It’s a deck. A wooden rectangle, providing a level platform on the side of a grass bank, maybe 10 feet by 20 feet. It could sit overtop an inlet or a pond, a couple of fishing poles, a cooler, a place to watch the sun set.
Once a year, that platform turns into an observation deck for the spring’s best race meet, the Iroquois Steeplechase. Once that day, it becomes the point of collision for spectators and participants in the 3-mile Iroquois Steeplechase. The only 3-mile Grade 1 hurdle stakes in the country, this year’s Iroquois attracted five runners, three champions and a thousand points of view from the observation deck. The race started at 5:18 on May 9. It lasted 5:47.60.
“They’re crawling…He hasn’t stretched them out…But he’s gonna…All of a sudden…You’re in a great spot…Nice…Steady…Keeps going short…Here we go…Come on Jacko…Come on Tater Tot…Come on Paddy…Get a jump…Come on buddy…Come on Hot Stuff…He’s finished…Come on Paddy…He’s riding him…Come on Jacko…Paddy’s cruising…Come on Hot Stuff…Come on big horse…Get up there Willie…Go on son…Come on Demonstrative…Come on Jacko…He got it…He got it…He got it…”
The urging and imploring came from a group of fans and assistants, mostly tied to Demonstrative, Mr. Hot Stuff and Barnstorming as they were the last three standing in the battle of the titans. Demonstrative reeled in Mr. Hot Stuff after the last of 18 hurdles to win for owner Jacqueline Ohrstrom, trainer Richard Valentine, jockey Jack Doyle and assistant Laird “Come on Jacko” George. Billed as the race of the spring, the Iroquois delivered, as Demonstrative won a thriller over Mr. Hot Stuff and Paddy Young. Barnstorming and Willie McCarthy rallied to be third. Divine Fortune faded to fourth. Pierrot Lunaire was out-footed and wound up fifth.
Valentine – watching on the ground in the shade of another observation deck – walked to the top of the course and ran his hand over his forehead and face.
“That was scary. That scared the hell out of me,” Valentine said. “Holy ****. Holy ****. Holy ****. Oh, my God.”
Yeah, it was that good.
Valentine and George met at the finish line, as Demonstrative slowed to a walk at the bottom of Percy Warner Park, his second Iroquois victory in the books.
“Hey, buddy…” Valentine said to George.
“Well done,” George said to Valentine.
Just four words, but a lifetime of emotion after a day of emotion.
Embarking on his sixth season of steeplechasing, Demonstrative continued his prolific career with another round of stellar jumping and resolute stamina. But it wasn’t that simple.
Earlier in the day, Bonded fell over Long House Saint at the sixth hurdle in the novice stakes, sending jockeys David Byrne and Robbie Walsh to the ground. Byrne went to the hospital with a broken neck. Walsh, Demonstrative’s regular jockey, returned to the scales at the top of the course with a look of anguish. Not so much about his dangling left arm, a plastic bag caught on a tree branch, but because he knew he was giving up the best he’d ever ridden. Valentine went to work, asking a friend about a replacement.
“Jack?” Valentine asked.
“It’s a slam dunk,” his friend said.
Valentine offered the ride to Doyle as he slipped off novice stakes winner Syros.
Walsh melted onto a plastic chair in the jocks’ room and grimaced as Mark Beecher placed a makeshift bag of ice over his shattered collarbone.
“Of all the days…” Walsh said.
Moments later, Walsh opened the book to Doyle.
“He pretty much ran me through step by step exactly how he would be through the race,” Doyle said after the Iroquois. “He said he could get a bit keen and then he might drop the bridle, just let him do his thing, don’t force his jumping, he can take one on in his stride and he can go down and pop the next one, he said try not to get to the front too soon, he will just idle. He was pretty much spot on with everything he said. He never really got keen at any stage, he switched off, once I got him rolling after two out and upsides I thought he was going to win, he’s tough, he wants to win.”
Relaxing early, Demonstrative found a sweet spot off the pace set by main rival Divine Fortune. The quintet jumped with alacrity and galloped in rhythm, jumping hurdles like waves over jetties. Down the backside the last time, Divine Fortune held a tenuous lead, his usual flamboyance tempered, allowing Mr. Hot Stuff and Demonstrative to roll to him as they climbed the hill. At the fence on the turn, 16 of 18, Mr. Hot Stuff took over as Demonstrative rounded past Divine Fortune. Turning for home, Mr. Hot Stuff cruised to the front as Doyle slipped Demonstrative to the inside and McCarthy angled Barnstorming to the outside. Mr. Hot Stuff and Demonstrative leapt at the last together, Mr. Hot Stuff marginally in front, until pecking slightly on landing, a final sliver of light offered to Demonstrative. Last year’s champion landed smoothly and set off determinedly, a boulder running down a mountain, stamping a neck decision on Mr. Hot Stuff. Barnstorming ran gamely, finishing 5 1/2 lengths behind Mr. Hot Stuff in third. The time was slow, more than 5 seconds slower than the restricted Bright Hour earlier in the day.
For Doyle, it was a career moment. The British-based jockey took a busman’s holiday at Saratoga last year, winning two races, including the Grade 1 A. P. Smithwick Stakes. Doyle went home and plied his trade, a journeyman in a journeyman-heavy game, he returned to America the weekend before the Iroquois, a three-year visa in hand and a plan to stay.
“Good to be back. Robbie was gutted not to be riding the horse but he wished me all the best. I’d say he was happy the horse won just disappointed he couldn’t ride him. One man’s loss is another man’s gain, I wasn’t going to say no,” Doyle said. “I had 10 winners through the winter, good rides are hard to come by, this is like getting on Kauto Star for the King George, it would never happen at home, there would be 20 lads in front of you.”
There weren’t 20 lads at Nashville, much less in front of Doyle.
“He’s some horse. He traveled then he went dead on me and it took him a while to get going, when he did, he just took off. It was brilliant,” Doyle said. “I was happy the whole way until we jumped three out and the second horse has just quickened up, got a couple of lengths on me and I thought I was going to struggle to get him back, he winged the last and landed running, he was always going to get there then. It’s a super feeling, you have to feel for Robbie but I was delighted to ride the horse.”
Doyle had quelled Valentine’s concerns with a flawless cameo on the sport’s best horse.
“My biggest worry was Jack never riding him, I said, ‘Jack, Matt McCarron and Robbie Walsh are the only people to ride this horse and you’ve never seen two quieter people in the wings, let him jump out of your hands, if you see something, you can encourage him but don’t shuffle him and knock him about,” Valentine said. “You could see a few times where he kind of encouraged him but not as much as he could. He was good, he let him jump. I didn’t think we were going to get there coming to the last.”
Demonstrative got there for the 12th time in his hurdle career, improving his lifetime earnings to $909,800. Only multiple champions McDynamo, Good Night Shirt and Lonesome Glory are ahead of him on the all-time earnings list.
“What do they say, you can’t buy class,” Valentine said. “He’s a horse of a lifetime. He’s so easy to train, he keeps you humble, he’s pure class.”
– It was a simple question. With complicated answers. That’s what you get when a maiden claimer becomes a novice stakes winner in a span of 53 weeks.
Syros broke his maiden for a $20,000 tag at the Virginia Gold Cup last May. Since that win, he’s produced a claiming flat win over the turf at Belmont Park, a Saratoga hurdle win, four seconds and a romp in the Marcellus Frost Stakes at Nashville.
So, the simple question – why is he better than he was?
Owner Gill Johnston: “I think we found out the way he likes to run a little bit. He likes to get out front if he can.”
Trainer Jack Fisher: “I have no idea. His confidence at his fences is much better. He wasn’t a bad jumper, but he’s gotten better. He wasn’t brilliant at it. Some learn faster than others. He jumped fine but now he’s more confident.”
Jack Doyle used Syros’ confidence to produce a front-running scourge over 10 rivals. The 7-year-old son of Dynaformer opened up at every call to win by nearly 6 lengths over Mandola and last year’s champion novice All The Way Jose (who was disqualified to fourth for interference with Choral Society at the last hurdle).
Doyle, aboard at Saratoga, jumped at the opportunity for a reunion.
“I was happy because I rode him at Saratoga, he’s tough, he has loads of experience, he loves it up in front and he just galloped them into the ground today,” Doyle said. “I was always happy, I was always bringing him back, trying to save a little bit. Once I turned in, I knew it was going to take something to quicken a good bit to get by him. You just do what you feel is right for the horse at the time, just do the right thing, the racing isn’t that much different than it is at home.”
Waiting for the Frost to become official, Doyle smiled at what had just happened and smirked at what was about to happen.
“It’s a good start anyway. I had a winner last week and another one today,” Doyle said. “And I just picked up a spare on Demonstrative as well…it’s going well.”
About three hours later, well turned into monumental.
– And that makes three. Cornhusker finished off 9 1/2 miles and 21 days of perfection with another stellar effort in the Mason Houghland Memorial. Armata Stable’s son of Dynaformer won his sixth timber race since converting in September 2013.
Rated comfortably in mid division, Cornhusker crept closer going down the backside and attacked when asked by jockey Mark Beecher. Flying through on the inside of a phalanx of horses at the second-last, Cornhusker wrestled the inside and the lead and drew off to win by 7 ¾ lengths over former Iroquois winner Tax Ruling and Peace Fire.
Trained by Alicia Murphy, Cornhusker vaulted to the top of the timber standings, $1,000 head of Murphy’s other star, Grinding Speed. After Nashville, the duo sat second and third behind Demonstrative in the overall standings. Three of the top six spring earners are timber horses.
With a 5-for-12 record this spring, Beecher led all jockeys in money won and sat second in races won after Nashville. He looked confident while biding his time aboard Cornhusker.
“I wouldn’t say confident because I thought that was a good race and he was giving 10 pounds to some nice horses, I was in a bit of a pocket but I knew if I could just bide my time and fly the second-to-last it would pay off and it did pay off,” Beecher said. “Having that bit of class to get me there was always important, if I don’t have that…he’s a clever horse, you have to know him, if you lay down and throw your hat at it, he’ll go from the same spot, he’ll take off. I knew I was in a pocket, I said, ‘if I’m going to win it, it’s **** or bust.’ “
Cornhusker started the year with a sixth at My Lady’s Manor, followed that with a win in the Middleburg Hunt Cup a week later, took a weekend off and won the feature at Winterthur. Six days later, he won the Mason Houghland Memorial at Iroquois. Murphy tried Lasix in his final start last year and his first start this year, he’s undefeated since abandoning the anti-bleeding medication.
– Cash from the clouds fell earlier in the card as well. Darren Nagle capitalized on Walsh’s misfortune when picking up the ride on Kisser N Run for the Margaret Currey Henley Hurdle Stakes. Walsh had ridden Clarke Ohrstrom’s mare 11 consecutive times before Saturday. Nagle deputized with aplomb, settling the daughter of Pleasant Tap, waiting for her stamina to kick in and sliding through on the inside to win comfortably. It was her sixth career victory over hurdles, improving her career earnings to over $230,000.
– You don’t see the word “bucking” on a horse’s chart very often. For good reason. African Oil’s final start on the flat contained the term. The 5-year-old French-bred finished his flat career in a $16,000 claimer going 6 furlongs at Golden Gate Fields in California, failing to go a furlong before propping, stopping and bucking. Back to the drawing board? This was like going back to the crayon factory.
Owner Gary Barber needed a new plan and made one with the help of Sheila Maloney. The Camden-based horsewoman recommended jumping and recommended Kate and Bernie Dalton. Three months later, African Oil made his debut at Queen’s Cup, finishing third. Two weeks later, he won the best maiden race of the year with an effortless romp over seven rivals. Bernie Dalton placed the son of Royal Applause in a perfect spot, bouncing between third and fourth, before dispatching pacesetter Yellow Mountain with ease. Miguel Grau rallied to be second while Yellow Mountain faded to third.
– Women hit for the trifecta in the Bright Hour. Carol-Ann Sloan guided Charminster to a nose win over Bethany Baumgardner and Tempt Me Alex. Keri Brion guided One Giant Step to be third. The Bright Hour offered a bonus to the winning owner if the horse was ridden by an amateur rider in the 3-mile ratings race. The first three home qualified for the bonus, with Irv Naylor capitalizing from the photo-finish win. Thanks partly to a hot early pace, Charminster finished 3 miles five seconds faster than Demonstrative in the Iroquois.
Now trained by Cyril Murphy, Charminster finished second in the New York Turf Writers Cup in 2012, won an optional claimer at Middleburg in 2013 and just missed behind Virsito at Saratoga in 2014.
– Jonathan Sheppard took the opener with Kings Giant. Maggie Bryant’s 5-year-old is 2-for-2 over hurdles and added a $9,000 paycheck to pay some summer bills with a facile score in the training flat. Recent import Meteroid finished second with Chardsey third.