When Good Night Shirt tried to run off during a hack last month, Jack Fisher didn't think much of it. Ex-racehorses will do that sometimes and perhaps the Shirt had a flashback.
When Good Night Shirt jumped out of his field and ran to the gallop and put himself through a strenuous 2-mile session one chilly morning, Fisher didn't think much of it. The Shirt always liked to jump and train. When Good Night Shirt outworked stakes winner All Together on what was supposed to be a mere jog up the hill, Fisher didn't think much of it. Shirt could always turn on the speed when he needed it. When Good Night Shirt ate an entire bag of Equine Senior feed, Fisher didn't think much of it. When Good Night Shirt broke into the tack room and put on his old racing tack, Fisher didn't think much of it.
But when the two-time champion dug a hole in the center of his stall that looked suspiciously like the green and yellow silks of leading owner Irv Naylor - whose stable includes 2011 title contenders Black Jack Blues, Decoy Daddy and Tax Ruling - Fisher started paying attention.
"Maybe he was trying to tell us something, so we started doing a little more with him," Fisher said. "He was feeling good, sharp, almost crazy, really hard to ride. The vets say his ankle is fine now - fused, knitted or something. They called it a miracle."
And here he is. Good Night Shirt, champion steeplechaser of 2007 and 2008 but unraced since 2009, appears on the nomination list for the Grade I Colonial Cup (to be run Nov. 19 at Springdale Race Course in Camden, S.C.). Nominations closed Tuesday with 14 horses signed on: Arcadius, Black Jack Blues, Decoy Daddy, Divine Fortune, Dynaski, Here Comes Art, Italian Wedding, Lead Us Not, Nationbuilder, Organisateur, Sermon Of Love, Tax Ruling and Your Sum Man joining Good Night Shirt on the list.
It all started harmlessly enough. This year, the Cup is honoring Good Night Shirt and four other horses who managed to win the Colonial and Carolina Cups in their careers. The rare double has been done just five times - by Good Night Shirt, Lonesome Glory, Mistico, Moonstruck and Zaccio. Race organizers wanted a visit from the champ so Fisher started riding his horse, owned by Sonny Via, as a lead pony, then as a jogging mate, then as a galloping mate, then as a work mate.
"We couldn't take him to Camden without doing something with him," said Fisher, whose horse retired with a serious ankle injury that required surgery. "He was fat and out of shape. It would have been bad for his image and a little hard on him too. We didn't want to embarrass him, so we started riding him - simple stuff, walking, jogging, whatever - just to get the weight off him and to get him ready for the van ride. Then he got fit."
And turned back time. Now 10, Good Night Shirt won a dozen jump races including two Colonial Cups, two Iroquois, a Grand National, a Zeke Ferguson, a Georgia Cup. The powerhouse chestnut ruled the sport for two seasons including a perfect 5-for-5 campaign in 2008. The Maryland-bred son of Concern wore out other horses with a withering gallop and stamina that knew no end.
Fisher sent the horse to Swedish new-age veterinarian Dr. Uno Thisisnttrue, who put Good Night Shirt through a full battery of experiments and pronounced him racing fit.
"Undoubtedly, indubitably, undeniably, irrefutably, unquestionably, he can run a very good race tomorrow," said Dr. Thisisnttrue, known the world over as an equine psychic and follower of the great Dr. Will Lafalitl. "We have done all of our tests - including the most cutting-edge equine mind analysis - and he passed."
Lafalitl and Thisisnttrue are famous for their work with baseball pitcher Sidd Finch, who came back from a dozen years of retirement to regain his All-Star form in the 1970s.
But is Good Night Shirt ready for a comeback? Fisher won't commit to running until the day of the race, but . . .
"The hole in the stall did it," the trainer said, sounding like a man who'd seen a ghost. "I wasn't even thinking about running until I saw that. I walked into the barn, said hello to the Shirt like I always do and he was in there digging and pawing and causing all kinds of problems. I turned him out just to get him out of the barn and when I came back in I saw it."
Good Night Shirt had arranged his hay (green) into the shape of jockey silks. Then he added some straw (yellow) to make the deep yoke of the Naylor silks and outlined the yellow in white from some shavings that were in the bottom of the stall. Call it magic, call it an omen, call it a sign, call it some sort of odd coincidence but Fisher believes.
"Show me a horse who can do all that and I'll show you a horse that can still run a race," the trainer said. "We put the Steeplechase Times with Black Jack Blues on the cover in front of him and Shirt went berserk. He got so mad. We had to gallop him 8 miles that day. We'll give him another week and see how he is, but he sure acts ready to run. I'm convinced."
The rest of us will have to wait and see.
- Joe Clancy