By the fourth race at Saturday's Colonial Cup meet at Springdale Race Course in Camden, S.C., Kieran Norris needed a win. Really needed a win. He came into the day with a 13-12 lead in the battle for the National Steeplechase Association jockeys' championship and watched five-time champion Paddy Young win the day's third race to force a tie.
Four races to go, 13-all, and Sean McDermott lurking just behind with 11. All three men entered the fourth with chances - Young on 2015 filly/mare champion and course winner Ivy Mills, McDermott on the ultra-tough One Lucky Lady and Norris on course winner Willow U.
Game, set, match, championship to Norris who produced Willow U at the last fence and the 5-year-old mare fought past One Lucky Lady, Lady Yeats and Ivy Mills to win by 1 1/2 lengths. Norris and Young were blanked the rest of the way while McDermott added one to make it 14-13-12 for the top three. Trained by Richard Valentine for Check Mark Stable, the winner rewarded some extra work put in by her jockey after they finished sixth together at Far Hills. That day, the New York-bred daughter of Utopia flattened out leaving the backside but got back to running and finished with energy. Norris blamed himself, and told Valentine so, then started studying video.
"I know Kieran wanted it and I know Kieran is very good about doing his homework," said Valentine. "He did pretty much exactly what Jack (Doyle) did when she won here (in April). Kieran knew not to give up on her because she'll always find more."
She did Saturday. Willow U sat in mid-pack early as One Lucky Lady set a somewhat pressured pace ahead of Ivy Mills. Willow U was 2 lengths down in fourth (behind those two and the Valentine-trained Lady Yeats) at the last fence, but charged up the inside to pass them all and win for the second time in six hurdle starts. Claimed from trainer George Weaver for $35,000 by Check Mark (Ted Gregory and Biz Carey) at Saratoga in September 2015, Willow U finished second at Aiken last fall and won at Camden in April. She lost her next three - at Iroquois, Saratoga and Far Hills - but wasn't disgraced.
"She's not ever run a bad race," said Valentine. "You can make a legitimate excuse for the times she got beat. She wants a flat track. She doesn't want to go up the hills at Iroquois, she doesn't want to hit the rising ground of Far Hills. She's good around these types of tracks. Maybe when she gets a bit stronger, she'll be better but I'm thrilled with her."
Invocation wins 3-year-old hurdle
The night before the Colonial Cup, Blythe Davies laughed about leaving her husband Joe "home with the kids" while she and Ashton Williams took Invocation south for the $25,000 Raymond Woolfe Memorial hurdle for 3-year-olds. Blythe, a former champion jump jockey and essentially the horse's co-trainer with her husband, rode Invocation in his final school for the race and liked how it went.
"He schooled great, he's ready," said Blythe said. "He's a nice horse. If he wins, maybe we'll leave Joe home every time."
Joe better get used to Maryland.
In the day's third race, Invocation (Paddy Young) trounced eight others, drawing off late to score by 18 lengths over Corstorphine with Popcastle third. Division champion Officer's Oath, unbeaten in two starts coming in, was scratched the morning of the race.
Bred in France, Invocation made five starts over hurdles for top trainer Alan King in England (finishing second three times this summer) before being imported by the Davies and Straylight Racing. Third behind Officer's Oath and Popcastle at Far Hills, Invocation improved from that effort.
"I would have been disappointed if he didn't win today the way he ran at Far Hills, he just got lost around there, his jumping at Far Hills was OK but definitely could have been better, he got a real good school that day, he got lost coming up the hill at Far Hills, for whatever reason, he thought we had to go around again," Young said. "I thought this one-loop galloping track would really suit him. They went a real good gallop, he jumped well, he doesn't want to be in front that soon, but what do you? If you're going that well, you want to just go win the race."
Lake Champlain helps ease the pain
Forty-five minutes after finishing second in the Grade 1 Colonial Cup with Rawnaq, owner Irv Naylor, trainer Cyril Murphy and jockey Sean McDermott teamed up to win a $25,000 handicap hurdle with Lake Champlain. It wasn't the same, but winning beats losing every time.
"It's a shame Daylight Savings Time was a few weeks ago because we'd have been right about on time now," Murphy said with a smile afterward. "A win's a win though."
Bred in Ireland by Windflower Overseas Holdings, Lake Champlain was making his second American start after finishing seventh at Saratoga Aug. 31. Murphy hoped for better in that summer effort, but was confident by the time Camden rolled around.
"We thought the track up there would suit him and as it turned out he just hadn't settled in at home the way he has now," Murphy said. "He wasn't beaten very far (5 1/2 lengths) at Saratoga, but through September and into October you could see a bloom come to his coat and his top line improved. He suddenly got big and strong and we looked at coming down here for the ratings race because this track would suit him."
Dropped out the back early by McDermott, Lake Champlain picked his way into the race and worked to third behind Ack Feisty by the last fence. Touching down alongside Second Amendment, Lake Champlain outran that one to the wire to win by a neck with Ack Feisty 2 lengths back in third.
"I think they always questioned how far he really wanted to go (when with Jessica Harrington in Ireland) so I just said to Sean, 'Sit out the back, a race like this there's going to be plenty of pace, see if you can arrive there without trying and it'll either work or it won't.' And it set up just right. He'll be a fun little horse in this handicap division next year."
Lake Champlain won two 3-year-old hurdle races in Ireland last year, and also won twice on the flat.
Alcazar de Maram demolishes maiden field
Back in early March, Alcazar de Maram was just a horse in the barn. One of those "well-bred, nice type, a little immature for a 4-year-old but . . ." horses with an indeterminable future. He'd run four times on the flat for Bill Mott and finished 10th, ninth, sixth and fifth - at least he was improving - but washed out by January and was on trainer Jonathan Sheppard's Pennsylvania farm looking for a new start.
"He seems to gallop all day," Sheppard said back then. "He never takes a deep breath. He's got a ways to go, but seems OK."
Saturday's performance by the son of Giant's Causeway and Breeders' Cup winner Maram was better than OK. About 40 times better.
Allowed to roll to the front in a field of 10 by Darren Nagle, Alcazar de Maram simply increased his lead for every step of the 2 1/8-mile test. Owned by Maram LLC, the Kentucky-bred won by 39 3/4 lengths and it probably could have been 139 3/4. Aflutter, also trained by Sheppard, finished second with Mr. Jenney third.
Alcazar de Maram has some heady connections to flat racing. His sire won six Group 1 stakes in England and Ireland and finished second to Tiznow in the 2000 Breeders' Cup Classic. Standing as Kentucky's Ashford Stud, the son of Storm Cat commands a $75,000 fee and has sired the likes of Shamardal, Aragorn, First Samurai, Take Charge Brandi, Giant Oak, Carriage Trail, Imagining and dozens of others.
Maram won her first four starts, including the 2008 Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies Turf, for trainer Chad Brown, noted Thoroughbred breeder/owner Prince Saud bin Khaled and partner Karen Woods. Prince Saud, who campaigned champion Royal Delta early in her career among others, died in 2011. That November, Maram failed to meet her reserve at Keeneland (while carrying Alcazar de Maram) and was ultimately left to Woods. The daughter of Sahm produced her only foal in 2012, and died a few months later while carrying an Elusive Quality foal. Bred by Woods' Hair 'Em Corporation, Alcazar de Maram now races for Woods' Maram LLC.
He finished second at Charlotte in April and second again to eventual filly/mare and novice hurdle champion Get Ready Set Goes at High Hope in May. Given a summer break, the Kentucky-bred returned to finish fourth at Great Meadow Oct. 22, then blitzed Camden.
Daltons, Stronbox score in maiden
Kate and Bernie Dalton found success with Express Line, winning a maiden at the Carolina Cup this spring and finishing second in a novice stakes at Queen's Cup. Joe Fowler owned Express Line, a washout on the flat and an instant success over jumps. Fowler told his friends in Lexington, Ky. about the horse.
Fowler's friend Steve Johnson listened, thought of Strongbox, a horse he bred and owned and called Kate Dalton.
By Offlee Wild out of a Dynaformer mare, the 4-year-old gelding showed stamina on the flat and sounded like a good candidate when Johnson called Dalton.
"It all came about because of Express Line," Kate Dalton said. "I guess Joe Fowler went crowing to his cronies, 'Steeplechasing can really turn a horse around,' " Dalton said. "He waits until the end of the phone call and says the horse only has one eye. He said, 'Is that a problem?' I said, 'There's one way to find out.' "
It's not a problem.
Born without his right eye, Strongbox made four starts on the flat, managing two thirds against $5,000 maiden claimers at Turfway Park last winter. Sent to Kate and her husband Bernie in Camden, Strongbox learned to jump quickly, was ready to run this summer but races canceled or he didn't get in and wound up making his debut at Shawan Downs in September. He finished fifth that day, returned to finish fifth at Far Hills, then got racked up in a melee at Aiken. At Camden, he did everything right, drawing off from Show King and Wild Dynaformer to score by 3 lengths.
"He learned how to do everything, he's been a great horse," Kate Dalton said. "He's a cool horse. It's great for the Johnsons, he's a homebred, it's good all around. How do you not fall in a love with a one-eyed horse who is kind? He doesn't hold his head funny, he doesn't balk around other horses, he doesn't care, he's just really good."
In four starts on the flat, Strongbox earned $1,695. In four starts over hurdles, he's earned $21,000.
"It goes to show you the avenue steeplechasing can provide," Bernie Dalton said. "He was running for peanuts on the flat, it would have taken him a long time to earn that around Turfway Park."
Canadian Gold gets second hurdle win
Doug Fout said he was going to put away Canadian Gold, owned by Ted and Gigi Lazenby, after the raw-looking but fast-running 4-year-old broke his maiden at the International Gold Cup in October.
Then the trainer changed his mind.
"I was going to put him away but this was the only place Ted could come," Fout said, minutes after Canadian Gold took the season finale. "Gigi asked me, I said, 'On one condition, I'm not going to crank him up to win, I'll take him there for the experience.' "
Canadian Gold got experience and his second career win, rallying late to run down Formidable Heart and Stormy Alex in the stretch. Apprentice Brendan Crowley engineered the half-length win in the second division of the Dale K. Thiel.
"I told Brendan to break off fourth or fifth, get him in a rhythm, if he's going well, then you can go ahead and try with him," Fout said. "They were all set for him to finish fourth or fifth and were happy with that. He did it the right way."
Purchased at Keeneland November last year, Canadian Gold skipped the spring and summer seasons before pulling up in his debut at Virginia Fall. Two weeks later, he rallied late to win the maiden at the International Gold Cup. Four weeks later, he had his second career win over hurdles.
"He was so quiet today, he got nervous at Middleburg, he looked like he went through a snowstorm he had so much lather on him and then he got nasty right when I was tacking him at the Gold Cup. Today, he was as cool as a cucumber," Fout said. "He's going to go home and get a full two months off, he'll be ready for the later meets which is perfect, he's going to fill out and grow, which he needs to do."
Kentuckian Bill Harrigan bred the son of Marchfield with Mike Pietrangelo in Canada. Canadian Gold won an off-the-turf maiden race at Indiana Grand in July 2015, his only win in six flat starts.