Kate Dalton goes to her barn at the Camden Training Center in South Carolina every morning and thinks about African Oil, the French-bred gelding who might be the best rookie hurdle horse in the United States.
Paddock time is first. Then comes training. If the trainer doesn't get to either quickly, African Oil lets her know.
"He wants to be turned out as soon you get there in the morning and if you don't do it fast enough he immediately starts shredding his bandages - tape, pepper, whatever you want to put on them, it doesn't matter," Dalton said. "If you don't turn him out fast enough, the bandages are getting shredded right in front of you."
African Oil feels pretty much the same about training. The other morning, Dalton stopped to watch a video of a 2-year-old's workout on her phone while African Oil waited at the webbing. He pulled off his polo bandages.
Dalton and her husband Bernie, the 5-year-old's exercise rider and jockey, will put up with all that and more given the results. African Oil arrived at their barn March 2 as a roguish flat horse with two lifetime wins and a last-race chart comment of "bucking, pulled up." He made his hurdle debut with a third in late April, then won back-to-back starts - a $40,000 maiden hurdle at the Iroquois May 9 and a $35,000 optional claimer at Monmouth Park June 19. He's headed to Saratoga, and $75,000 novice stakes company, next.
The only speed bump in all of this was a therapeutic medication positive for a hock injection, which Dalton appealed, from the Iroquois win and that will do little to quiet the opinions of the son of English stallion Royal Applause and the Bahri mare Ahdaaf. In late June, the National Steeplechase Association vacated the ruling based on some confusion over the withdrawal times for the medication methylprednisolone in several racing jurisdictions. African Oil remained the race winner, and Dalton was not fined.
Bred by French farm SCA La Perrigne, he sold as a 2-year-old at Arqana for $103,000 and joined the stable of top English trainer Charlie Hills. The dark bay won his third start, at Lingfield, as a 2-year-old and won again the next summer at Bath. By November 2013, he was on the auction block again - purchased for $118,000 at Tattersalls by McCalmont Bloodstock and shipped to the California barn of Simon Callaghan for owner Gary Barber. The West Coast didn't agree with the import, who lost 11 consecutive starts - as lofty as an eighth in the Grade 2 Charlie Whittingham at Santa Anita last May and as lowly as the awkward refusal to run for a $16,000 claiming price at Golden Gate Fields in January.
That last move, for trainer Steve Miyadi, hastened a career change. Miyadi talked to his friend, jockey's agent Joe Griffin, about the horse and the frustration. Griffin, based in California but with loads of East Coast connections, suggested jump racing as an option.
"They were having trouble with him, the horse was a wild horse," Griffin said. "I didn't really do anything, other than say they should think about sending him back East. They paid a lot of money for him."
Miyadi told Barber, whose horses won $2.9 million in 2014, and the owner said to find a trainer. Griffin, who groomed top steeplechaser Exhibit A in the 1960s and worked for trainer John Campo when 1970 Grand National winner Lake Delaware was in the barn, called his friend Sheila Maloney in South Carolina. She suggested the Daltons.
"Joe Griffin called me and the next thing I knew I got a text message from Steve Miyadi," said Kate. African Oil vanned - yes, vanned - to Camden from California by way of Kentucky. It took five days.
"He absolutely strutted off the van like he owned the place," Kate recalled of her first impression. "He looked around and started grazing. I remember thinking that he looked awfully well for a horse who'd been traveling like that."
He's progressed ever since, though he nearly dropped Bernie two steps into a canter on the first ride at the training center. There have been few signs of the old antics, though he can buck like Bodacious the bull.
"When he gets pissy, his hind legs go everywhere," said Kate. "He doesn't freeze and buck. His hind legs look like a kung fu ninja warrior. He makes it very clear if he's not happy."
So they work hard to keep him happy with the early turnout time, lots of attention in the shedrow, varied training sessions and jumping over things. Dalton called her new horse a natural at that part of the game, but also gave the change of pace some credit in the horse's resurgence.
"As soon as we started jumping him, he thought it was fun," she said. "He loved it. He was a natural at it, he really liked it. From Day 1, he'd jump one and look for the next one."
The result is a horse who wants to train, likes what he does and can perform to the best of his ability. Dalton didn't count on the instant success and told Barber to be patient with his first steeplechaser. A late spring debut was the first goal, then maybe September. Instead, the horse made his jump debut eight weeks after stepping off the van.
"He seems like he's really embracing this," Dalton said. "He's a smart horse. He was running as hard as he could and not getting there on the flat. I'm sure that weighs on him. He's the big horse in the shedrow now. He just loves that. He thinks that is fabulous."
NOTES: There were three methylprednisolone violations this spring in races sanctioned by the NSA - Decoy Daddy at Middleburg in April, Tubal at the Virginia Gold Cup in May and African Oil at the Iroquois, also in May. The corticosteroid (brand name Depo-Medrol), is used to treat arthritis and other joint disease. NSA guidelines, which are based on the national rules crafted by the Racing Medication Testing Consortium, call for a withdrawal period of 21 days to test within the permitted level. Late last year, New York issued a memo to veterinarians and horsemen stating that treating a horse with Depo-Medrol could result in a positive test (with the same threshold level) up to 90 days after the injection and basically banned its use starting in January 2015. In each of the three steeplechase cases, horses were treated outside the 21-day period . . . In other stewards' action, trainer Kathy Neilson was suspended seven days, fined $1,000 and her horse EZ Mac was disqualified from a third in the steeplethon race at the Virginia Gold Cup race meet May 2. EZ Mac tested positive for flunixin and phenylbutazone, anti-inflammatory medications, in violation of Virginia Racing Commission rules. Neilson's suspension ended June 3 . . . Also at Monmouth Park, jockey Jack Doyle won two maiden hurdle races - the first aboard Gill Johnston's Dye Fore for trainer Jack Fisher and the second with Check Mark Stable's Kwacha for trainer Richard Valentine. Racing with blinkers on, Dye Fore erased two 40-length defeats to start his hurdle career, taking over from early leader Aheadofthecurve and holding off Daddy In The Dark to win by a half-length. The 4-year-old Giant's Causeway gelding won once in five French starts for breeder Joe Allen before being sold to Johnston. The Kentucky-bred raced twice on the flat with Graham Motion and became a steeplechaser this year . . . A 4-year-old gelding by Exchange Rate, Kwacha raced on the flat for his breeder Glen Hill Farm and trainer Tom Proctor. Now owned by Check Mark Stable (after getting claimed twice from flat starts), the Florida-bred picked up the pieces when Noble Bull tired late to win by 1 1/2 lengths. The winner finished second at Aiken early in the year and was fourth at the Queen's Cup (behind African Oil) . . . The TIHR handicappers did OK in Monmouth's three-race steeplechase slate. Joe and Sean tabbed African Oil ($13.40) to remain at the top of the leaderboard with 29 and 28 wins, respectively. Tom was blanked and has 25 on the year. Our advice in the first included "don't let Dye Fore go at too high of a price," and he paid $34.20 to win. Joe's three selections produced a $220.60 exacta box with Dye Fore and Daddy In The Dark. We completely missed on Kwacha, though he would have been a logical next choice with the scratch of Curmudgeon. In the third, Joe gave out the cold exacta ($122.20) of African Oil and Western Exchange . . . Next stop for the jumpers is Parx Racing July 11 and 12 . . . Doyle has won eight of his first 17 rides this year.