up the pieces, Music To My Ears canters home in third, at least a check for the van bill.
Voss by one, an empty one. Sheppard second. Valentine done. Two races to go.
Fourth race. The Colonial Cup.
Sheppard cleans out the barn, saddling Divine Fortune, Arcadius, Italian Wedding, Nationbuilder, Lead Us Not and Sermon Of Love for the final stakes of the year. Voss antes with two veterans, Dynaski and Your Sum Man. Valentine is a spectator, he’s never run a horse in the Colonial Cup.
Sheppard goes 2, 3, 5, 6, 8 and 11 as Tax Ruling spoils the bid to tie Voss.
A length and a quarter keeps Voss atop, alone. He watches, hands shading his eyes as Dynaski never travels and Your Sum Man comes back in the horse ambulance.
Voss still in front, guaranteed a tie at the least. Sheppard, one back. One race to go.
Fifth race. The Hobkirk Hill.
Sheppard relaunches 7-year-old veteran Dugan. Voss runs 7-year-old veteran Mischief, who provided two wins earlier in year.
They shadow each other for most of the race, Mischief hangs to be third, Dugan fades to be fourth. Rainiero hands Valentine a $12,000 consolation prize and a winter full of what-ifs.
Voss wins. Sheppard second. Valentine third.
The final day, just like the entire season, is as much about weathering the storm as raising a sail.
Voss lost 25 races in a row between Fair Hill and Shawan Downs, didn’t win a race with 2010 champion Slip Away, lost eventual New York Turf Writers Cup winner Mabou to a claim at Saratoga. With 16 victories, the Marylander earns his fifth career title and first since 2002.
“Congratulations, Tom,” Sheppard says as Rainiero goes to the winner’s circle. “I was hoping for a tie.”
“So was I. So was I,” Tom says as he walks toward Mischief.
Valentine would have taken it too.
Young slips off his saddle from Mischief’s back and walks to the scale. Voss walks in the direction of the barn, a championship and a tragedy all on the same day.
“Doesn’t mean much with the price you’ve got to pay sometimes,” he says to himself, to nobody, to the world.
– – –
Sts 1st 2nd 3rd Earnings
88 16 9 13 $384,070
Fifth championship for Marylander, but first since 2002. Finished second in each of last three seasons (to Jack Fisher twice and Jonathan Sheppard once). Lowest victory total for a champion since 1974, when Sheppard won 15 jump races. Built three-win lead after spring season, but endured winless summer at Saratoga and entered fall season tied with Sheppard atop leaderboard. Two-win swing in Charleston feature (Voss’ Tizsilk beat Sheppard’s Air Maggy a nose) proved to be the difference. Won 3-year-old championship with Wanganui, the stable’s only stakes winner.