Billy Meister lit a cigarette. That's how well Grand Manan was traveling in the International Gold at Great Meadow Oct. 22.
"When he got to the water jump and they had let him go," Meister said. "I lit up a cigarette because the nerves were going."
No need for nerves as jockey Darren Nagle had steadied and saved enough on the frontrunner to easily hold off favorite Two's Company in the 3 1/2-mile feature. Owned by Donald Reuwer Jr., the 7-year-old son of Giant's Causeway drew off to win by 7 lengths over Two's Company with Prime Prospector third.
Bred by Stuart Janney III and Phipps Stable, Grand Manan earned his fifth win over timber. A flop on the flat (he was beaten in a $8,000 maiden claimer in his final start for Tim Salzman in 2012) and a flop in the hunt field (Meister was the last-chance saloon), the bay gelding didn't make a sanctioned start from Dec. 5, 2012 at Laurel Park until winning the Miles Valentine novice timber at Fair Hill in May 2015.
This year, he finished fifth in the My Lady's Manor after Nagle tried to slow him down.
"He should have galloped at the Manor," Meister said. "Darren came back and said, 'I (screwed) up.' I said, 'Just don't do it again.' "
Nagle hasn't, sitting as still as Donald Trump's hair to win the Genesee Valley Hunt Cup by 8 1/4 lengths and the International Gold Cup two weeks later.
Meister, who retired in 2014 after 22 rides in the Maryland Hunt Cup, can't sit as still as a spectator.
"Nerve wracking. I'm getting better, I can't eat before a race, I lose more weight watching than I did dieting when I was riding. Today, I was relaxed actually, I ate some food which I never do, then he was still in front at the water jump..." Meister said. "He's a nice horse, it's taken a while just trying to pick the right spots because he's a nervous horse. We shipped all the way to Genesee, he was perfect up there, he shipped down here great. He was wild in the stall this morning, bucking, squealing but he shipped down here and he was perfect here all day, maybe the fourth screw is tightened up."
Meister has been gently trying to turn the screws (well, more like trying to get them near the holes) since he met Grand Manan. A failure in the hunt field with Howard County, Grand Manan wound up in Meister's Maryland barn as a project.
"He had four screws missing when I got him. We hunted him, that was an adventure, then he cut his hind ankle and got his liver out of whack and almost died, then he came back last spring and just keeps getting better," Meister said. "He was relaxed today, he was settled the whole way which made the jumps right, he usually beats himself up so much at the jumps. Maturing and settling. I've put this horse in certain places because I can't run him that often because of his brain. He's getting it."
Minutes after the Gold Cup, Meister, cigarette long since snuffed, stood on the hillside near the barn and smiled.
"It's very rewarding for a trainer who doesn't get the high-end horses," Meister said. "Wow. Wow."
- Arch Kingsley smiled, moments after Top Striker won the Zeke Ferguson Memorial.
"That was sweet," the Camden-based conditioner said as peers slapped him on the back.
It wasn't as much elation as it was satisfaction after Sue and George Sensor's 7-year-old earned a deserving Grade 2 score. Ridden by Paddy Young, Top Striker settled near the back of the eight-horse field before rallying to beat Charminster by 2 1/2 lengths.
Top Striker snapped a losing streak dating to the novice stakes at Callaway Gardens in 2014. He missed all of 2015 and returned this year, earning checks in the Temple Gwathmey, David Semmes, Valentine and two ratings hurdle tries at Saratoga.
Sent off third choice in the competitive field - seven of the eight horses ranged from 3-1 to 7-1 - Top Striker earned his fourth career hurdle win while being ridden by the five-time champion jockey for the first time.
- Neil Morris and Kieran Norris dominated the rest of the card, sweeping three jump races and a flat race.
The duo turned a natural hat trick winning the second division of the maiden with Gillian Johnston's Ack Feisty, the steeplethon with Sara Collette's homebred Zanclus and the allowance hurdle with Thomas Hulfish's Formidable Heart. Mutasaawy finished it off, taking the $45,000 open flat for Pathfinder Stable.
- "Well, you know he stays."
That's how breeder Bill Harrigan described Canadian Gold after the 4-year-old son of Marchfield won the opener by a neck. Owned by Virginia Lazenby, trained by Doug Fout and ridden by Barry Foley, Canadian Gold rallied to collar Surprising Soul by a neck in the 2 1/2-mile hurdle. Purchased from Harrigan at the Keeneland November breeding stock sale, Canadian Gold pulled up in his debut in soft ground at Virginia Fall but returned to win two weeks later.
"He hated that ground at Middleburg," Fout said. "He did it well today."