Nick Peacock and Sue Gaskin stopped. About halfway between the finish line and the last hurdle at Far Hills Steeplechase Oct. 19, the couple stopped, stood and stared. Unable to go closer, unable to walk away, just two people hoping for a miracle.
Far Hills race meet chairman Guy Torsilieri saw the couple, whom he met earlier in the week, and began to make the same walk, his legs leaden, his heart heavy. The trio met again and hugged, a long, time-standing-still hug of sadness and disbelief. Torsilieri was meant to be handing the American Grand National gold trophy to owners Peacock and Gaskin, assistant trainer Patrick Mullins, jockey Paul Townend – another celebration, another pinnacle from their pinnacle-providing, once-in-a-lifetime, world traveling, Wicklow Brave.
Instead, bustling men erected folding screens, a long, red equine ambulance pivoted into place, two outriders rode away wiping tears from their eyes, Mullins and groom Jason Dear confronted the worst and Wicklow Brave breathed his last breaths.
Mullins’ words from two hours earlier, after Pravalaguna won the Peapack, ringing hallow and haunting.
“He’s an absolute character of a horse. He always seems to run well. He’s settled in well, Jason is very happy with him. I don’t think the trip is a problem, the ground is perfect,” Mullins said on his way back to the barn three races earlier about the star of his father Willie's powerful stable. “He schooled, he was a bit careful yesterday. I think in a race with horses around him, he’ll be fine. If he runs to his best form, he wins, doesn’t he? You don’t know. You don’t know.”
No, you never know.
Making his 59th start in a career that had taken him around the world and captured the sport’s biggest prizes (he won Grade 1 stakes on the flat and over hurdles in Ireland and made two starts in Australia’s Melbourne Cup and one at New York’s Belmont Park), Wicklow Brave jumped tepidly early and brilliantly later, piling on the coals to turn back all challengers. America’s best Moscato and Scorpiancer chased in vain but were looking at minor checks. Last year’s winner Jury Duty tried to conjure up the same effort, but ultimately, he wouldn’t have won it last year if Wicklow Brave had made the trip. Turning for home and attacking the hill for the third time, Wicklow Brave dispatched his last rival, British raider Brain Power, and aimed at the last hurdle . . . if he jumps the last, he wins, doesn’t he?
Yes, he does.
Nico DeBoinville, aboard Brain Power, had the best and worst seat in the house.
“I was beat at the time,” the jockey said. “I would not have gotten past him.”
The live-wire act that is steeplechasing.
Owned by Michael Buckley and trained by Nicky Henderson, Brain Power recaptured the form that had propelled him to a 162 rating in a seven-win career. Bred in Ireland by David Harvey, Brain Power won the International Hurdle at Cheltenham in December but pulled up in the Champion Hurdle at Cheltenham in March and Scottish Champion Hurdle in April. Henderson and Buckley put him away then and aimed at Far Hills. In the end, Brain Power scored by 15 lengths over Scorpiancer, Moscato and Jury Duty in the $450,000 American Grand National – the richest jump race in North America and one of the saddest days in the sport’s history.
“He loves it here. America is really his place,” DeBoinville said. “He likes the ground, he loves those fences, they are ideal, they fill his eye and he respects them. He’s different gear here. Different gear. But, I was beat, I was beat. Full credit to Willie Mullins and Wicklow Brave.”
Full credit and full empathy.
Buckley accepted the trophies, congratulated DeBoinville and answered questions asked by television host Megan Connolly, but he was miles and miles away.
“Horrible. Horrible,” Buckley said. “I was going to say something but what do you say?. . .”
Yeah, what do you say. What do you say.
• Willie Mullins’ day had started very differently. Pravalaguna made her American debut in the Peapack, a $75,000 filly and mare hurdle stakes and did what she was meant to do, trouncing eight overmatched rivals. Owned in Ireland by America’s leading steeplechase owner, Bruton Street US, the 7-year-old mare simplified the excursion with a front-running demolition job, scoring by 8 lengths under Townend.
Exiting a fifth in the Kerry National, the 7-year-old mare earned her fifth win over hurdles and eighth in her career.
“She’s incredibly versatile, she’s won going 2 miles, 3 miles, she’s won in the winter, won in the summer,” Patrick Mullins said. “She’s a very masculine mare, sometimes you’re trying to keep the condition on them so you have to be easy on them. She hasn’t missed a nut since she’s come over here, we give her plenty of work, we give her plenty of racing and she thrives on it. You can’t do it with every horse, but it’s her constitution, she eats so well, she’s so strong, she’s able to take her racing, if she was a little feminine filly, you couldn’t do that.”
Pravalaguna stayed in America and could take on the best in the sport next spring.
“Her options at home are kind of limited, she’s got to the top of the handicaps, this looked like a good opportunity,” Mullins said. “They were keen to come and we wanted a winner in America. My grandfather did it with Grabel.”
Mulins’ grandfather Patrick and star mare Grabel won the richest jump race in American history – the $750,000 Dueling Grounds International – in 1990. Willie Mullins, a perennial leading trainer in Ireland, won his first American race as a trainer in just a handful of tries including a second by Clondaw Warrior in the 2016 American St. Leger at Arlington Park, a second and a third by Shaneshill and Nichols Canyon in the 2016 Iroquois and a fourth by Wicklow Brave in the 2017 Belmont Gold Cup.
• Gordon Elliott targets Cheltenham, Punchestown, Aintree, of course. Far Hills? Sure, it’s on the list. The Irish-based trainer raided the Gladstone, a $50,000 3-year-old hurdle stakes, yet again this year, venturing and vanquishing with Global Freedom.
The son of Maxios exited Ed Dunlop’s British stable this summer, made his first two starts over hurdles for Little Emperor Syndicate before being purchased by George Mahoney’s Rosbrian Farm for a final start over hurdles at Down Royal and a winning American debut.
Robbie Power picked up $3,000 spending money on his trip to ride Jury Duty, opting to allow Must See The Doc, purchased by Irv Naylor after winning two of three starts in England, to pester Elftiz on the lead. Global Freedom rallied to run down Must See The Doc to win by 2 ¾ lengths.
“They started racing a long way out, kind of put him on his head early, he came back into the race well. There was no sense forcing it, I couldn’t go anyway,” Power said. “It was a big call from Gordon to bring him over, he’ll improve an awful lot with the experience over those hurdles, I think he’ll stay here and he’ll be a nice horse here.”
• American-bred horses managed to win two of the seven stakes on the card. Leading trainer Jack Fisher provided the two winners, Snap Decision and Pik Em, for the home team.
Snap Decision won his fourth consecutive start over hurdles and secured the novice championship with a facile win in the Foxbrook Champion Hurdle. Bred by Phipps Stable, the son of Hard Spun tracked the pace set by stablemate Storm Team, took over with his usual stamina, holding off Irish raider Days Without End by 4 ¾ lengths. Willie McCarthy, who called Snap Decision the best he’s ridden after a win at Saratoga this summer, guided the winner. In his rookie season over jumps, Snap Decision has risen through the ranks with maiden losses at the Queen's Cup and Iroquois, a maiden win at Monmouth Park, a Saratoga allowance score, the William Entenmann Novice at Belmont and now the Foxbrook. He's earned $176,400 to nearly match the $189,934 he earned on the flat for Phipps and trainer Shug McGaughey.
Pik Em, a son of Tapit, rallied from down town to win the Appleton, a handicap hurdle for horses rated 130 and below, for Woodslane Farm. Mikey Mitchell clawed back to a tie with Jack Doyle at the top of the standings. Overlooked in the betting, Pik Em paid $50.60 to win. The gray 5-year-old won for the fourth time over jumps, finding a niche after winning once in nine flat tries for Colts Neck Stable and trainer Alan Goldberg. Pik Em cost Colts Neck $350,000 at Keeneland September in 2015.
• Zanzi Win bounced back from two losses at Saratoga to win the newly created Harry E. Harris 4-year-old stakes. Introduced to Doyle for the first time, the French-bred son of Zanzibari won a wild scrum to the wire, diving between horses to oust stablemate Caldbeck and Emerald Rocket. Eight horses finished within six lengths.
Trained by Ricky Hendriks for Armata Stable, Zanzi Win won one race over hurdles for Dan Skelton before venturing here.
• Recent import Fearsome won the new version of the New Jersey Hunt Cup, a $50,000 stakes on the flat. Purchased for £80,000 at Tattersalls in July, the 5-year-old trounced a strong field with an inside rally that propelled him to a 1 ¾-length win over Surprise Twist and Deposit.
A winner of one race over hurdles and now seven on the flat, Fearsome was rated 96 on the flat and 130 over hurdles in England. Owned by Irv Naylor, trained by Cyril Murphy and ridden by Darren Nagle, Fearsome paid a cool $31.40 to win.