Champs 2012: Cat Feathers purrs to distaff crown

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From the December edition of Steeplechase Times.

Bernie Dalton turned and pointed to a bay filly in a corner paddock in Camden, S.C. “There’s the champ,” he said. Then he pointed to another bay filly in another paddock. “And there’s the linebacker,” Dalton said. The champ, Cat Feathers, and the linebacker, Lillehammer, never looked up.

The diminutive Cat Feathers, a brown paper bag. The lanky Lillehammer, her frame waiting for a growth spurt. Tucked away, under the trees, last barn down the sandy lane at the corner of Springdale Training Center, the two fillies relished the down time.

Owned and trained by Kate Dalton and ridden by her husband, Cat Feathers won the filly and mare championship in a matter of three weeks, upsetting the Mrs. Ogden Phipps and finishing second in the Mrs. Walter Jeffords at Saratoga. The Daltons decided they had ridden it to the beach and put her away for the fall, hoping the rest of the division would divide and conquer through the fall.

Like deck chairs in a cyclone.

Last year’s champion Sweet Shani finished second in the Phipps and retired. Kisser N Run broke her maiden at Foxfield, dominated the Peapack at Far Hills, then finished last in the Crown Royal at Callaway Gardens. Cubist won the Jeffords, labored in soft turf at Far Hills and finished fourth at Callaway Gardens. Well Fashioned fell at Far Hills before winning at Callaway. Cordillera finished second in the Peapack and third in the Crown Royal. All the while, Cat Feathers, blister on her legs and time on her side, waited for her 5-year-old season.

The three-week bonanza at Saratoga stuck as Cat Feathers emerged as champion filly or mare, earning $900 more than Cubist and a couple thousand more than Kisser N Run. The linebacker did her job better than Singletary, earning a third at Far Hills and a second at Callaway Gardens. If Lillehammer fades, fails or falls when making a mistake at the second-last at Callaway, Cubist earns a third-place check and denies Cat Feathers the improbable accolade. It would have been the thousandth champion for Sheppard, it was the first for the Daltons.

A hard-working, put-up-their-own-money couple based in Camden for the winter and wherever horses take them after that, the Daltons earned a year-changing check and career-bolstering accomplishment.

Bred by Peter Wetherill’s Happy Hill Farm, Cat Feathers was one of five 2-year-olds with the Daltons when Wetherill died in 2010. Executors of his estate called Kate and asked about the horses. Kate told them the truth; three were OK, one had major foot issues and Cat Feathers would be fine in two years.

Estates don’t have two years.

The Daltons wrote a check for $1,000 in February and turned her out until they returned to Camden in September. The long-term project was underway.

“There have been times when I’m riding her and Bernie’s like, ‘Just stop with that thing,’ ” Kate said. “We’ve had other ones from the family, they don’t have the best hind ends, they have stifle issues, I’d be riding and Bernie would say, ‘take her home,’ and I’d say, ‘just stop looking at her.’ “

In January 2011, the Daltons bought Well Fashioned from the Keeneland January sale and teamed the then 4-year-old filly with Cat Feathers for Camden schooling sessions. Well Fashioned won in a matter of months, Cat Feathers went back to school.

“I was on Well Fashioned and Kate was on Cat Feathers and she couldn’t figure out how to jump the rolls, she thought they were Irish banks that she was climbing up,” Bernie said. “Kate’s initial response was, ‘She comes out of the gate well, let’s give her a run or two on the flat.’ “

Cat Feathers made her debut at Colonial Downs last summer, finishing 10th twice for maiden claiming tags. By fall, she transitioned back to hurdle horse, making her jump debut at Aiken in October. Two weeks later, she won a maiden claimer at Charleston.

“She had been an ongoing project, a big, leggy kid that took awhile for everything to sink in; all we were hoping for was a clear round and show some kind of promise. I couldn’t believe it,” Bernie said. “I thought I would have to be aggressive on her and she sat third or fourth, she pulled and jumped like she had done it her whole life, I had to look down to make sure I was on the right horse.”

Put away for the winter, with at least a glimmer of hope induced by the win, Cat Feathers made her 4-year-old debut at High Hope. She pulled up.

Back to Colonial Downs June 2, Cat Feathers finished seventh in a tough allowance. Kate, shank in hand, walked to the track, cringing at what Bernie would say about a filly who he had told her to stop with time and time again.

“I went down to meet my filly, braced that he was going to batter her and he said, ‘We’re going to Saratoga,’ ” Kate said. “He said she learned everything she needed to know, she’ll improve from that.”

A sixth on the flat at Colonial June 29 added the finishing touches and the Daltons headed to Saratoga. Trainers and assistants (husbands and wives for that matter) need balance. Sometimes, it’s necessary to instill confidence. Other times, it’s necessary to instill reality. With Cat Feathers, there were times when Kate provided the confidence and Bernie provided the reality. And other times, the roles reversed.

The perfect confluence occurred at Saratoga. Two starts, a win and a second, championship earned. By then, Cat Feathers had begun to train with purpose. Bernie, confidence gained from her run at Colonial and Kate, confidence gained by morning exercise, were on the same page. Still, Bernie had to rub it in, at least a little.

“He had that moment when she finished seventh at Colonial Downs,” Kate said. “After the Phipps, he came back and said, I told you she would improve.”

Kate knew it all along.