If you want the full effect, close your eyes and have someone read the next paragraph to you…
A white-tailed deer, a big buck with long legs and a full rack of antlers, gallops across a field in a long, straight line, fly-leaping periodically over a log or a bush or a brook – for the sheer joy of it. Head up and proud, he’s running fast – yet within himself – and laughing inside at the other less-gifted deer who try to keep up.
If you followed the instructions, you can open your eyes now. Otherwise, just keep reading.
That was Divine Fortune in Saturday’s Colonial Cup. The chestnut son of Royal Anthem, 11 years old and as good as ever, flew to the front early, jumped every fence like Bambi’s father, and won the season-ending Grade 1 by 9 lengths for owners/breeders Bill Pape and Jonathan Sheppard. Ridden by Darren Nagle, Divine Fortune collected his second Grade 1 of 2014, while beating Barnstorming and championship favorite Demonstrative in a field of six.
The $100,000 Cup at Springdale Race Course in Camden, S.C., highlighted the jump season’s final day and was meant to be the last step in the coronation of Demonstrative. The 7-year-old came in with three consecutive Grade 1 wins, a nose defeat in a fourth and (with $352,500) more than double any other steeplechaser’s seasonal earnings.
Nobody told Divine Fortune, the 2013 champion whose 2014 had Yo-Yoed from brilliant to bruised and back again. He won the Iroquois in May, pulled up in the Smithwick and skipped the Turf Writers at Saratoga. At the last fence of the Lonesome Glory at Belmont Park in September, he fell like a blue spruce on a tree farm. He righted himself with a gallant, but fruitless, second to Demonstrative in the Grand National in October and looked destined to be merely a groomsman again Saturday.
Until the race started.
Nagle made like Kevin Harvick and gunned to the front, forcing the others to play defense. Top Striker, thought to be a potential pace challenger, never got close early. Demonstrative raced in second, got unsettled when Nagle slowed it up a bit coming past the stands the first time, and was hanging on from there. A sprawling circuit, the Colonial Cup course features 17 fences – each jumped once. The backstretch might be the longest in racing, with six fences in a line, and it plays to Divine Fortune’s strengths.
He flew each fence, stepping into the wings and extending an already long stride to the takeoff spot. As his horse closed on a fence, Nagle crouched a bit in the stirrups – providing a cue, confidence, a little rein. Each time, Divine Fortune responded.
“I just rode him, to best suit him and didn’t worry about everybody else,” said Nagle. “I said I’d go from the start, go quick over the first couple, let him ease up the straight and catch his breath. There are plenty of fences down the backside and jumping is the name of the game for him. I let him roll down there and gunned him at everything. If there’s something good enough to go with him over a line of six at that speed, then fair play to them.”
The others tried to keep pace, but it all began to unravel at the 14th. Divine Fortune rose up and flew it. Demonstrative knifed it, keeping up but working to do so as the others drew alongside. The 15th was more of the same, and then came the two-fence, quarter-mile stretch. Nagle asked for two more and Divine Fortune delivered, ending Demonstrative’s chances and quieting a rally by Barnstorming.
“I let him go a gallop that was quick enough for him without emptying the tank,” said Nagle. “If something was upsides him coming to the second-last I’d have been a bit worried, but I knew once he got over that he was going to stay on and see it through.”
The winner galloped out as he raced, bounding down the long stretch toward the turn. Walking back, Barnstorming’s jockey Willie McCarthy reached over and gave Divine Fortune a pat and a tug on the ear. Nagle, who missed most of the year with a broken leg, soaked it in and thought about the horse’s ability to simply keep going despite the setbacks.
“He’s unreal, special, real special to me,” said the jockey. “He’s a very professional horse, a smart horse. He just lives life every day like it’s normal. If he was a human, he’d probably be a World War veteran with a couple of bullet holes or something. But happy with life. He’s amazing. He’s young at heart I suppose. He still has enthusiasm.”
And it’s catching.
Sheppard’s assistant Keri Brion, aboard for a schooling session the day before, greeted the sweaty horse with a hug and a huge smile. Divine Fortune dragged her back to the winner’s circle. Pape, who won his sixth Colonial Cup but first since 1986, felt lucky and blessed and young again – joking about what a ride aboard the Grade 1 winner would feel like.
Sheppard, who has seen plenty in a career filled with milestones, accepted congratulations while checking on his other runners. He’s trained better horses than Divine Fortune, but none like him.
“He doesn’t seem to get depressed, or down on himself or anything when he falls or has a bad race,” said the Hall of Famer. “If he was like me, he’d have been retired years ago. He’s a remarkable horse, he really is.”
Bred in Pennsylvania, Divine Fortune won for the 11th time in 40 lifetime jump starts and increased his career steeplechase earnings to $801,390. He’s one of six American steeplechasers – along with Demonstrative – to earn more than $800,000. Divine Fortune won once on the flat, way back in 2007 at Colonial Downs. He won three times over jumps that year, then spent two years away from the races with a tendon injury. After finishing second in five Grade 1 stakes, including the Colonial Cup of 2011 and 2012, he finally broke through with a top-level win late last year en route to the Eclipse Award as champion steeplechaser.
Along the way, he’s picked up a zest for racing and life. On the farm, he’s the spark of any set – strutting to the galloping strip and jigging back like a 3-year-old. At the races Saturday, he struck poses in the paddock and at the barn afterward. He turned heads on the Springdale schooling field the day before the Colonial Cup, even catching the eye of Olympic event rider and coach Jimmy Wofford. Sheppard, who sees the horse most every day, loves to watch him.
“He’s got an impressive, beautiful stride, he’s just a class act and bounds over the ground,” said the trainer. “To sill be doing it that well after so many years is something pretty special.”
NOTES: The Eclipse Award will still likely go to Demonstrative. He won three Grade 1 stakes, finished second (by a nose) in another and third in one more in six starts. Divine Fortune won two Grade 1 starts, finished second in one and also had a fall and a pull-up. The two horses met five times, with Demonstrative finishing ahead of Divine Fortune three times. Demonstrative ($362,500) and Divine Fortune ($195,000) finished 1-2 in the earnings table . . . Sheppard and Pape won the Colonial Cup together in 1979 (Martie’s Anger) and four times with Flatterer (1983-86) . . . Divine Fortune’s dam My Tombola died this year along with her fieldmate Flatterer, a Hall of Famer and four-time Eclipse Award winner.
Photos by Tod Marks.