The Inside Rail

Mr. Hot Stuff. Once called the Paris Hilton of horse racing, you know, famous for being famous, he’s still the most famous horse in steeplechasing. Veteran seems to have lost a step with four subpar efforts this year, although he was only beaten 5 ¼ lengths in the Lonesome Glory. Is there any magic left?

I wrote that paragraph from a hotel room, a few miles from Far Hills Race Course, Friday night while analyzing the field for the Grade 1 Grand National. By Saturday afternoon, we learned that there was so much magic left.

Watching him, you could see Mr. Hot Stuff was traveling closer and better than what he’s shown in five losses this year. He was running free, jumping with verve. Coming up the hill the final time, the 11-year-old lowered his head and dug in, let’s face it, there have been times when his tenacity has been questioned. Not Saturday afternoon in the waning strides of the richest race of the year, Mr. Hot Stuff scoured and scrubbed, turning back time and nailing All The Way Jose and Modem in the final strides to earn his biggest win in a storied career. Three noses separated the first three finishers in the richest race on the steeplechase circuit.

Jack Fisher walked off the hill at Far Hills and shook his head, “That’s a once in a lifetime.” And he thought Mr. Hot Stuff had lost.

Known as the full brother to Travers winner Colonel John, for running in the Santa Anita Derby, Kentucky Derby, Belmont Stakes and other big races in his first career, Mr. Hot Stuff came to steeplechasing in the fall of his 4-year-old season.

I helped get him there.

I remember crafting an email to WinStar Farm’s Doug Cauthen about the enigmatic colt who was toiling on the flat. He was 1-for-18 and going nowhere. I knew it. They knew it. I called Mr. Hot Stuff’s trainer, Eoin Harty, who comes from a jumping background and was trying to put square peg in a round hole. He was all for it. So, I sat on the couch in the upstairs den of our house in Middleburg, Virginia and emailed Cauthen. Well, it wasn’t exactly emailing, you know, bang, bang, send. This was like carving letters into stone. It was part love letter, part break-up letter, part sales pitch, part resignation. I typed, deleted, typed, deleted, typed, deleted for hours. “If you want another option…before you drop him down…just throwing it out there…”

It’s tricky, you’re trying to plant a seed, offer an olive branch, without being critical, without being negative about a man’s horse. I guess I got it right, because Cauthen called me minutes after I hit send and we had a deal that afternoon.

And just like that, Mr. Hot Stuff was a jumper. I have to admit, I took a deep breath, this was a name horse. A horse chiseled from stone, perfection at every angle, the epitome of potential. If you were asked to draw a horse, you’d draw him, you wouldn’t change anything. Big, but athletic. Great walk. Arched neck. Shoulder matches hip. Enough bone to hold his body. His eye, his glare, could walk you off a plank. He doesn’t have lines, he has one line, one beautiful line, Munnings never did any better. If you’ve ever taken an art class, they tell you to draw in one long, flowing stroke. For Mr. Hot Stuff…the pencil never left the paper.

Saturday, he finished the masterpiece, producing the denouement to a career that had some captivating chapters, but was anything but framed. Mr. Hot Stuff – full-brother to Colonel John, Kentucky Derby starter, befuddling underachiever – had arrived. Eight years after a Kentucky Derby foray, but right on time.