The first came in the Colonial Cup, 2011. Well back, he rallied, chipping away at Tax Ruling but couldn’t run down him down. Good effort. No complaints.
The second came in the Iroquois, 2012. Three miles in the Iroquois, gaining again, he couldn’t catch Arcadius, who died trying. Solid effort. Overshadowed.
The third came in the Grand National at Far Hills, 2012. On the lead, in need of a spark, he landed in front at the last, nobody gets caught after the last at Far Hills. Pierrot Lunaire got him. Big effort. Frustrating.
The fourth came in the Colonial Cup, 2012. Stalking, he landed over the last with nothing but open space in front of him. Even the chart says he looked like a winner. Demonstrative sprouted wings. Great effort. Kick the cat.
The fifth came in the Iroquois, 2013. Flawless for 3 miles, he touched down at the last in front again. Demonstrative got him again. Stellar effort. Kick the world.
Divine Fortune had become the Alydar of steeplechasing, finishing second in five Grade 1 stakes over 23 months. It wasn’t easy in between either. Owned and bred by Bill Pape and Jonathan Sheppard, Divine Fortune squeezed in two allowance wins but met defeat 11 times in three seasons, including a shuddering fall in the New York Turf Writers at Saratoga last summer. This year, the 10-year-old won a Stoneybrook allowance (might as well have been a stakes, he beat Slip Away and Decoy Daddy), then lost four in a row, including dismal sevenths in the Turf Writers and the Lonesome Glory.
Returning to Far Hills for the $250,000 Grand National Oct. 19, Divine Fortune finally got his due.
Darren Nagle, aboard for the five runner-up finishes, placed the chestnut gelding on the lead. Paddy Young put Lonesome Glory winner Gustavian in a stalking position in second. Demonstrative started out near the back but relocated to third after three fences. The rest of the field filed in like soldiers on a march.
Measuring fences like a Loro Piana tailor, Divine Fortune simply extended when the fences came up long and skipped when they come up short. From the hill, spectators clocked them off as well, awed by the frontrunner’s alacrity and freedom. To their credit, the others jumped well (other than Martini Brother who fell at the fourth and All Together who bobbled early) to stay within touch.
“I didn’t actually move on him, I tried to slow it down as best I could, give him breathers, give him a chance here and there,” Nagle said. “When I was meeting a fence right, I gave him a squeeze, apart from that, he did everything else himself. When horses were running up to him, he really dug in and ran all the way to the line, no horse was going to get past him today.”
Divine Fortune skipped through the first mile, then the second, then the hill, then the last bits. He won by 5 ½ lengths, easily, triumphantly. Grown men, with nothing to do with him, yelled their approval. The oldest horse in the race, riding a four-race losing streak, turned it into a procession, stretching away from Gustavian and Demonstrative who chased within sight but without a chance the entire way. Pierrot Lunaire closed late to garner fourth over Barnstorming. Ten of the 11 starters finished, 23 lengths spanning first to last.
“He was impressive today, you know the difference is, when the jockey and the horse are in sync, like those were today, it’s tough to beat them,” Pape said. “I told Darren, ‘You know where he likes to be, you know where you like to be. Go have a good time.’ He needed a good boost.”
The first seven finishers of the Lonesome Glory, run Sept. 19, returned for the Grand National. Seventh at Belmont after losing a front shoe, Divine Fortune reversed it at Far Hills. That’s a boost.
“He was unbelievable. No horse deserved it more, second in five grade ones. After the way he ran this summer, you would have nearly questioned, maybe ‘Are his best days over?’ ” Nagle said from the jocks’ room tent at the end of the day. “Coming into the race, we had five, my rides were Martini Brother or Divine Fortune, Jonathan left me on Divine Fortune, which I was happy with, you can never rule the old horse out. He’s a real hunt meet sort of horse these days.”
Relishing firm turf and a relatively easy lead, Divine Fortune returned to a place where he’d run well in the past but had yet to win in four attempts, dating back to 2006 when he finished third to Jimmie Echo and Triple Dip in the Gladstone for 3-year-olds. Four of the jockeys from that race are retired and all the horses are long gone, except for the high-headed chestnut son of Royal Anthem.
“To be fair to the old horse, now, he really surprised me, he took a hold of me, it was like riding a fresh 2-year-old,” Nagle said. “At 10 years old after having a bad summer, that’s the best he’s ever felt. He’s been on the go for a long time, it’s not easy to keep him sweet like that. Mr. Pape and Mr. Sheppard have been patient, I was second on him in five grade ones, a lot of people would have said maybe he’d run better for someone else. To be fair to them, they let me stick with him and this was our day today.”
In an unforgiving game, finishing second in two runnings of the Iroquois, two editions of the Colonial Cup and one Grand National produces an uncomfortable response. Proud of the horse, the effort, but also knowing the opportunities are slipping away. They gnawed at Nagle.
“Finishing second in five grade ones, it’s an unbelievable achievement but after the fourth, the fifth, it sickens you,” he said. “If he didn’t run great today, he’s had a bad summer, you would have thought about retiring him and he would have gone down as a maybe horse. But today, he showed he does actually have his place.”