The day before the New York Turf Writers Cup, Tom Voss and JonathanSheppard, trainers of four of the seven jumpers entered in the $100,000Grade I steeplechase stakes go through their morning routine at theOklahoma Annex.
With a day to go, Slip Away, Planets Aligned, Mixed Up and Sermon Of Love have already been cranked and tuned for the season’s biggest jump race. Wednesday is for keeping it on simmer, the boiling’s over.
Voss and Sheppard take three horses to the infield turf when it opens at 8. Thinking there will be Turf Writers’ action, a writer scurries across the Oklahoma dirt as Paul at the gap cracks the whip.
“You’ve got a shot now,” Paul says. “Two galloping, come on, come on.”
Voss gives final instructions to Peter Buchanan on Slip Away and Barry Watson on Dynaski (next week’s winner) and Sheppard sends out Three Carat, off since March, 2008, for some extra tutelage over the two infield hurdles.
While peering from under a Belmont Park hat, Voss hassles John’s Call for trying to eat grass as Slip Away gallops twice around the inside turf. Buchanan braces against the gray gelding’s heavy head as he pounds the ground like he’s running through a snow drift.
The Turf Writers candidate picks up speed with each passing turn.
He pulls up, turns, walks home, no problem.
Voss is happy, well, as happy as he gets.
Danielle Hodsdon aims Three Carat at the two hurdles, he jumps like an old pro (about two months behind schedule for a start in the Turf Writers) and heads home.
Back at the barn, Voss checks his watch and concedes defeat in the race to get Planets Aligned to the infield turf.
“Take the tack off that horse, we’re going to have to wait with him,” Voss says.
Sheppard orchestrates his next set – Lead Us Not and Parker’s Project – as his Turf Writers horses wait. Sermon Of Love, dirt all over him, leans out over his webbing. Mixed Up sleeps, head low in the front corner of his stall.
Lead Us Not and Parker’s Project jump two fences and then breeze once around. Sheppard’s happy with both, the Odd Couple of the Annex. Lead Us Not looks like a Warmblood, Parker’s Project looks like a shortstop making a double play.
Steve Bass and Julien Leparoux visit Sheppard’s barn, talk to Hodsdon about Informed Decision’s breeze. She goes much quicker than Sermon Of Love or Lead Us Not.
Hodsdon hops from an upside down muck tub and into the saddle atop a big, bay, placid gelding.
“How’s that horse?”
“This horse? He’s good,” she says with a smile about Sermon Of Love.
At 9, Sermon Of Love and Sobee jog for three minutes around the Annex jogging trail, four times to the right, cross through the middle, four times to the left. Sermon Of Love goes like a jumper, head down, logging the miles.
At 10:27, Buchanan gallops Planets Aligned slow and balanced during the regular turf session. Braids in his mane, the Fox Ridge Farm homebred moves easy and sweet. He’s a pro.
A half-mile behind Planets Aligned, Hodsdon compromises with Mixed Up, the 10-year-old veteran canters around the first time, well out from the rail. The second time, he’s one wrong move from going too quickly. Ten years old and loving life.
Back at the Annex, Planets Aligned walks under Sheppard’s trees. Mixed Up gets a bath. Slip Away eats hay. Sermon Of Love observes it all, he looks like a security guard at the Union Avenue gap.
“What are you doing hanging around here?” Voss asks a writer.
“Just observing these stake horses.”
“Misfits,” Voss mutters.
Buchanan takes off his helmet and flak jacket; smokes a cigarette and drinks the last cup of coffee. Voss sits on a bucket and fills ice boots.
Planets Aligned gets turned out in the round pen. He rolls on his right side, groaning in peacefulness. Gets up and switches sides, same groaning.
As he’s getting up, Voss clucks to him.
Planets Aligned, with 2 miles behind him Wednesday and 2 miles ahead of him Thursday, hops up, squeals and leaps in the air.
“You’re alive,” Voss says.
Reporting for this article was done Wednesday morning. Writing for this article was done Wednesday afternoon. Then everything changed by Wednesday evening. Voss scratched Planets Aligned because of a worrisome leg. Buchanan jumped to Slip Away, Xavier Aizpuru switched to Sermon Of Love and Hodsdon went to Mixed Up. Crazy game.