Trainer Jonathan Sheppard sat on the fender of an old flatbed trailer. His assistant Keri Brion perched on the fence lining the Iroquois homestretch. In about a minute, on a steamy Saturday afternoon in Nashville, their 11-year-old Eclipse Award winner Divine Fortune would make his first start of 2014.
And you could tell.
Sheppard kind of fiddled with his sweater vest, looked at things through his binoculars, made a little small talk. Brion mentioned her nerves, over and over. Second in the last two runnings, the only Grade 1 jump race before August, Divine Fortune faced eight others in the $150,000 stakes. The rivals were old (Demonstrative, Italian Wedding, Gustavian, Pierrot Lunaire, Fog Island), new (For Non Top, Virsito, Molotof) and in varying degrees of formidability.
They never had a chance.
Divine Fortune floated to a quick lead, thwarting any chance of an early challenge from Virsito, and galloped them into the ground. Bill Pape’s Pennsylvania-bred turned away challenges throughout the 3-mile, 18-fence trip and won by 3 1/4 lengths for jockey Willie McCarthy. Gustavian finished second with For Non Stop third.
Sheppard and Brion rejoiced, proud of their horse and their work on a long walk up the stretch. With triumphantly raised arms, pats on the neck and amid a myriad of congratulations, they greeted a champion. Born on Sheppard’s Pennsylvania farm, Divine Fortune is practically family. He made his first start in 2006. He’s won 11 times (10 over fences) and earned better than $700,000. He weathered storms, including two years away from the races – November 2007 to November 2009 – and seconds in five Grade 1 stakes before finally winning one last year. The horse they call Fortune is worth one, to them.
“He’s just a remarkable horse, he really is,” said Sheppard, whose Hall of Fame career is full of remarkable horses. “I don’t see he’s lost anything either.”
That was a question coming into the Iroquois. At 11, was Divine Fortune ready to start showing some age? He’d dominated the 2013 Grand National, but then been hounded and harassed into a fourth in the Colonial Cup and won the Eclipse Award somewhat by default in a year where no horse won two Grade 1 stakes. He came into the Iroquois without a jump start this year, just a third in a training flat race as a prep for a demanding assignment. What’s more, his regular jockey Darren Nagle was on the shelf with a broken leg. Sheppard called on McCarthy, who answered quicker than a second-grader responding to a question about recess.
“It’s just an honor and a real privilege to be part of the whole thing,” said the Irishman. “He’ll go down as one of the legends of the sport for years to come. It’s a great feeling to be part of it for one day. Marvelous horse.”
McCarthy melted his horse away from the start and set up shop on the lead. Ears pricked, the son of Royal Anthem galloped under the finish line and toward the first fence with conviction. The stalkers took their positions – Virsito, Gustavian, For Non Stop the first flight, followed by Molotof, Fog Island, Italian Wedding, Pierrot Lunaire and Demonstrative. Away two years but unbeaten over jumps, Virsito took a swipe or two and then settled in behind. Gustavian, who failed miserably after pressing Divine Fortune in the Colonial Cup last fall, kept tabs on the leader while covered up on the rail. For Non Stop, fresh off a 27-length romp at Stoneybrook, settled and galloped with long, menacing strides.
The early going was all comfort for McCarthy.
“He doesn’t pull, doesn’t do anything wrong,” said the jockey. “You just sit on him and it has to be all positivity. Looking at the overnight for the race I didn’t see anybody in there that was going to press him or was going to have to be in front other than myself. I got him on the front end, and I was able to dictate the whole race with him.”
Virsito wilted first, leaving Gustavian and For Non Stop as the race reached its final mile. Divine Fortune showed his only crack with a minor jumping error (standing back a bit too far) at the first fence on the backside, then went back to running. A multiple winner in England, with major starts at Cheltenham and Aintree, For Non Stop roared into second midway down the back. Divine Fortune outjumped him at the 14th and again at the 15th to rebuild the advantage. Coming to the 16th, on the turn, McCarthy let Divine Fortune pat the ground and pop from a short spot. Sheppard loved it.
“He’s just got that relentless gallop and those huge jumps,” the trainer said. “They can close up on him a little bit but then the jumps come up and he can go and they can’t. When I saw (McCarthy) let him pop that one I figured he must have a bit in hand. Some jockeys would have said, ‘We’re three from home in a Grade 1, it’s time for a big one.’ He just sat there and let him pop it and still no one gained on him.”
For Non Stop made one final push coming to the second-last, but Divine Fortune again had the fence – and his foe – measured. The winner elevated and landed running. The chaser hashed through, and the race was over.
“For a while I could feel the field stacking up behind me at a stage where I was giving him a breather,” said McCarthy. “It went through my head that I hadn’t gone fast enough. He’s so naturally talented to sit on, he would confuse you like that. He covers the ground so quickly and jumps so quickly that he’s going a lot quicker than you think. That’s the sort of feeling you get on a horse like him. It feels so easy underneath you.”
Divine Fortune stepped toward the last fence and – with Sheppard and Brion watching nearby – soared it too and galloped home. McCarthy barely used his whip, and only on his horse’s shoulder. Gustavian stayed on to nose out For Non Stop, who was followed by Pierrot Lunaire, Italian Wedding and Demonstrative. The others pulled up.
“The biggest thing for me was setting the right pace and making sure I had enough up my sleeve for a challenge up the stretch, just in case someone came to me,” said McCarthy. “I never had to worry about a jump or being in the wrong place or anything like that.”
With his $90,000 winner’s share, Divine Fortune took the early lead in the 2014 championship race as the Grade 1 horses turn their attention to Saratoga. McCarthy, the runaway leader in the jump jockey standings with a dozen wins, expects to be chasing Divine Fortune by then.
“The horse is Darren’s horse to ride, coming into the race I thought it was a one-race situation,” McCarthy said. “I’m glad I made it count.”
Other Iroquois Notes
McCarthy tripled on the day, winning a $35,000 restricted stakes with Tempt Me Alex for owner/breeder Bob Kinsley and trainer Elizabeth Voss Murray. The winner, a son of Afleet Alex and Kinsley’s mare Attemptress, improved to 2-for-8 over jumps and gave Murray her first stakes score since taking over the barn from her father Tom Voss who died in January.
Kinsley laughed about how the long, lanky Tempt Me Alex came to be.
“I was breeding for (fox) hunters, for big horses and then I started taking them to Mr. Voss and he said, ‘Well, they’re a little big,’ ” said the owner. “I was kind of maybe figuring if he didn’t make it as racehorse, I’d start to hunt him. He’s a cool looking horse.”
And a stakes winner.
McCarthy engineered an upset in a $25,000 maiden hurdle featuring several highly regarded first-time starters, getting Mystery Jack home first for owner/trainer Demond Fogarty. The 7-year-old son of Royal Anthem (same as Divine Fortune) came out of a second at Atlanta and put his experience to good use while winning by 3 3/4 lengths over Dreamin Fool. Overwhelming finished third.
“The experience helped,” said McCarthy. “He’d had a run this year and he had some experience of being on the front end. That worked to his advantage.”
– Louisiana-bred Pleasant Woodman continued his transformation from runaway front-runner to stakes horse with a wire-to-wire score in the $75,000 Marcellus Frost novice hurdle stakes. Ridden by Gerard Galligan, the winner set a controlled pace throughout and then held off late-running Rudyard K to win by a neck with previously unbeaten Schoodic another neck back in third. The latter, last year’s 3-year-old champion, came into the race with three consecutive wins but could not get past the winner late.
Owned by Virginia Lazenby and Farm D’Allie Racing, Pleasant Woodman won for the second time in four starts this year and the fourth time in 16 jump starts. Doug Fout trains the son of Woodman, who won for the first time on a course other than Aiken.
– Champion jockey Paddy Young produced Bittersweetheart from near the back in the $50,000 Margaret Henley Stakes for fillies/mares, and the Irish import did not disappoint – getting past Take Her Tothe Top to win by 1 1/2 lengths for owner Irv Naylor. Trained by Young’s wife Leslie, the 7-year-old Storming Home mare won for the first time in four American starts, after winning two over hurdles in England.
“I was really disappointed in her at Atlanta,” said Paddy Young of a distant fourth in the Georgia Cup. “She was the only horse I thought would win that day and she ran terrible. I don’t know what happened. They went extremely fast (at Nashville), so it was just a matter of biding my time.”
Bittersweetheart’s three prior U.S. starts were won by Kisser N Run, who settled for fourth at Nasvhille.
– The $50,000 Mason Houghland Memorial turned into a powerhouse exhibition for timber newcomer Cornhusker, who won for the third time in five tries since making the change last fall. Trained by Alicia Murphy for Armata Stable, the 7-year-old Dynaformer gelding shadowed the pace of Rugged Rascal and Tax Ruling and responded when asked by Mark Beecher to win by 5 3/4 lengths. Tax Ruling settled for second with Nationbuilder third.