Kieran Norris is just happy to be in the championship conversation. Paddy Young can't really believe he has a chance at another trophy. And Sean McDermott is fighting hard to not dwell on what might have been.
Together, the jockeys form a backdrop to the final stop on the National Steeplechase Association season Saturday at the Colonial Cup Races at Springdale Race Course in Camden, S.C. Norris, looking for his first championship, leads the pack with 13 wins including three at the International Gold Cup last month. Five-time champion Young is back in the mix with 12, including seven over the last three weeks. McDermott is third with 11, to go with 21 frustrating seconds.
The Irishmen will be in action Saturday, where a seven-race card kicks off at 11:30 a.m. The $150,000 Colonial Cup, headed by likely steeplechase champion Rawnaq, draws the most attention but the jockey race adds plenty to the plot.
Norris, who hails from Tallow in Ireland's County Waterford and lives in Virginia, rides six on the day. Young, a Pennsylvania resident by way of Banbridge in County Down, has five mounts two weeks after winning four races at Montpelier. McDermott, from Tralee in County Kerry, rides out of leading trainer Jack Fisher's barn in Maryland and has six rides Saturday.
They're coping with the pressure, or at least they were Wednesday afternoon.
"Whatever happens, happens," said Norris. "I'd like to have a better cushion going into (the last day), but I never even thought it would be something I'd have to deal with. There's no pressure on me. My two best rides of the day are my last two rides. That could make it very exciting."
"It's good for racing, it's fun," said Young, the only one of the three with a championship (and he's got five). "If Montpelier hadn't have happened you wouldn't be talking to me. It will be interesting to see how the boys handle the day. If none of us have won anything coming down to the end it will be interesting. For me it's fun because I've been through it. I'm not coming down thinking I'm going to be champion jockey. I'm going to be out there and trying, but it's not the same feeling it was some other years."
"I'd probably have to ride a four-timer to win it," said McDermott. "I'm sure Paddy Young and Kieran Norris will find a winner or two on the day and I'm two behind. I'm really looking forward to Saturday, and doing the best I can. It's a pity they didn't have racing last weekend. Fourteen days is a long gap between riding in races, unless you're suspended or hurt."
The three potential champions would probably be scrambling for second place if Jack Doyle (who was leading with 11 wins from just 46 mounts in late September) did not miss the rest of the season with a broken pelvis. His injury left the gate open, and the jocks have all run through as five wins separate first place from ninth. Technically, Ross Geraghty (10 wins), Gerard Galligan (nine), Willie McCarthy (eight) and Darren Nagle (eight) are still in the race too.
But it will probably come down to Norris, Young and McDermott in a seven-race battle (if you want a longshot, look at Geraghty).
First race. $30,000 maiden hurdle. Young rides likely favorite Mr. Jenney for the Fisher barn while Norris picks up Analyst for Michael Leaf in a deep race. McDermott will root for the other eight runners.
Mr. Jenney, once a $600,000 yearling, exits a fourth at Far Hills for owner Michael Moran and was also fourth at Fair Hill in May and second at Parx in July. "Obviously he's a very nice horse," said Young, who also rides Ivy Mills on the day for Moran. "I wouldn't be giving him up. Looking at it, he has a little bit of form. He gets a nice break from Far Hills to Camden so he's been freshened up a little bit."
Analyst makes his seventh jump start and looks to get back to his spring form. Norris rode the 4-year-old Smarty Jones gelding two starts back at the Gold Cup. "That was a little bit too far for him," Norris said. "I saw his run at Montpelier and was happy with the way he ran there. He's got experience, that will help. There's no superstar in there bar something we haven't seen. I'm going to give it a go. Mr. Jenney is the horse to beat."
Second race. $30,000 maiden hurdle. Young and Norris get to watch this one, while McDermott gets aboard major player Wild Dynaformer for Fisher. The Dynaformer gelding was second last out at the Gold Cup.
"I've got a good chance, but you've got to go out and do it," said McDermott. "I've been hopeful before, but come out with grass stains on my pants. It's a great leveler, this racing game."
Third race. $25,000 hurdle for 3-year-olds. McDermott has won two aboard Officer's Oath for trainer Jimmy Day and will be favored to do so again in a field of 10. Young gets on English import Invocation, who was third behind the favorite at Far Hills. Norris rides Etched In Time, a filly for Lilith Boucher who finished fourth in her debut against older horses at Aiken.
"They have to come and beat my 3-year-old," said McDermott. "He's carrying plenty of weight now (156 - at least 8 more than the others) for his wins which won't help but he's a nice horse who does his thing."
Norris gets his mount because the trainer's husband Richard Boucher will be at Churchill Downs with turf stakes mare Complete St. "My filly is a little unknown and they're probably thinking more for next season with her, but if I'm there with a shot at the last it won't be for lack of trying," said Norris. "She was a bit green at Aiken for Richard, but she'll improve and run her way around there."
Young's mount Invocation makes his 10th start this year (seventh over jumps) and second in the United States for trainer Joe Davies. "He ran really well at Far Hills and was just a bit green which is weird because he had run over hurdles enough in England. Going around the bottom bend, he was going as well as the other two and he just kind of got lost in that part of the race. A flatter, more galloping track will suit him. I'm looking forward to riding him again."
Fourth race. $30,000 filly/mare hurdle handicap. Just six horses run and all three jockeys will be in action on major players exiting the stakes at Far Hills. McDermott finished second there on One Lucky Lady while Young was third with Ivy Mills and Norris finished sixth on Willow U. One Lucky Lady rates the favorite, but she's giving away weight again and might have to make all the running again.
"I'm pretty confident in One Lucky Lady," said McDermott of the eight-time winner who has never been worse than second in four American starts against her gender. "I sat on her the other morning and she feels fantastic."
Ivy Mills and Young defeated One Lucky Lady with a late charge in this race last year. "Sean would probably say the same thing at Far Hills, they didn't go fast enough. Both of our horses got a little bit outrun by the winner (Get Ready Set Goes). Sean will probably have to make his own running unless something loses the plot. I would hope he would go a gallop, then something might push him a long a bit which would help me."
Willow U could be an upset possibility for Norris and trainer Richard Valentine. She won over the course in April and her race at Far Hills was better than it looked.
"I kind of messed up with her at Far Hills," said Norris. "I didn't think I was traveling that well down in the bottom and then she flew home for me. I guess I didn't trust her enough, but the way she finished up I was very impressed. She won at Camden (this spring), she's got a good weight on her back and I won't make the same mistake."
Fifth race. $150,000 Colonial Cup. The big one. Ten horses go 2 3/4 miles and there's one clear favorite - Rawnaq. Second last year, he hasn't lost since with wins in the Temple Gwathmey, Iroquois and Grand National. McDermott rides the 9-year-old Irish-bred for Irv Naylor and Cyril Murphy. The clear favorite must deal with a solid group of Martini Brother, Parker's Project, Top Striker, Jamarjo, Portrade, Diplomat, Tempt Me Alex, Days Of Heaven and Charminster.
All three jockeys have mounts, none better than McDermott's.
"Rawnaq is a relentless galloper and any bit of a stamina test would help him," said McDermott. "It's a little bit different down (in Camden). Last year, he struggled for 2 miles just to hold his position. His jumping held it. And then he came on at the end. I'd prefer a bit slower ground and a tougher track. But you wouldn't swap him. He seems a different horse than the horse he was last year. He's come to himself and he looks a million dollars. I sat on him a couple of times more recently in the last few weeks. He feels good, touch wood. It's something to really, really look forward to. It's exciting, but at the same time you have to look at it like it's any other race. We'll go in there confident, but measured at the same time."
Norris rides Days Of Heaven for leading English trainer Nicky Henderson. The 6-year-old finished fifth in the Grand National, 25 lengths behind Rawnaq, after getting loose on the way to the paddock. English rider Nico DeBoinville put the four-time winner near the front early before giving way.
"I liked the way he jumped at Far Hills," said Norris. "I don't think the horse ever got a chance to take a breath, just to settle himself. That was a lot of running on him at Far Hills, but I don't think they'd have brought Days Of Heaven over if they didn't think he could hold his own. Rawnaq is the best we have. It will be hard to beat him, but we're going to take a shot at him."
Young rides Jamarjo, who shares an owner with Rawnaq and has never been worse than third in 11 steeplechase starts dating to 2013. The Irish-bred is trained by Young's wife Leslie and comes off a second to Scorpiancer in the Lonesome Glory in September.
"Jamarjo owes us nothing," said Young. "He's a good, fun, solid little horse, a superstar for us. The way he ran at Belmont was a good race. Rawnaq had a harder race than what you'd think at Far Hills. Scorpiancer put it to him in the stretch and we were really racing for 5 or 6 furlongs. It wasn't a walk in the park for him so I'm hoping that the race left its mark. Such a hard race after a long layoff, maybe we've got a chance. Now if Cyril Murphy called me in the morning and said ‘do you want to ride him?' of course I would, but as a person riding in the race, there's no sense going in with a defeatist attitude. I have to go in trying to beat him."
Sixth race. $25,000 handicap hurdle for horses rated 120-100. If they're close this late in the day, the last two (which carry the same conditions) will be fun to watch. In this one, Norris rides recent maiden winner Ack Feisty. McDermott counters with Lake Champlain, a 4-year-old with two Irish wins last year and just one American start. Young gets on Blue Atlantic, who seeks his first American win after two thirds and a fourth.
"Blue Atlantic is a hard-knocking little horse," said Young. "He ran well at Saratoga on a track that wouldn't suit him. The Gold Cup was a track that would suit him and I probably didn't give him the greatest ride. I think he's my best chance of the day. The way he's improved since we got him, he's coming to himself."
"I love that horse," Norris said of Ack Feisty, who won at the Gold Cup for trainer Neil Morris. "He's one of my best shots. He's tough. He won't be stopping. I don't have to make the running on him. I can, or I can settle him in. Hopefully he'll be there or thereabouts. At that stage, things might be a little bit tight."
"Lake Champlain won two 3-year-old hurdles for Jessica Harrington in Ireland and won two on the flat," said McDermott. "He's in great form. Cyril (Murphy) was pretty adamant that I ride him. I schooled River Rush (Wednesday) and he's absolutely flying. Ack Feisty will be hard to beat too, it's a good race."
Seventh race. $25,000 handicap hurdle for horses rated 120-100. Another handicap that looks wide open. Young does not have a mount, though if he's tied you might see him trying to convince someone to take a break. Norris rides Formidable Heart, who won twice in October and was fifth on the trappy Callaway Gardens course two weeks ago. McDermott gets on Dye Fore, who won this race last year for Fisher. He's winless since, but drops out of novice stakes company.
"He's a course and distance winner, so hopefully he can do it again," said McDermott about Dye Fore. "It set up for him well last year. He sat second and then went on with it. Hopefully I can do him justice."
"He goes out and does his thing," said Norris of Formidable Heart. "At Callaway Gardens, I just don't think the track suited him. It was just a little bit loose on top, going right-handed and with the hills, I don't think he liked it. He didn't really get a race in Callaway. He got a school around. Hopefully we've got a fresh horse."
And that's that. May the best man win. On paper, McDermott probably has the best rides - but he's two behind and they're in tough races. Young's pick-up of Mr. Jenney could be huge and the filly/mare and 3-year-old races will be important. Norris leads (a single win at Aiken in late October looks pretty important) and rides capable horses at the end of the card.
All three are excited for the opportunity, but will also be happy for whoever wins the crown.
Norris put it best.
"Whoever wins it is going to have work to win it," he said, "and I'll celebrate or celebrate with whoever does it."