Steeplechasing's stars shoot to New Jersey Saturday for the 88th annual Far Hills Races, as the sport's richest meeting offers six races and $550,000 in total purses, highlighted by the $250,000 Grand National. The all-stakes card attracted a talented cast throughout, with top billing going to 2007 Eclipse Award winner Good Night Shirt.
Sonny Via's Good Night Shirt entered last year's Grand National as the presumptive heir to the steeplechasing throne, but McDynamo — "The King of Far Hills" — wasn't quite ready to abdicate. McDynamo won his fifth consecutive Grand National, while Jack Fisher's trainee finished a gallant fourth.
This year, the hunter has become the hunted. With McDynamo retired, champion Good Night Shirt is the horse with the target on his back.
"He's the one they all have to beat. Sure, there's more pressure, but like Jack says 'You're on the horse to beat so just run your race,' " said regular rider Willie Dowling, who gets the call again Saturday. "I think last year he was winning those races but everyone thought it wasn't that big of a deal because it wasn't expected. This year we're like McDynamo was last year — we're expected to win. So we've taken over, and though there's more pressure I think it's a good spot to be in."
Good Night Shirt has indeed taken over. The son of Concern streaked to the 2007 Eclipse Award in style, setting a single-season earnings record with $314,163. The chestnut is perfect in three Grade I starts this season and has already earned $245,520. A Grand National victory (and the $150,000 winner's check that accompanies it) would see him shatter his mark and move into third place on the all-time money list.
Good Night Shirt started his 7-year-old campaign this April in the Georgia Cup at Atlanta, where he stalked the pace and drew clear late to post a 1 1/2-length victory. The Iroquois followed next. The race served as his coming out party in 2007, when he defeated McDynamo and Sur La Tete on his way to a 5 1/4-length score. While this year's field was without those two retired stars, Good Night Shirt once again made the Iroquois a defining moment, jumping effortlessly to win by 4 1/2 lengths as much the best. After taking his usual summer break he returned Sept. 21 at Belmont Park to repeat in the Lonesome Glory.
In the past Good Night Shirt's competition could count on the long-legged gelding erring at one fence (or more) and hope to take advantage as a result. The blueprint played out at Atlanta, where he badly botched the last, allowing Hip Hop to take command approaching the wire; all Good Night Shirt did was re-rally in the final furlong to win going away. In the Iroquois and Lonesome Glory, Good Night Shirt provided far less openings to his competition.
"I think maturity has a lot to do with it. You look at him at Belmont and he's filled out into his frame. Before he was tall and skinny and now he's more round and a bigger horse," Dowling said. "Plus he's just getting better with time. He jumped really well at Belmont and especially in the Iroquois and I think a course like Far Hills will suit him. He has such a big gallop and the Far Hills course will allow me to get him sorted out and get a rhythm going."
Good Night Shirt was one of the few horses who actually challenged McDynamo in last year's Grand National, taking a bold run at the Far Hills legend on the turn before yielding in the late stages. Though some may point to the boggy ground as his ultimate undoing, Dowling isn't convinced the course beat Good Night Shirt that day.
"Last year we got hurt chasing McDynamo and we got beat for second because of it. In seven years no one got anywhere near that horse at that track," Dowling said. "So you take McDynamo out of the picture over a soft track and I think it changes things a lot and gives us every chance to win."
Identifying the Grand National favorite is an easy task; settling on the second choice is not, as any of the other six entrants could be plausibly cast in the role of top contender.
Upstart Be Certain looms a viable upsetter, provided he runs. Since he's still eligible for novice races, trainer Tom Voss has Alnoff Stable's 4-year-old son of Thunder Gulch cross-entered in the Grade I Foxbrook earlier in the card. If he goes in the Grand National, Be Certain (who gets eight pounds from the favorite) looms a legitimate stretch threat under Padge Whelan.
Be Certain made a smooth transition from the flat track to hurdles last season as a 3-year-old, winning his second start over jumps in the Woolfe Memorial at Camden in November. He avoided the potential sophomore jinx by winning the Grade II National Hunt Cup at Radnor this May. Runner-up against novice foes in the Jonathan Kiser at Saratoga July 31, Be Certain then ran the race of his life in the Grade I Turf Writers Aug. 28, just missing to the accomplished Dark Equation by a half-length, and tuned up for Far Hills with a second by a head in the Monmouth County Hunt Novice Stakes at Monmouth Park Sept. 20.
Best Attack (Jody Petty to ride) looks to recapture the form that saw him take third in the 2007 Grand National. Sally Radcliffe's 7-year-old hinted at great things this spring, finishing third in the Grade I Royal Chase at Keeneland in April and second to Good Night Shirt in the Iroquois in May, but disappointed in his lone start this fall, coming home seventh in the Lonesome Glory. Miller hopes last year's pattern repeats, when Best Attack also ran seventh in the Lonesome Glory before his big effort at Far Hills.
Orison (Matt McCarron) enters the Grand National as an enigma for EMO Stable and trainer Doug Fout. The 6-year-old son of Pulpit has proven he's a major contender on his best day — like his runner-up effort to Good Night Shirt in the 2007 Lonesome Glory. But Orison's recent efforts haven't resembled that Belmont run. In five starts since the Lonesome Glory, including last year's Grand National, he has yet to finish better than fourth. He enters Saturday off a summer freshening, and got the perfect tightener last weekend in a training flat race at Morven Park.
Fout also saddles Brigadoon Stable's Isti Bee (Paddy Young). The New Zealand-bred, a two-time hurdle winner in Australia, makes his American debut in the Grand National. Fout and Brigadoon have enjoyed success with imports over the years and Isti Bee, who has shown an affinity for soft turf, could move up if the rains hit Far Hills.
Greg Hawkins' Red Letter Day raised eyebrows in his first foray into open stakes, setting the pace and holding on for third in the Lonesome Glory, beaten only 4 lengths by Good Night Shirt. Trained by Janet Elliot, the 5-year-old son of Red Ransom is a confirmed frontrunner and could find himself isolated on the lead under Danielle Hodsdon, who rides for the first time.
Justin Carthy's Dalucci (Xavier Aizpuru), sixth in the Lonesome Glory for trainer Charlie Swan, rounds out the Grand National field. The 5-year-old son of Daylami made his Stateside debut at Belmont, beaten less than 8 lengths by Good Night Shirt. The Irish invader notched three hurdle wins in his native land, including a 3-length allowance score over 14 rivals this summer.
The Grand National Hurdle Stakes field (with jockey, trainer, owner and weight) in post position order:
1. BE CERTAIN (Padge Whelan, Tom Voss, Alnoff Stable, 148)
2. BEST ATTACK (Jody Petty, Bruce Miller, Sally Radcliffe, 156)
3. GOOD NIGHT SHIRT (Willie Dowling, Jack Fisher, Sonny Via, 156)
4. ISTI BEE (Paddy Young, Doug Fout, Brigadoon Stable, 156)
5. DALUCCI (Xavier Aizpuru, Charlie Swan, Justin Carthy, 156)
6. RED LETTER DAY (Danielle Hodsdon, Janet Elliot, Greg Hawkins, 156)
7. ORISON (Matt McCarron, Doug Fout, EMO Stable, 156)
PREVIEWING THE UNDERCARD
Far Hills' all-stakes card opens with the $50,000 Peapack for fillies and mares. The Fields Stable's Guelph won the race in 2005, took on boys at Saratoga this summer for Tom Voss and meets familiar foes in the fast-improving Class Shadow and Jellyberry.
The Grade I, $100,000 Foxbrook Hurdle for novice runners showcases the stars of the future. Major flat winner Dreadnaught goes out for trainer Tom Voss in a field that also includes dual 2008 winner Classy Brute, recent import Ponce and the Jonathan Sheppard-trained Baby League.
At 2 1/8 miles, the $50,000 Appleton Stakes provides an outlet for those looking to avoid the extra 4 furlongs of the Grand National. The Grade III test lured a competitive field led by Fox Ridge Farm's Planets Aligned, the 2007 novice champion, who makes his first start since finishing second at Radnor in May. Polaris Stable's Preemptive Strike is also on the comeback trail. The talented 10-year-old front-runner was injured shortly after his dominating win in the Imperial Cup at Aiken in March and his early speed makes him dangerous any time he shows up for trainer Sanna Hendriks.
The $50,000 Gladstone gives 3-year-olds their first big stage. Peggy Steinman's Orebanks made a favorable impression at Middleburg for Fout, as the son of Aptitude rolled over a group of his peers by 10 lengths. Mede Cahaba Stable's Class Bopper did the same at Morven Park this for Lilith Boucher, and gets additional credit for defeating older foes. Pleasant Top and Hymn To Happiness are others to watch.
The card concludes with the $50,000 New Jersey Hunt Cup at 3 1/4 miles over timber. The race once again pits Nick Arundel's Monte Bianco against Augustin Stable's Irish Prince and Brigadoon Stable's Erin Go Bragh. Trained by Fisher, Monte Bianco streaks into Far Hills off victories in the Radnor Hunt Cup in May and Chronicle Cup at Middleburg Oct. 4, defeating Erin Go Bragh and Irish Prince both times. The latter, last year's timber champion, capped his 2007 season by taking the New Jersey Hunt Cup.
Post time for the first race is 1 p.m. Gates open at 8 a.m.