Colonial Cup: Back to the beginning

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In 1970, American jump racing needed a boost, a push, a splash. It came from within as Marion du Pont Scott funded and founded an international steeplechase worth $100,000. And thus one of the great American races came to be.  

Then one of the richest jump races in the world, Colonial Cup attracted horses from all over the world. They came to Scott’s Springdale Race Course in Camden, S.C. for the money, the prestige, the lark, the competition. American hero Top Bid, owned by Mrs. Ogden Phipps, trained by Mikey Smithwick and ridden by Joe Aitcheson, turned back them all – beating 21 others over the 2 3/4 miles and 17 packed-pine fences. Behind the Yanks came horses from England, Ireland, France, Germany, Australia.

Forty-two years later, the Colonial Cup still holds its place in American steeplechasing, even if it’s lost ground on the world’s stage and changed in a variety of ways. As it did in 1970, the race closes the racing season for the year and draws the country’s best. The foreigners, other than those imported by American owners, largely stay away – after all these years the purse is still $100,000 while other races in America and abroad have bloomed to higher figures. Springdale is largely unchanged, a flat, fair swath of Carolina grass – protected forever with Scott’s gift of the property to the state. The pine fences have given way to plastic as the Colonial Cup is run over the standard National Fences. Though the fall race holds far more importance to the sport’s participants and followers, it pales in comparison to the spring’s Carolina Cup (which hosts 50,000 or more) in local hoopla.

All these years later, the November race is the horsemen’s race, the championship race.

Back to that first rendition, the official chart reads like a history of the sport here and abroad. Starters included:

– International star L’Escargot, who raced for American owner Raymond Guest’s Powhatan and was ridden by Irish champion Tommy Carberry (the father of current jockeys Paul, Phillip and Nina). Champion in the U.S. in 1969, he won the Cheltenham Gold Cup eight months prior to the Colonial Cup, repeated that triumph in 1971 and won the English Grand National as a 12-year-old in 1975 (his fourth and final try at the race).

– Australian champion Crisp, who lived up to his nickname “The Black Kangaroo” by winning major races in his home country in addition to the Queen Mother in England. He is probably best known for a narrow loss while conceding 23 pounds to Red Rum at Aintree in 1973. He finished seventh.

– Tingle Creek. The American 4-year-old faced a tough assignment against the best horses in the world, and finished a well-beaten 14th. Sent to England, he became a legend – winning with flamboyant jumping and bold, front-running tactics.

– Herring Gull. Trained by Irishman Paddy Mullins (father of trainers Tom, Willie and Tony), the then 8-year-old won the Irish Grand National in 1968 and what is now the Royal and Sun Alliance Chase at Cheltenham. He stood at the start under another Pat Taaffe, who rode the great Arkle.

On the American side were:

– Top Bid. Bred by Wheatley Stable, he wound up champion of 1970 with victories in the Temple Gwathmey and Colonial Cup among his four wins that year. Top Bid was a half-brother to Bold Bidder, champion older male of 1966 and the sire of Spectacular Bid, Caveat, Cannonade and so on. Top Bid won 14 times over jumps and earned $229,921 back when it was difficult to do. His jockey, Aitcheson, is the yardstick for all past and future American jump jockeys. He rode from 1956-79, won 440 races and seven championships. He’s in Thoroughbred racing’s Hall of Fame.

– Shadow Brook. He finished second in the Colonial Cup for Stephen Clark Jr. and trainer Sidney Watters Jr. Leo O’Brien was aboard. Shadow Brook was just moving in to the elite division in 1970, but was destined for big things – he was champion in 1971.

– Wustenchef. The German import raced for a relatively new team of Augustin Stable and Jonathan Sheppard. The 5-year-old fell at the seventh fence with Michael O’Brien. Among the horse’s many feats were four stakes victories in the summer of 1971, two over jumps and two on the flat.

Saturday, a dozen horses will try to live up to all that. They range from Grade 1 winners Slip Away, Demonstrative and Spy In The Sky to 4-year-old novice Alajmal. In between, there are Thoroughbreds of every shape and size – 10-year-old Irish import Decoy Daddy, six-figure Giant’s Causeway sales yearling Gustavian, Irish newcomer Charminster, the hard-luck and hard-trying Divine Fortune, Norwegian hero You’re The Top, upstart History Boy, optional-claiming winner Wild For Gold (whose owner Gene Weymouth’s father ran a horse in the 1970 race) and the flashy Irishman Jack Cool.

They’ll line up at about 2:30 or so – and make people think of 1970 all over again.