Lonesome Glory recap: Shirt Looks Crisp

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ELMONT, N.Y. – Tugging at the reins while sitting second, Good Night Shirt saw a sliver of daylight and attacked – launching from cruising speed to passing gear just before the seventh fence. One, two, three strides, he ran past his takeoff spot and stabbed at the fence – scraping through the plastic brush, landing awkwardly and losing precious momentum.

“I thought that might knock the stuffing out of him carrying the weight – it’s pretty tough on you,” said jockey Willie Dowling. “Another horse can’t finish the race after a mistake like that.”

But Good Night Shirt is not another horse.

Sent off as the 2-5 favorite in the $159,200 Lonesome Glory at Belmont Park Sept. 21, he survived the fence-bashing and eventually ran away with a 3 3/4-length win over longshots Sermon Of Love and Red Letter Day. Owned by Sonny Via and trained by Jack Fisher, the winner paid a meager $2.80 while getting the 2 1/2 miles in a course record 4:24.88.

More importantly, he won the race for a second consecutive year, captured his fourth straight Grade I stakes and put a hammerlock on the 2008 Eclipse Award – serving notice that he has no intention of backing down.

The jumping mistake actually helped the champion, who re-established his cruising spot behind pacemaker Red Letter Day.

“I was able to get him back and get him to relax after that,” said Dowling. “It kind of slowed him down a bit. If he flies that, I’m in front, they can take shots at me and then we don’t know what happens the rest of the race.”

The Lonesome Glory drew eight runners including New York Turf Writers Cup winner Dark Equation, Irish invader Dalucci, Grade I-placed Best Attack and multiple stakes winner Mon Villez, plus Sermon Of Love, Duke Of Earl and Red Letter Day. Good Night Shirt carried 158 pounds, giving away between four and 20 under the allowance conditions.

After a false start, Red Letter Day (Robbie Walsh) skipped to an immediate lead. Good Night Shirt set up in second with Dalucci, Duke Of Earl, Mon Villez, Best Attack, Dark Equation and Sermon Of Love filling out the chart. Down the long backstretch the final time, Red Letter Day still led by 2 lengths, followed by Good Night Shirt, Duke Of Earl and Dalucci. As Good Night Shirt went to Red Letter Day on the final turn, Dark Equation (Matt McCarron) also worked into the picture.

Straightening away at the quarter-pole, Good Night Shirt drew even with Red Letter Day and took over with a superb leap at the second-last. He jumped the last in the same style and surged away late. Gallant but outgunned, Red Letter Day and Duke Of Earl (Xavier Aizpuru) battled for the minor spots and were caught in the final yards by the late-running Sermon Of Love (Danielle Hodsdon).

Dark Equation was bothered by the right-jumping Dalucci at the final two fences, but flattened out to finish fifth, 6 1/2 lengths behind the winner.

Idle since the Iroquois in May, Good Night Shirt showed no rust, no lack of fitness, no real weaknesses.

“Going into the race I thought we were vulnerable with the weight and not running for four months – today was the day for people to beat us,” said Dowling. “But he was impressive. He’s so strong. I can’t believe a horse can go that quick from start to finish and not give up.”

A two-time hurdle winner in 2005 and a stakes winner in 2006, Good Night Shirt came into 2007 unproven at the highest level. He finished second to Mixed Up at Keeneland, defeated McDynamo and Sur La Tete in the Iroquois and completely made his case with autumn victories in the Lonesome Glory and the Colonial Cup.

The 7-year-old son of Concern came into 2008 like he still had more to prove – outsprinting Hip Hop at Atlanta in April, producing a near-perfect Iroquois in May and repeating in the Lonesome Glory in September.

Suddenly, there are no challengers for the massive chestnut whose career steeplechase bankroll stands at $694,493 (fourth on the all-time list). Fisher drew a comparison to timber great Saluter.

“When I was riding Saluter, if they wanted to go slow, I went to the lead and if they wanted to go fast, I sat out the back,” Fisher said. “With horses like this it doesn’t matter what you do, they’re the best horse. They dare you to beat them.”

And much of the time, you can’t.

Good Night Shirt has matured. He jumps better, relaxes more, controls the race with ease. He once jumped all his fences the way he did the seventh at Belmont. He used to drag exercise riders around the farm in the mornings; now he gallops in the back and conserves his energy for weekends.

“In the beginning, Saluter would run off in front, then he got where you could put him in behind and this horse is the same way,” said Fisher. “It helps them in the long run. I’ve tried to get (Good Night Shirt) to work better. He’s been working behind other horses to try to get him to catch them but he just lets them go. He doesn’t care too much.”

Until the races.