Gray three-button suit, white shirt, brown dress shoes, two-tone green tie, hands clasped loosely behind his back, Cyril Murphy could have been a businessman waiting on a train.
And as it turned out, that's exactly what he was.
As the trainer watched Saturday's American Grand National unfold from far atop the hill amid the tailgaters at Far Hills Race Course in Far Hills, N.J. Saturday, his freight train of a horse blasted into the station. Owned by Irv Naylor, Rawnaq turned aside hardy challenges from English raiders Sharp Rise and Days Of Heaven and finally chief American rival Scorpiancer to win the $350,000 stakes by three-quarters of a length. Flown in for the ride because of an injury to Jack Doyle in September, Irish jump jockey Ruby Walsh added the U.S. National to his victories in the English, Irish, Welsh, Scottish and Australian versions.
The win, worth $210,000, was Rawnaq's third is as many tries this year and clinched the 2016 Eclipse Award as champion steeplechaser. The 9-year-old Irish-bred may run once more this year, in next month's Colonial Cup, but his real goal will be the World Hurdle at England's Cheltenham Festival in March. A $500,000 bonus, courtesy of the Brown Advisory Iroquois-Cheltenham Challenge awaits if he can pull it off.
For now, however, admire Saturday's performance.
Heavily favored in a field of eight, Rawnaq broke sharply and sped down over the first three fences along the Far Hills backside. The race started with pressure and tempo, and it never stopped. Always key, the final run down the backstretch applied plenty of heat to an already simmering pot. Rawnaq met the race's 11th fence, the first of three along the back, on a long stride. He knifed through, low but plenty effective, and landed running. The 2 lengths he gained put the others on the defensive. Days Of Heaven, who got loose walking over to the paddock, cracked first and then Sharp Rise backed off. Andi'amu tried to keep pace on the inside. Scorpiancer, mostly kept out of the fray up front by Sean McDermott, worked into the race.
Still in front into the final turn, Rawnaq looked to be in control though Scorpiancer was making a run. A lesser horse might have cracked from the early pressure, but the son of Azamour kicked up the hill toward the last. He jumped it like he did the rest, and galloped toward the finish. To his outside, Scorpiancer trimmed the margin a bit, but couldn't threaten the winner and settled for second. Sharp Rise, after dropping back on the final backstretch run, rallied again to finish third.
"He did what we brought him here to do," Murphy said while walking down the hill afterward. "He puts his head on the line and does it. If you want it, you better go and take it off him because he's not giving it to you. He'll fight for it."
Rawnaq, whose five-start American career includes three wins, a second and a third - won for the ninth time over fences and pushed his career steeplechase earnings to $548,995. He's 3-for-3 this year, with $360,000 earned. Saturday, he covered 2 5/8 miles in 4:50, a stakes record for the Far Hills course.
Murphy won the 2001 Grand National aboard Quel Senor, like Rawnaq a dark bay powerhouse with a the race-course attitude of an underdog boxer.
"All I keep seeing is Quel Senor and I thought that then," said Murphy of the first time he saw Rawnaq, who raced in Ireland with trainer Matthew Smth. "He's got the personality to try. He's got ability obviously, but he wants you to come to him and make him do it and make it a fight. Plenty of horses would have folded today."
Second to stablemate (and eventual champion) Dawalan in last year's Grand National, Rawnaq opened 2016 with a win over Scorpiancer in the Temple Gwathmey in April. Aimed for the 3-mile Iroquois in May, Rawnaq dispatched Irish raiders Shaneshill and Nichols Canyon (and Scorpiancer) in the Grade 1. Looking ahead, Murphy decided to keep his horse at home in Maryland for the summer - bypassing lucrative races at Saratoga and Belmont Park in favor of the fall.
"I think a flat track like that he'd gallop along like he does but the others can just sit and travel behind him easier and he doesn't have the extra gears after the last fence," said the trainer. "I'm sure he'd have acquitted himself well but his best race is at a place like this. You don't know whether Saratoga would have taken the edge off him or not. I was quietly optimistic and confident for myself today. The English horses today were not what had been over in the spring (to run in the Iroquois). Then it was just a case of had we done enough to get him here in the right form."
And a case of finding a jockey. Aboard for the two starts this spring, Doyle broke his pelvis in a fall at Belmont Park in September and will miss the rest of the season. First, Murphy talked to Paddy Young but the five-time American champion was committed to taking a shot in the big race with Andi'amu from his wife Leslie's stable. Then Murphy started making phone calls. Walsh seemed unlikely because Willie Mullins was considering sending a horse over for Far Hills. When those plans changed, Walsh was the choice. He's won 10 Irish championships and steered home 52 winners at the Cheltenham Festival.
"It was Paul Byrne, who sourced Rawnaq for us, that made the telephone call," Murphy said. "It worked out. I guess today was a quiet day in Ireland. Once we had it organized, we just wanted to be sure we weren't just bringing him over to gallop around."
Saturday, that was never a question.
NOTES: Other winners (more complete recaps to come on thisishorseracing.com) on the day included: owner/trainer Hill Parker's Get Ready Set Goes, for jockey Richard Boucher, in the Peapack for fillies/mares; Riverdee Stable's Yellow Mountain, for trainer Jonathan Sheppard and jockey Ross Geraghty in the maiden; Sheila Williams' and Northwood Stable's Special Skills for trainer Jack Fisher and jockey Paddy Young in the Foxbrook for novices; Peggy Steinman's Perfect Union for trainer Doug Fout and jockey Kieran Norris in the handicap hurdle; Bruce Smart's Officer's Oath for trainer Jimmy Day and jockey Sean McDermott in the Gladstone for 3-year-olds; and Otter Racing's Le Chevalier for trainer Julie Gomena and jockey Mark Beecher in the New Jersey Hunt Cup timber stakes.