The 10 best races I’ve seen at Far Hills? Like looking for the 10 funniest things your kids have said. Narrowing it down is the hard part. So here goes, in no apparent order.
1. McDymano’s maiden win, 2001.
A few days before the maiden at Far Hills, Gus Brown put it bluntly when asked about McDynamo, trainer Sanna Hendriks’ first-time starter at Far Hills.
“He’s as good a maiden as we’ve ever had.”
And they’d had some good maidens. Exercise rider and stable jockey for Hendriks (then Neilson), Brown watched Grade I winners Pompeyo, Praise The Prince and Lord Zada come through the barn. In his steeplechase debut – Saturday, October 20, 2001 – McDynamo trumped them all. Ridden by Craig Thornton, the 4-year-old looked like anything but a beginner. He sat third early, motored three-wide around the final turn and powered away to win by 4 1/4 lengths under a hand ride. Brown finished second on Storm Touch.
It was the first of seven consecutive wins over the course for the future star. And I was there.
2. The National Anthem 2001.
It’s not a race but a moment. And it also happened in 2001. The National Anthem sung by Tony Bentley before the races even started. Thirty-nine days after the September 11 terrorist attacks in nearby Manhattan, race day came with tension. Security measures included helicopters, armed guards, K-9 patrols, special credentials. The day started with the National Anthem, sung by race caller and opera singer Bentley and 50,000 back-up singers. Midway through, the sound system failed – leaving Bentley silent to all but a handful standing close enough to the stewards’ tower. He never stopped singing – and neither did the crowd spread out at Moreland Farms. Spectators picked up where Bentley left off, and carried the song the rest of the way. At “and the home of the brave,” goosebumps and tears outnumbered horses.
3. The Appleton Stakes 1998.
Approaching Squall and Hudson Bay went at it like Ali-Frazier, trading strides and jumps the way the great heavyweights threw hooks and jabs. Neither gave an inch and they landed over the last on even terms. Approaching Squall (implored by Jonathan Kiser) wound up the winner by three-quarters of a length, Dictador arrived late to scoop up second and Hudson Bay settled for third.
4. The Appleton Stakes 1999.
Sundin. Remember Sundin? Nobody, ever, ran like Sundin. OK, maybe Bon Nouvel or Tingle Creek but they were before my time. The Augustin Stable speedster, named for a hockey player, skated off with a stakes win, wiring Greek Hero, Bisbalnese and others under a statue-still Kiser. They led every step, harassed throughout by Greek Hero, and won in style as part of a 3-for-3 season.
5. The Grand National 2004.
Of McDynamo’s five wins in the feature, this was the best. The turf was firm, the field was formidable and the race was poetry. Down the back the last time, he held a slim lead as first Sur La Tete and then Hirapour drafted into position, ready to strike. Just when it looked like he was going to take a breather and give the others life, McDynamo dropped the hammer – powering around the turn and sapping the strength from the closers. Hirapour made a run, but hung; Sur La Tete couldn’t match the winner’s gallop late.
6. The Foxbrook Novice 1992.
Future legend Lonesome Glory, 4, won in a shootout – charging around everyone late to win for Blythe Miller. The race could have belonged to Bel Ange, could have belonged to Hodges Bay, could have belonged to Green Highlander, Mistico, anyone. Then Lonesome Glory kicked in and won by a half-length to truly launch his stellar career. Less than two months later, he won at Cheltenham. Thirteen years later, he was in the Hall of Fame.
7. The Grand National 1994.
Warm Spell, Lonesome Glory, Declare Your Wish, Master McGrath, Mistico and Ninepins. The first year of Steeplechase Times, the first time I was at Far Hills as a journalist. You couldn’t imagine a better field of horses, and they didn’t disappoint. The last fence looked like The Man from Snowy River. Horses everywhere. Johnny Griggs’ chestnut warrior Warm Spell took over from Maser McGrath late with Lonesome Glory third.
8. The Samuel K. Martin 1978.
OK, this is a wild card. Owhata Chief, my father’s New Zealand-bred hurdler announced his American presence with his fifth (fifth!) consecutive victory – defeating Leaping Frog among others – in what was then Far Hills’ feature. I remember a photo from the last fence. His feet are above the plastic, Tom Skiffington perched perfectly in the stirrups. Chief was that good, when he got a chance. He was also so cool he could smell things – veterinarians, strangers, dinner, visiting Amishmen. Anything different in the barn, he’d snort from the corner of his stall. He could hear too, especially my father’s voice on race day. We told Dad to stay away – made the horse crazy. Owned by Augustin Stable, Chief fell at the first in the 1978 Colonial Cup one start after Far Hills – a punch in the gut for a 13-year-old kid. He won the Martin again in 1980, the Iroquois twice, the Noel Laing, the Bolla Stakes at Hard Scuffle in Kentucky, but I remember 1978 at Far Hills.
9. The Grand National 2010.
Scandinavian shipper Percussionist put on a show, running, jumping, flashing his way to the Grade I victory for Morten Buskop – the happiest owner I ever interviewed. By the great Sadler’s Wells, the winner did his sire proud.
10. The New Jersey Hunt Cup 2003.
Had to be one timber race in here. Charlie’s Dewan and Chip Miller put on a clinic – running, jumping, saving ground, arriving in time – to edge Sam Sullivan in the final yards of a 3 1/4-mile thriller.