As the horses came off the final turn and rolled to the final fence in Saturday's My Lady's Manor timber stakes, trainer Cyril Murphy was riding hard - while standing on the ground. "Go on, Gus . . . Go on, Gus . . . Go ON, Gus," Murphy implored in a deep Irish accent.
Aboard Ebanour, Gus Dahl was doing considerably less work - perched over Ebanour's withers as the chestnut barreled around and past horses. Dahl had yet to move his hands, but his horse was flying. He surged around and past everyone, emerging from a tight pack with a half-mile remaining to win by 6 1/2 lengths over Organisateur with Old Timer third in the $30,000 timber stakes at Monkton, Md. All 10 veterans finished the 3-mile race, frequently a prep for the Virginia Gold Cup (May 7) or Maryland Hunt Cup (April 30).
Owned by Irv Naylor, Ebanour likely heads to the former after his second consecutive timber stakes win for Murphy and Dahl. The Irish-bred could be pretty tough to handle with another effort like Saturday's.
"He's an exceptional horse, I think," Murphy said. "The hope from here is the Virginia Gold Cup. I don't know if he's a big-fence horse. What he does is effortless. We'd have to try to the Grand National before we thought about the (Maryland Hunt Cup). I'd be happy if we didn't have to because your whole year revolves around one race and he's proven that he can knock himself out of one race pretty quickly."
Bred in Ireland by the Aga Khan's Studs, Ebanour won a National Hunt flat race and two hurdle races in England before being imported in 2012. He made two hurdle starts in the United States that year, but was quickly converted to timber. He won a maiden at the Manor in 2013 and finished third at Winterthur for trainer Brianne Slater.
Murphy got the Naylor job later that year and asked about the chestnut on the third of nine months in his stall because of a knee injury. He needed time to heal, but might be OK.
Away from the races for just shy of two years, Ebanour returned at the Manor last year and finished second in the amateur/apprentice timber. The plan was to take a step forward a week later at the Grand National, but Ebanour tied up the week in between. He didn't come around again until fall, and he missed a start at Genesee when jockey Lia McGuirk fell early on the card.
Murphy changed course and aimed for Far Hills and the New Jersey Hunt Cup. Paired with Dahl for the first time, Ebanour rated well back early before rallying in the stretch to win by a half-length. From there, the plan was the Pennsylvania Hunt Cup but Ebanour tied up again at home and that ended the campaign.
Some horses are susceptible to tying up, akin to cramps in humans, after exercise. Mainly, trainers try to work around it by keeping horses in work, cooling them out slowly and in stages, using plenty of turnout time.
"He'll get ridden tomorrow," Murphy said. "Day to day, he trains like any other horse and we hope it holds away. There's no rush, everything just has to take that little bit longer with horses like that. He gets turned out every day, it's not like he's cooped up all the time. It just happens to him."
Dahl improved to 2-for-2 on the horse, and appreciated the opportunity. He also had to survive a foul claim for alleged interference with Organisateur at the second-last. Ebanour twisted to his right when he jumped and briefly impacted the runner-up, but the claim was disallowed.
"He's a phenomenal jumper," said the jockey. "Sometimes when he lets fly at a fence and he gets half-a-length up on a horse he wants to go then. You just have to bring him back and say wait. He really gets a lot of confidence passing horses so we leave him sit in until three or four from home, let him jump his way up there."
All 10 horses finished the Manor, including favorite Grinding Speed who settled for sixth in a prep for his Gold Cup defense.
"He's fine, he's perfect," said Beecher. "He jumped super. I know in the fall last year he took two runs to get to the Gold Cup. Maybe he needs the runs. If I'm not going to win, I'm not battering him."
Beecher sweeps maidens
Beecher won both $15,000 maiden timber races - the first with the late-arriving West Is Best for Achsah O'Donovan and trainer Alicia Murphy. The 7-year-old War Chant gelding has bounced through a 17-start career that included hurdle starts as a 3-year-old, two decent timber starts last spring, a brief return to hurdling last fall, a retirement and an apparent resurgence.
Saturday, West Is Best picked his way around the course for 2 3/4 miles or so, then sped through the stretch to catch Lemony Bay and win by three-quarters of a length. Canyon Road finished third as all eight starters finished. It was West Is Best's first win under rules - of any kind.
"I don't think you'd have said he was the winner going down the back there," said Beecher of a spotty race. "I didn't get in front until halfway up the run-in. He flew the last. That was probably the best jump he done in the whole race."
One race later, Beecher barely convinced Le Chevalier to rate near the back of the field early before letting fly over the final quarter-mile. The gray 7-year-old, trained by Julie Gomena for Otter Racing, blasted past Dewey Blue and won by 9 lengths with Jeffery G third. Major contender The Nephew ducked off course at a beacon, but would have had a hard time with the winner.
"I think he likes to fight with me, he gets entertainment out of it," said Beecher. "It's tough on me. He's such a good jumper and he keeps jumping up there and you have to keep bringing him back. You don't want to discourage a horse, but I don't want to get there too soon. He might just run off with me then. I was just relieved to come around the corner at the second-last and say 'All right, now you can go.' "
Bred in Kentucky, Le Chevalier raced on the flat with Tom Proctor - and won for $7,500 at Ellis Park in 2012. The son of Broken Vow made three hurdle starts for Kentucky trainer Bill Wofford in 2013 and 2014. Last year, Le Chevalier placed in two maiden timber starts for trainer Neil Morris. Otter Racing moved to Gomena this year, and the former event rider used foxhunting days in Aiken, S.C. to prep her horse.
"He's been my ride every day since we got back from Aiken and I mean to tell you, it's like weight-lifting when you ride that horse," said Gomena. "He's tough. He is tough."
In the finale, an allowance timber for amateur/apprentice jockeys, Bruton Street-US runner Drift Society edged fellow Irish-bred Carrickboy over the final two fences to win by a half-length. Connor Hankin rode the winner, who missed last year, for trainer Jack Fisher.
"They went out fast and I just thought I'll pick away here and try to go the same pace for 3 miles," said Hankin. "Carrickboy is all right. I got a better jump than him at the third-last, but then I just waited and thought I'd let him burn out trying to get back to me and then kick on again. It worked."
Three horses fell in the race - Getaway Money, El Season and Coldwater Spring - while Nationbuilder parted company with jockey Annie Yeager. Getaway Money's rider Conrad Somers was transported to the University of Maryland Shock Trauma Center by helicopter while Coldwater Spring's rider Ed McLaughlin went by ambulance to the Upper Chesapeake Medical Center. Both suffered small vertebrae fractures, were not expected to need surgery and were discharged Saturday night.
NOTES: The TIHR handicappers had a decent day with Tom correctly selecting Ebanour to get one back against Sean and Joe, who sided with Grinding Speed. Joe tabbed West Is Best in the maiden (and should have headed to the bookies beforehand) and Drift Society in the amateur/apprentice allowance while Sean had Drift Society. Joe (10 wins) holds a slight lead on Sean (nine) and Tom (eight) as the season ratchets up to its busy stages with two meets this weekend.