Champs 2012: Two good ones at the top

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From the December edition of Steeplechase Times.

Matt McCarron handed the saddle towel to the clerk of scales, slid two pounds of lead from his leather pad, and stepped on the scale for the final time. McCarron had just won the Colonial Cup with a last-to-first sweep from Jacqueline Ohrstrom’s Demonstrative.

The win was powerful, chilling, iconic. One that had historians delving deep in their memory banks for a comparable performance. Most gave up, stammering, “I’ve never seen that before.”?Last to first, at the last, in the Colonial Cup. Never been done. But was it good enough for an Eclipse Award? In person, probably. On paper, perhaps. In reality, nobody knows. Remember, voters don’t vote at Camden in November (hell, most couldn’t find Camden on a map). They vote at a desk, in January.

“It’s unfortunate,”?McCarron said, picking up his tack to go back to the barn to saddle Rainiero for the Hobkirk Hill. “Because the more he wins by, the more impressive he is and the better shot of winning the Eclipse Award.”

Bernie Dalton, who barely had a view of the performance while inside on Wild For Gold, didn’t want to hear any talk about Demonstrative winning the Eclipse Award.

“No?Eclipse Award. No Eclipse Award,”?Dalton said, walking back into the jocks’ room, finished for the year. He might have been smiling when he said it.

Dalton guided the other Eclipse contender, 8-year-old Pierrot Lunaire to two inexplicable and explosive wins in the fall. Mary Ann Houghland’s veteran snapped a three-year losing streak by winning the Lonesome Glory by a nose in September (Demonstrative scratched while in the paddock)?and backed it up with win in the sport’s richest race, the Grand National at Far Hills, 10 lengths to the good of Demonstrative. Two strong performances, two defeats of Demonstrative (they finished fifth and sixth in the Zeke Ferguson in June), the earnings title. Strong credentials, but he stayed home when he should have shown up.?Even Dalton knows that. On the flat, whether it’s right or wrong, wins at the end of the year matter more than wins anywhere, anytime else.

“I knew he wasn’t coming and I was disappointed,”?Dalton said of Pierrot Lunaire and the Colonial Cup. “I think if he didn’t win it, he would have been second. You couldn’t take anything away from Demonstrative on the day. He was impressive. The race would have suited a horse like Pierrot Lunaire – nice long run from the last. He probably wouldn’t have been as far back at Demonstrative. In an ideal world, I would have gotten first run on him and beat him but we’ll never know.”

And so it goes. Another season. Another debate.

Most years, it’s unanimous. Some years, it’s default. This year, cut the bronze in half, two deserve it.

Upstart Demonstrative won the Jonathan Kiser, New York Turf Writers?Cup and Colonial Cup. Veteran Pierrot Lunaire won the Lonesome Glory and Grand National. Combined, the two lost five in a row to start the season, then won five of six. Both produced highs – and lows.

Demonstrative lost jockey Robbie Walsh in his first start of the year, a novice stakes at Queen’s Cup and finished last in the Zeke Ferguson in the summer. After that he went 3-for-4, his only blemish a tired fourth in the Grand National when unable to handle soft ground.

Pierrot Lunaire opened his season with a decent fourth in the Temple Gwathmey, followed it with a lifeless fifth in the Iroquois and a non-threatening fifth in the Ferguson. That made nine losses in a row, all the way back to the 2009 Iroquois when he stepped off a plane to upset Good Night Shirt. Running for Bruce Miller in the summer and returning under Blythe Miller Davies’ name for the fall, the 8-year-old son of War Chant “came out of the wilderness” according to Dalton to win the Lonesome Glory by a nose over Spy In The Sky.

In what would have provided the perfect stage to end all Eclipse conversation, the Lonesome Glory fell apart when trainer Richard Valentine was forced to scratch Demonstrative in the paddock. Walsh broke his hip in the prior race, probable backup McCarron was hurt in the same race. Valentine scratched and changed course to Far Hills, and Friday’s rain washed away his best chance. Demonstrative tried hard, finishing fourth, while Pierrot Lunaire did the impossible and caught Divine Fortune after the last fence in the Grand National.?Looking back, that performance had historians racking their brains too, nobody could recall a horse rallying after the last fence to win the Grand National.

Poised for a showdown on the final day of racing in the Colonial Cup, Pierrot Lunaire stayed home, Demonstrative dominated, and the Eclipse Award was back up for debate.

“Part of me thinks we’ll still get the Eclipse Award,”?Dalton said.?”He won the biggest race on the year and beat Demonstrative both times they met. Well, he beat him at Far Hills, he just finished in front of him at Colonial Downs. If Demonstrative gets it, there would be no sour grapes. He did nothing wrong either. You don’t want the ground to count against Demonstrative and you don’t want not going to Camden to count against Pierrot Lunaire.”

Dalton is opinionated and diplomatic, proud and satisfied, all at the same time. So is Valentine.

“I think Pierrot Lunaire?will get it. We met him twice, he beat us twice. He finished in front of us at Colonial Downs when neither of us ran that well. Then he beat us at Far Hills,”?Valentine said. “If you put in the Kiser, it gives us one more win which helps us. I?think people look at the Far Hills race and look at the form and he’s got us on those two. I know my horse is a good horse. I know he had a great year.”

Both are. Both did.

Additional reporting by Joe Clancy.