Trainer Kate Dalton's 2015 already includes a career-high five wins, a likely novice hurdle championship and a medication violation she succeeded in appealing. A big finish would pretty much fit right into the script, and she goes for it with Diplomat in Saturday's Grade 1 Colonial Cup at Springdale Race Course in Camden, S.C.
"It's been a ride," Dalton said Tuesday from her base in Camden, S.C. "It's the first year I didn't run a single horse that I owned. Normally I have to own them too. It was a big year for me. I don't think I've ever had more than three winners in a year."
Actually, she'd never had more than two and will be represented by Diplomat and The Grange Saturday so the career year could get even bigger.
Dalton's five wins have come from just 12 starts and were paced by three from rising star African Oil. The first steeplechaser owned by major flat owner Gary Barber rose from question-mark maiden to Saratoga novice stakes winner of $93,000 in a single season. He also tested above the legal limit for the therapeutic joint medication methylprednisolone acetate after a win at the Iroquois in May. Dalton appealed and the case was tossed out (along with two others involving different trainers) based partly on misleading guidelines published in medication rules. African Oil went to the sidelines with a minor tendon injury after winning the Jonathan Kiser Memorial at Saratoga, but is aiming for a 2016 return.
He also isn't about to give up his spot as the big horse in Dalton's barn, even with Diplomat joining the stable last month.
"You will never get African Oil's ego to back down at all," said Dalton. "He stands at the webbing and tells everyone all about it, but it's very exciting for our small string to get a horse like Diplomat."
Claimed as the first steeplechaser for flat owners Adam and Rich Newman from Jimmy Day at Saratoga, Diplomat won his first start for Dalton in the $50,000 Zeke Ferguson Memorial at Great Meadow Oct. 24. Rating off the early pace, the 6-year-old swept past everyone to win by 6 1/2 lengths over Saturday rival Gustavian. Diplomat won the Carolina Cup at Springdale in March, but gets the toughest assignment of his career Saturday.
"I don't think he's at all outclassed," said Dalton. "I'm not sure about 156 pounds and level weights against those horses for 2 3/4 miles. I would love him if it was the Zeke Ferguson distance (2 1/8) or more of a handicap situation. But he's doing really well. He's in great form. There's nothing else I wanted to do. He worked really well this week. We're really pleased with him. He's come through everything with flying colors."
Diplomat went to the barn of flat trainer Charlton Baker after winning for Day and getting claimed for $40,000 at Saratoga. The Ramsey Farm-bred son of Kitten's Joy stayed in New York to prep for the Grade 1 Lonesome Glory at Belmont Park. Unsettled early, he vied for the lead on the final turn before fading to finish seventh.
Adam Newman lives in Charlotte, N.C., is a regular at the Camden meets and the family has young horses with the Camden-based Donna Freyer, so moving Diplomat to someone like Dalton - who trains with her husband Bernie at Springdale - was a natural. Also a steeplechase jockey, Bernie called Day before taking the horse. The Virginia trainer told him two things, good luck and to call him if he had any questions.
The Daltons have no questions.
"He's pretty nice, a classy horse," said Kate. "There's not a lot to learn about him. He pretty much is an old pro at this. I think the horse reads the board in the morning and sees 'Diplomat: mile-and-a-quarter,' and he does it. He's on autopilot. We both ride him, that tells you how good he is. Even I can gallop him. Nothing bothers him. He's a happy horse."
Diplomat didn't join the Daltons until two weeks before the Ferguson, thanks in part to the rain and flooding in South Carolina. Baker worked the horse 5 furlongs (1:02.02) at Belmont Park Oct. 8 and put the horse on a van headed south. Sixteen days later he won a stakes.
"All credit to Jimmy Day and Charlton Baker, we've only had him two weeks," Bernie said after the win. "I got Mr. Baker to work him before he put him on the van and then I worked him last Tuesday, he worked lights out, call the fire brigade, put the scorch marks out, he worked that well. I was coming here confident."
Tactics and race flow will play a role Saturday as Diplomat's best races are when he can get covered up behind horses and make a short, fast move late. He's never run beyond 2 1/2 miles (at Belmont) and the extended reach of the Colonial Cup will be a factor.
"He deserves a chance in a race like this," said Kate. "We were so proud of him int eh Zeke Ferguson. He ran so well and he came out of it bigger and badder. It'll work or it won't, and we'll be proud of him anyway."
NOTES: Diplomat (fifth on the earnings list with $123,750) is one of five hurdle horses to win three races this year - along with Bob Le Beau, Overwhelming, African Oil and Lune de Caro . . . Day (who made $135,000 in purses and claiming price with the horse this year) tried to sell a 50-percent interest in Diplomat at the inaugural Go Jump Racing sale of prospects in April, but bidding did not meet the reserve . . . Though bred in Kentucky, Diplomat raced in Ireland for Ramsey and Dermot Weld before being sold and switching to hurdle racing (where he won twice in Ireland) . . . Day bought Diplomat at the Tattersalls Horses in Training Sale last fall for $18,634 . . . Lune de Caro could usurp African Oil as novice champion with a win or a second in the Colonial Cup . . . Dalton said African Oil is on schedule to return to the races by next summer and also hopes to have 2012 filly/mare champion Cat Feathers back for next year . . . Saturday features a seven-race card worth $235,000. In addition to the Cup, headliners include the Raymond Woolfe Memorial for 3-year-old hurdlers and two divisions of a $25,000 ratings hurdle. Post time is 12:15 p.m.
Additional reporting by Sean Clancy.