Iroquois recap: Man’s Shirt

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NASHVILLE, Tenn. – If Good Night Shirt emerged in the 2007 Iroquois, he arrived in the 2008 edition with a performance that shouted professionalism, polish and panache. Last year’s steeplechase champion opened 2008 with a win at Atlanta April 12 in his typical style – overwhelming yet a little unkempt – thanks to a couple of jumping mistakes and a desperate final furlong. A month later in the $150,000 Iroquois, Good Night Shirt led at every call, timed his fences better than Kerron Clement (look it up) and won for the fifth time in his last six starts – all Grade I stakes.

“Today he became a man,” jockey Willie Dowling said. “He did a professional job. There was no sloppiness.”

No, the 7-year-old looked neater than Felix Unger this time around. Good Night Shirt broke alertly and took command on the long run to the first fence. Dragging Dowling without being rank, the champion set a controlled pace with Sweet Shani in closest attendance, followed by Bow Strada, Kilbride Rd, Best Attack, Fra Diavolo and Orison. Down the back the last time, Good Night Shirt resisted Sweet Shani’s pressure as Best Attack inched into the race. Still in front entering the final turn, Good Night Shirt caught his breath as the challengers launched final assaults. Best Attack (Chip Miller) got closest, but couldn’t match the winner’s stride in the stretch and finished 4 1/2 lengths from the front. Sweet Shani (Xavier Aizpuru) stayed for third. Good Night Shirt covered the 3 miles in 5:47 3/5 and became the 13th horse to win back-to-back runnings of the race (no one has won three in a row). He also improved to 3-for-3 over the course.

“Last year he was really impressive here, but you had two really, really good horses behind him in Sur La Tete and McDynamo,” said trainer Jack Fisher. “This year was pretty impressive too in a different way. He used to be Big Dumb Waldo, now he’s figured it out. He was like a big, dumb kid and now he’s got it. I hope he just keeps getting better.”

That would be something to see.

Good Night Shirt improved to 8-for-18 over jumps and padded his career steeplechase earnings to $598,973 – sixth on the all-time list behind McDynamo, Lonesome Glory, Victorian Hill, Sur La Tete and Rowdy Irishman. Owner Sonny Via bought what looked like a quality prospect late in 2004, but got far more. Good Night Shirt has won five Grade I stakes and heads back to Fisher’s Maryland farm for an extended break. Only late-season goals such as the Breeders’ Cup Grand National and Colonial Cup remain.

Fisher and Dowling worked to improve Good Night Shirt’s jumping after Atlanta, taking extra schooling sessions in advance of the 18-fence Iroquois test. Last year, Good Night Shirt provided a few anxious moments while still winning the first Grade I of his career. This time, all was well.

“To be honest, there were no anxious moments,” said Dowling. “Sweet Shani came to me before the third-last and from riding here I know you have to nail that third-last coming to the turn. If you nail that you’re almost home. He nailed it and he free-wheeled from there.”

Good Night Shirt galloped off the corner with a clear lead and rolled to the finish, serving notice that Eclipse Award challengers will have to go through his large chestnut frame.

“He’s a special horse, he really is,” said Via. “Early last year, Jack said something about him being a timber horse. I think maybe Jack talks to himself about things like that and hopes for better things. He puts low expectations on horses, but then when they outdo him it’s really something.”

– Three hours before post time at the Iroquois, Brooks Durkee peppered fellow jockey Chip Miller with questions – about the course, horses, strategy. Miller, who first rode at Nashville in 1991 and leads all active jockeys with 206 career wins, talked about making up ground (or not), saving ground (or trying to) and jumping (or its importance).

Durkee, an amateur riding his first NSA season since 2004, soaked it all up – and then some – as he guided Mon Villez to a perfectly timed score in the $35,000 Bright Hour amateur hurdle for owner Calvin Houghland and trainer Bruce Miller. A veteran of stakes wars with McDynamo, Preemptive Strike and Good Night Shirt, Mon Villez stood out in the eight-horse field but still had something to prove off two dull efforts this season.

And Durkee wanted to do his homework.

“You might as well get pointers from specialists like Chip, he knows the course and he knows the horse,” said Durkee. “Every little bit helps. It’s very hard to ride courses I might not be so familiar with because it’s been so long.”

Durkee hopes to stay familiar with the feeling Mon Villez gave him. The 9-year-old settled in the back early and followed Luongo into the race on the final run down the backstretch. Luongo (James Slater) led in the stretch, but was no match for Mon Villez late as the winner drew off to score by 2 1/2 lengths in 6:00 3/5 for the 3 miles. Delacroix (Desmond Fogarty) finished third.

“When Bruce says his horse is training well, it fills you with confidence,” said Durkee. “It was my race to lose. I’m on an old, class stakes horse. You look at the program and they’re younger horses, allowance-type horses. He made a run, nailed the last and got the job done.”

– The $50,000 Marcellus Frost, a 2-mile open hurdle stakes, looked like a set-up for Grade I winner Mixed Up – who stepped down from a third behind Good Night Shirt at Atlanta to the Grade III level and took on eight rivals with one career stakes win combined.

But results get posted after the race for a reason. Local owner Houghland completed a sweep of the early double with trainer Jonathan Sheppard’s other entry. Dr. Bloomer kicked away from the field at the top of the stretch and won by three-quarters of a length over recent maiden winner Spy In The Sky (Liam McVicar) with Jazzitupgeorge (Slater) third in 3:55.

“I thought with the light weight (142 pounds) maybe he had a chance, and he ran well here last year,” said Sheppard. “You never know. I can’t say I thought he was going to win.”

Robbie Walsh, aboard for the second time, only worried once.

“He jumped off to the first keen, jumped it well and (Quem Se Atreve) joined me and I was like ‘uh oh, here we go’ so I took him back,” said Walsh. “He listened, he came back and he stalked great then.”

Dr. Bloomer rated in his first four starts last year, but turned himself into a front-runner with a rank performance at The Meadowlands (charging to the lead and jumping erratically before falling at the sixth fence), another at Callaway Gardens (third after opening a big lead) and one more in the Carolina Cup this year. Things have gone smoother since.

“He was relaxed enough the last time at Middleburg, there just wasn’t any speed so we were in front,” said Walsh of a third behind Planets Aligned in the Temple Gwathmey. “He’s still a bit green and he acted like he needed a lead. Today, when I took him back he jumped super, much more fluently.”

Despite nine starts over jumps, Dr. Bloomer might still be learning his craft.

“He’s a big baby, an improving horse,” said Walsh. “Going to the third-last, I thought we were high-cantering. I looked around and there was no one coming. I was absolutely cruising.”

– Five filly/mare stakes make the “History of Important Races” section in the NSA yearbook. Guelph now owns victories in four after taking the $50,000 Margaret Currey Henley Memorial at Nashville.

Owned by The Fields Stable, Guelph (Aizpuru) controlled the race throughout and turned it into a romp with a huge leap at the last fence to win by 3 1/2 lengths over Jellyberry (Carl Rafter) with Class Shadow (Richard Boucher) third in 4:29 3/5 for the 2 1/4 miles. Trained by Tom Voss, 2005 filly/mare and novice champion Guelph added the Henley to a career that includes scores in the Peapack, Crown Royal and Sport of Queens stakes. She finished second (2005) and third (2006) in the only stakes to elude her, the Valentine at Fair Hill. The 7-year-old daughter of Sky Classic may get another chance at that race May 24.

Aizpuru dictated the pace, saving energy on the front end while bracing for a challenge.

“She’s a very professional horse, jumps very, very economically and saved herself a little bit all the way,” said the jockey. “When I needed a couple of big jumps at the business end of the race she gave them to me. I gunned it (at the last). I knew there was a pretty good shot she had enough in reserve to give me a jump like that. Any doubt we had before the fence was put to bed – I guess we crossed the Rubicon so to speak at that point.”

Whether Guelph’s last fence in Nashville deserves comparison to Julius Caesar’s move across a river to start a war in 49 B.C. or not, it was no doubt the point of no return. She kicked clear and won for the first time since her championship season. Plagued by various maladies including a broken withers, Guelph made just one start in 2006 and failed to hit the board in a trio of starts last fall. Those 2007 runs did help the Maryland-bred get fit, however.

“That’s a lovely mare,” said Voss simply. “With all the things she’s got wrong with her, she just keeps coming back. She’s always fit, it’s not like it’s any great thing to get her ready. They let her go an easy mile and you’re never going to beat her doing that. You  always feel good for the horse when something like that happens. She deserved a win.”

– New trainer, new jockey, same result. Back in 2006, Allimac showed up at Nashville for the $75,000 Mason Houghland Memorial timber stakes and blew the field away with a front-running clinic for Sanna Hendriks and Jody Petty.

Still owned by Irv Naylor, the Irish-bred now runs for Desmond Fogarty and Willie Dowling handles the reins. The 11-year-old galloped immediately to the front in the Houghland and handled all comers – kicking away from Music To My Ears (Calvin McCormack) and Woodmont (Jeff Murphy) to score by 22 1/2 lengths in 6:19 for the 3 miles. The winner never trailed and only looked stressed at a couple of fences. Otherwise, the race was a romp.

“He’s a class old horse, a lovely animal so he is,” said Fogarty. “He has to be in front because I don’t think you’d hold him in behind horses, he’d get rank. He relaxes in front.”

Following the Nashville score in 2006, Allimac didn’t run again until last October where he faded late after opening a huge lead in the International Gold Cup. The 17 months on the sideline were spent resting, recovering from some leg troubles and rebuilding fitness.

“I started him back around this time last year,” Fogarty said. “He jogged for two months and did a lot of swimming, got the leg good and tight. We’re careful with him. You have to get him fit without pushing it. It’s just patience and time.”

– Houghland’s two wins on the day delighted the home crowd, but he wasn’t the only Nashvillian to take a trophy at steeplechasing’s annual visit. Douglas Joyce, who runs as Trillium Stable, collected a win in the $25,000 maiden hurdle with veteran turf stakes horse Dreadnaught.

Trained by Voss, Dreadnaught ran over hurdles back in 2004 but then embarked on a flat career that included $600,000 in earnings and a pair of Grade II victories. That career dead-ended this winter with two dull defeats in Florida, so Voss and Joyce returned the 8-year-old to jumping. Second at Atlanta, Dreadnaught (Aizpuru) ran down runaway pacemaker So Amazing (McVicar) in the Nashville stretch to score by 3 1/2 lengths in 4:27 4/5 for the 2 1/4 miles. Debutante Hourigan (Dowling) finished third.

Voss doesn’t give Dreadnaught much credit for bravery, but does admit the horse has plenty of ability.

“He just doesn’t want to go by a horse,” said the trainer. “When he went by (Hourigan) he sort of picked up for about 100 yards but then he flattened out again. That’s the way he runs on the flat. Jerry Bailey was the last one to win a race on him and he said ‘you’ve got to make this horse do everything.’ He’s always been that way . . . I don’t know.”

Dreadnaught won twice on the flat in 2003 and finished second twice in three jump starts the following year. From there he competed against the likes of Better Talk Now, King’s Drama, Rochester, English Channel and Remarkable News. He last won in 2005 however – 23 races ago – and counts 11 second-place finishes among his 45 lifetime starts.

“The horse never impressed me – the way he gallops, anything, the way he works, he does not act like a good horse,” Voss said. “But he’s a beautiful horse when you sit on him, though. A little boy could ride him. He’d never run off. That’s just the way he is. This was the best place in the world for him to win though – good for the horse and good for Douglas.”