Grand National recap: The Best Horse

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To help jockey Willie Dowling cope with the pressure of riding Good Night Shirt, Jack Fisher often says “Ride him like he’s the best horse in the race.”

But what’s it like to train Good Night Shirt?

“It’s just like I tell Willie riding him – try not to screw it up,” said Fisher. “The best horse in American steeplechasing lives in my barn, yeah I know. Now what?”

That answer came Oct. 18 in the $250,000 Grand National Steeplechase at the Far Hills Races. Already the 2007 Eclipse Award winner, Sonny Via’s chestnut put a stranglehold on the 2008 championship with his fourth Grade I score of the season in as many tries. The trainer didn’t screw it up. The jockey didn’t screw it up. And neither did the horse.

Six horses lined up to tackle the favorite. Four-year-old phenom Be Certain bypassed the novice stakes on the card. Best Attack, third in the 2007 race, returned. Australian winner Isti Bee made his American debut. Irish challenger Dalucci tried again. Upstart Red Letter Day, third to Good Night Shirt at Belmont Park, brought his running shoes. Orison tried to find his 2007 form.

None of them had a chance.

Red Letter Day (Danielle Hodsdon) started fast again and took an easy lead. Good Night Shirt set up in second, just ahead of Be Certain (Padge Whelan). Isti Bee (Paddy Young) fell at the third, and the others rated well off the lead. The group stayed in pretty much that order – running and jumping quickly but in control. Turning into the backstretch the final time, the tempo increased. Red Letter Day stayed on top and Good Night Shirt tugged at the reins in second. Be Certain, Dalucci (Xavier Aizpuru) and Best Attack (Jody Petty) revved up bids. Orison (Matt McCarron) still seemed to have a chance from the back.

Good Night Shirt passed Red Letter Day at the third fence on the backside (and second-last of 14 in the race), but towed Be Certain and Best Attack to the front as well. At the start of the turn, they trailed the favorite by less than a length.

And just when a race developed, Good Night Shirt ended it. The 7-year-old blazed around the turn, roared up the hill, flew the last and left the others gasping.

“I just sat on him. I could feel him picking up speed,” said Dowling of the move to the front. “We went from that nice, sensible gallop to running. He knows it’s time to race. Around that last bend, I could feel his hind legs just flying.”

The winner laughed home by 4 lengths in a quick 4:54 1/5 for the 2 5/8 miles. Be Certain won a battle for second with Best Attack while Red Letter Day stayed for fourth. Second-fastest of 18 runnings at the distance at Far Hills, the time indicated the quality of the performance and a rare chance to race on firm turf at the New Jersey track.

“He looked like a machine,” said Fisher. “He wasn’t even tested and I don’t think he was asked.”

“He’s a machine and he’s getting better,” said Dowling. “I didn’t even push him out. That’s pretty good, isn’t it?”

Uh, yeah.

Good Night Shirt has been perfect this year. He started out at Atlanta, where he bungled the last fence but still won at 2 miles. Next came a repeat of his 2007 score in the 3-mile Iroquois. Given the summer off, the son of Concern returned to win Belmont’s Lonesome Glory – his third Grade I of the season. And then came Far Hills.

Winless in two starts over the course, including a fourth to superstar McDynamo in last year’s Grand National, Good Night Shirt entered as a clear favorite albeit with a little something to prove.

“This is the one race, I knew Jack was pointing him for this race all year and the pressure was on to me,” said Dowling. “It’s good pressure, I love riding the horse, but this is the race he didn’t win last year. This is the one Jack wanted.”

And another one Good Night Shirt took with authority.

The pacesetter carried the field farther than many expected, with the winner content to sit second. A work in progress through much of his career, Good Night Shirt delivered his most complete performance – he relaxed, he jumped superbly, he flowed from fence to fence, he took over when asked.

As Fisher puts it, his horse was once a “big, dumb kid.” Now he’s in the adult league.

In his early races, fences were a second (maybe third) thought: “Oh, here’s a jump, OK, let’s jump it,” his trainer paraphrased. “I can walk through the last and still win.”

Now, there is no silliness, no immaturity, no recklessness when he attacks races: “Come on, we’re jumping now. How fast can you run and jump at the same time?”

Not fast enough. The style reminded many of five-time Grand National hero McDynamo. Retired to life as a foxhunter, the three-time Eclipse winner might be the only horse who could have challenged the 2008 Good Night Shirt.

“He looks like McDynamo in the paddock now,” said Fisher. “He walks out there like he’s the king.”

Good Night Shirt still has plenty to do to match McDynamo’s heroics, but give the Maryland-bred credit. He improved to 10-for-20 lifetime over jumps and pushed his steeplechase bankroll to $844,493 (third behind McDynamo and Lonesome Glory on the career ladder).

Perfect in four starts this year and riding a five-race winning streak, Good Night Shirt reached $395,520 for 2008 to break the single-season earnings record he set last year.

But what if McDynamo was in the race instead of in a pre-race retirement ceremony?

“We would have beaten him, right?” said Fisher with a smile. “I don’t know. On this ground, with our horse a year older, we might have gotten him but it would have been a race. On the same ground as last year, McDynamo would have probably been too good for us.”

Dowling and McDynamo’s trainer Sanna Hendriks shared a golf-cart ride back to the barn after the Grand National, and talked about great horses.

“I might have given your old horse a run for his money today on this ground,” said Dowling.

“You might have,” Hendriks replied, “but my old fellow might have given you a run for your money too – the nice thing is we don’t have to worry about it anymore. I can be happy for you and you can be happy for me.”

And everyone can be thrilled, once again, by the best horse in the race.