Kings Apollo returns over Shawan timber

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Want a horse to follow this weekend? Consider Kings Apollo. He runs in the open timber race at Shawan Downs in Maryland Saturday, and has a chance. He also carries some baggage.

He’s the last horse jump jockey Paddy Young rode in a race. Last May, 13 days after winning his debut in style, the English-bred son of King’s Theatre fell at Radnor – sending Young to the turf and into the path of another horse’s hoof. Young, a five-time National Steeplechase Association champion and winner of 198 races, suffered a traumatic brain injury and hasn’t ridden in a race since. He’s alive, walking, talking and working with horses in the mornings but he’s not a jockey – though he was on the winning team at the Real Rider Cup charity show-jumping competition over the weekend.

He will be known forever for the fall, but Kings Apollo carries on and returned to the races this spring. He won in May, just shy of a year since the fall, and his trainer Sanna Neilson tried to speak for her horse.

“If I get emotional, I’m sorry,” she said just outside the winner’s circle at the Winterthur steeplechase course in Delaware. “I’ll try not to . . .”

A tear fell out from behind the right lens of her sunglasses.

In parts of five years, Kings Apollo made 27 starts over jumps in England. He fell once.

In May 2016, Neilson spent a bit more than $36,000 of her brother Stewart Strawbridge’s money to buy the horse as a timber prospect. He schooled, he went foxhunting and in April 2017 won a point-to-point in Pennsylvania. Fourth in a maiden timber at My Lady’s Manor, he and Young teamed up in a maiden race at Winterthur and won by almost 5 lengths. Neilson aimed high next time, and entered the $30,000 Radnor Hunt Cup. The open stakes was a step up in competition but not all that rare for a timber horse.

Kings Apollo found a spot in second early, then took over the lead with a bit more than a lap to go. At the first fence past what would be the finish the next time, Kings Apollo caught the top rail with his hind legs, got pitched up in the air and fell. Young came off to the right and was hit in the head by another horse’s hoof.

Left with a fractured skull, a concussion and a broken C7 vertebrae, the jockey spent months in a hospital and rehabilitation center before slowly returning to health. He and his wife Leslie run a racing stable in Pennsylvania, and he’s a regular on horses most mornings. But he’s not a jockey.

Like Young, Neilson dealt with the aftermath.

“It’s been a lot,” she said in May, adding that it wasn’t near the burden Young carried. “Any other day, you know, he has a fall and everybody walks away and nobody remembers. But for him, it was like the . . . sorry . . . for him it was like this . . . oh, you know, this terrible black mark on him.

“And he’s a lovely horse. He doesn’t know. He made a mistake for sure, at Radnor. Maybe I made a mistake running him at Radnor but hindsight’s always 20/20.”

Friends, family, fellow trainers all told Neilson not to fret so much. Falls happen. Jockeys get injured. They know the risks involved.

“Sanna, you’ve got to let that go,” they said.

“When you give a jockey a leg up, you give them a leg up.”

“Everybody falls.”

The words helped, some.

“Oh it hangs there, I think about it all the time,” Nelson said. “It’s such a small community. Everybody sees it and knows it. I got a lot of support and some nice comments from people trying to help, but it was my horse. Here’s a guy, and it wouldn’t matter if it was somebody I know or didn’t know, but I adore Paddy. For him to have that injury on a horse that I really like was devastating to me.”

A former champion trainer who managed a big stable that included Eclipse Award winner McDynamo among others, Neilson runs a much smaller operation now and regularly rides her horses in the morning – Kings Apollo included.

“I ride him. I fox hunt him. I do everything with him,” she said. “I’ve run I don’t know how many horses, but thousands probably, and a lot of them not as talented as that one. Paddy wouldn’t have ridden him and I wouldn’t have asked him to ride him if I didn’t think a lot of the horse.”

KingsApollo2Bred in England, Kings Apollo has won two of his four American timber starts under NSA rules. Tod Marks photoKings Apollo didn’t race again in 2017, bypassing the autumn season in favor of some rest and a cleaner slate come this year. The 9-year-old emerged this spring with a third at the Cheshire Point-to-Point in March, a win at the Fair Hill Point-to-Point in April and then a win in the $40,000 Winterthur Bowl. Neilson wasn’t thinking much beyond that.

“We brought him along slowly this year and just took the path of least resistance,” she said. “We were not looking at Maryland. We were not looking at anything too tough. I wanted to rebuild the horse, get a little confidence in everybody. He ran fine at Cheshire, jumped really well, but flattened out. He ran back at Fair Hill and he ran nicely, but it wasn’t a terrific race. He won and I was happy with him but I wasn’t sure.”

At Winterthur, with Gerard Galligan aboard, he settled toward the back early before chipping into the race with bold jumps across the back loop. He led over the final three fences and won by 4 3/4 lengths while galloping out with his ears pricked.

If he knew he won, he didn’t say. But Neilson did.

“I’m happy for him to have won a nice race and to hopefully move on from that,” the trainer said. “Obviously, it’s a lot for me still. I’m happy for him, thrilled for the horse to come out and run like that in a race like that.”

Neilson’s teenage son Parker Hendriks led the horse to the paddock that day, and snapped the lead shank on afterward for the winner’s ceremony. Then he embraced his mother.

“Well that’s a relief, Mom,” he said.

Neilson accepted the hug, gave a little squeeze back and said all she could, “Boy, you’re not kidding Parker.”

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Saturday’s timber race at Shawan, worth $25,000, looks like a doozy as the 10-horse field includes 2017 timber champion Doc Cebu and 2016 timber champion Two’s Company, stakes winner Top Man Michael and course winner Rodriguez. The sixth of seven races on the card, which starts at 1 p.m., is a key prep for any number of October stakes – the New Jersey Hunt Cup, International Gold Cup and Genesee Valley Hunt Cup among them.

Also on the card at Shawan are two maiden hurdle races, the year’s first 3-year-old hurdle race, an allowance hurdle featuring Sail Ahoy, Notjudginjustsayin and With Rhythm among others and a maiden timber.

Shawan Entries.

Shawan Website.