Colonial Cup recap: Heavy Starch

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CAMDEN, S.C. – Jockey Jody Petty met with trainer Sanna Hendriks before the Colonial Cup and talked strategy.

“What’s my edge? I’ve got to have an edge,” said Petty, who took veteran Preemptive Strike into the Grade I stakes as a decided underdog against champion Good Night Shirt at Springdale Race Course Nov. 16.

Hendriks replied with the only edge her horse had: “Whenever you get a good fence, take advantage of it. He flies his fences, especially these, so let him.”

Preemptive Strike flew all 17 fences in the 2 3/4-mile race, but still didn’t have quite enough as Good Night Shirt prevailed by a neck in a stretch battle that conjured up Lonesome Glory-Mistico, Sailor’s Clue-Corrib Chieftain and even Lucky Boy-Soothsayer-Dream Magic. Good Night Shirt finished in 5:17 4/5, about a second faster than his win last year but well off Hirapour’s 2004 record. Owned by Sonny and Ann Via, Good Night Shirt completed a perfect 5-for-5 season, pushed his 2008 earnings to the brink of $500,000 and left no doubt to his place atop American jump racing.

“Everybody wants to see a race . . . well, they saw a race today – and the champ won,” said jockey Willie Dowling. “It’s like a happy ending for everybody. I’m just so happy for the horse to finish it on a good  note. You set the expectations so high when you do what he did before this race.”

Good Night Shirt came into the $150,000 Cup with the 2008 Eclipse Award clinched, a second seasonal earnings record already set and a winning streak of five (all Grade I) dating to the 2007 Colonial Cup. He scared off all but four challengers: New York Turf Writers winner Dark Equation, 10-year-old multiple stakes winner Preemptive Strike, the always trying Best Attack and longshot Pleasant Pick. All but the latter carried at least one loss to the favorite, with Best Attack lugging around four.

But, racing doesn’t give away Grade I wins.

Second in the 2004 Cup, Preemptive Strike flew to an immediate lead with Good Night Shirt finding his predictable spot in second. Best Attack (Paddy Young) drafted into third, closer than normal. Dark Equation (Matt McCarron) got comfortable in fourth, followed by Pleasant Pick (Arch Kingsley). Like a giant slingshot, the leader put on a jumping clinic – launching into the air from far back and landing just as far on the other side (over and over again). Good Night Shirt struggled with his jumping rhythm but kept tabs on the front-runner from 5 lengths back, while Best Attack contentedly galloped in third. Jumping carefully over the stiff pine, Dark Equation lost time at his fences. Pleasant Pick never threatened.

Halfway through the race, Preemptive Strike looked to be in control while Good Night Shirt didn’t have his best stuff – or so it seemed.

“It looks like he’s jumping terrible but to me he’s smooth, it’s not that bad,” said Dowling. “When you have a horse like Preemptive Strike that’s beautiful, standing off in front like that, he’s going to make other horses look worse than they are.”

From afar Good Night Shirt looked tentative, and labored under the pressure applied by the front-runner.

“Oooh, Shirt,” trainer Jack Fisher said as his horse made an early jumping mistake. “We’ve got to jump better than that.”

Preemptive Strike led the field past the mile marker with another huge leap at the 14th fence. Good Night Shirt chipped in, losing a length. He got it back at the 15th, and took aim at Preemptive Strike as they turned the corner at the top of the long stretch. With two fences still to jump, Dowling went outside of Preemptive Strike as Young stayed on the inside with Best Attack. Preemptive Strike answered with a perfect leap at the 16th to take another clear lead. He drifted out slightly, and Good Night Shirt moved inside just before the final fence. Still in contention, Best Attack lost his position with a sloppy jump after Good Night Shirt moved over – ending a strong bid.

“He kind of reacted to Willie changing direction, but I don’t think it cost us the race,” said Young. “He wasn’t really backing out of it, it was more like he couldn’t go any faster. Without the problem at the last, I would have been 2 lengths behind them instead of 5.”

Preemptive Strike touched down with a lead and looked destined to complete the upset if he could only fight off the champion for another half-furlong.

“I landed at the last and I knew he was right there,” said Petty. “Coming up the stretch, he came to me and just dwelt a little bit and I thought I might get him. But that’s a long stretch – really long.”

Even longer to a frontrunner trying to stave off a champion.

After landing, Dowling switched his whip to his left hand and got a response. Good Night Shirt caught Preemptive Strike, who responded again and took a slim lead.

Less than 100 yards from the finish, Dowling switched his whip back to his right hand and conjured still more effort from his horse to build a three-quarter length lead, but Preemptive Strike responded yet again and closed the gap to a neck – where it stayed. Using the rail on his left, Good Night Shirt straightened up and won the final tussle to the line.

“I thought I was beaten, I never thought I’d get up,” said Dowling. “It wasn’t until halfway through the run-in that he put his head down and was all out – he quickened  just enough when we got to that rail. That’s a long run from the last, but I was glad to have it.”

Thanks to a long stretch and a gutsy effort, Good Night Shirt finished his perfect season despite a near-perfect effort from Preemptive Strike. A winner of his first four starts  this year by a combined 13 3/4 lengths, Good Night Shirt needed a photo this time.

“Today proves that he’s a fighter too when they throw it to him,” said Dowling in the jocks’ room afterward. “Sanna and Jody did a good job with Preemptive Strike. They took it to me and made me work, but the Shirt is a special kind of horse.”

And that’s a big edge.