Monday Morning Trainer: Jumping around as season closes

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Now that was an ending. Saturday’s Colonial Cup steeplechase meet closed the 2013 National Steeplechase Association season and fittingly featured plenty of final-day drama.

First the horses. The featured Colonial Cup, the sixth and final Grade 1 of the year, was meant to provide some clarity to the championship race. Instead, it added further parity – making jump racing seem like the NFL. You know the drill, “On any given Sunday/Saturday/Thursday/Monday, any team/horse can win.”

The $100,000 Cup, a November fixture on the steeplechase circuit since 1970, was Alajmal’s turn. Third in last year’s race as an upstart 4-year-old, he started the year as a second-season novice with a bright future that got even brighter with a victory in the Carolina Cup in March. Also run at Springdale Race Course in Camden, S.C., that race launched a losing streak instead of a success story as Alajmal finished sixth in a novice stakes at the Queen’s Cup, sixth again in a Colonial Downs maiden on the flat, fifth in a Parx maiden on the flat, 10th of 11 in the Jonathan Kiser novice stakes at Saratoga and sixth (beaten almost 50 lengths) in the Mickey Walsh novice stakes also at Saratoga.

Hall of Fame trainer Janet Elliot went back to the barn – and the drawing board – and found her old horse. Shedding more than two months away from the races, Greg Hawkins’ 5-year-old son of First Samurai emerged with a sharp training flat win at Aiken Oct. 26. Elliot didn’t even nominate to the Cup, instead supplementing the week of the race. He lived up to the faith, knocking off 2013 Grade 1 winners and title contenders Divine Fortune, Demonstrative, Italian Wedding and Gustavian.

When jockey Mark Beecher went down in the open timber one race before the Cup, Elliot tabbed veteran Xavier Aizpuru to substitute. He produced a textbook ride, staying out of a slugfest up front between Divine Fortune and Gustavian and charging to the front approaching the second-last. Alajmal drifted hard to his right after being hit once left-handed, but straightened up coming to the last fence and won by 3 1/2 lengths. Barnstorming and Italian Wedding rallied from off the pace to finish second and third with Divine Fortune fourth and Demonstrative fifth. Gustavian lost jockey Paddy Young with a blunder at the last.

The winner was bred in Kentucky by Shadwell Farm, but wound up in England where Elliot bought him as a 2-year-old at Tattersalls. 

Final time for the race was 5:07 3/5, the fifth fastest in history though the course has changed with the use of National Fences rather than natural brush the last three runnings.

It didn’t feel fast to Aizpuru, who picked up his second Cup win after taking the 2011 race with Tax Ruling.

“Everybody came back saying we were going a good gallop,” he said, “but I felt like we were just cruising ’round out there.”

“You always want to ride in these races and you’re picking up the ride on a horse who you know if he comes back to his best, you’ve got a shot in it,” Aizpuru said. “She’s battled this horse all year to get him back to his best and thankfully today everything fell into place. From the fourth to last he kind of came off the bridle but it wasn’t a stopping feeling, I was asking and he was still running, then it was a question of how much horse did I have compared to the others. Over the second-to-last, he gave me a good jump, then he started running around under me a little bit, so I knew I had horse if I could just get a good last fence and he gave me a great last fence.”

Aizpuru relished the opportunity to win another big one at this stage of his career.

“It’s unbelievable,” Aizpuru said. “I’ve fought all my career to win grade ones over here, and I feel like I’ve been unlucky on certain occasions, then you get a day like today where I picked it up literally minutes before the race, just happen to be here. It makes up for a lot of those disappointments.”

Playing Who’s the Champ?

The race did little to settle the Eclipse Award race, so the voting will be interesting. Six horses won the six Grade 1 races this year and one should be champion. Roll the die…

– Divine Fortune. Won the Grand National in October. Also won an allowance hurdle in April. Second in the Iroquois, third in A.P. Smithwick, seventh in Turf Writers and Lonesome Glory, fourth in Colonial Cup. Earned $207,000 to lead division.

– Gustavian. Won the Lonesome Glory in September. Second in Grand National and Grade 2 National Hunt Cup, third in Grade 3 Temple Gwathmey, lost rider in Colonial Cup. Earned $149,000.

– Italian Wedding. Won Turf Writers in August. Second in Smithwick, third in Lonesome Glory and Colonial Cup, eighth in Grand National. Earned $133,000.

– Demonstrative. Won the Iroquois over Divine Fortune in May. Sixth in New York Turf Writers, fourth in Lonesome Glory, third in Grand National, fifth in Colonial Cup. Earned $131,000.

– Mr. Hot Stuff. Won Smithwick in August. Also won novice stakes in May. Third in novice stakes in April, fourth in Grade 3 Zeke Ferguson and Turf Writers. Did not run after August. Earned $120,000.

– Alajmal. Won Colonial Cup in November. Also won novice stakes in March. Sixth (twice) and 10th in three other novice stakes tries. Earned $93,750.


Owner, Trainer, Jockey

The individual races were all up for grabs heading to the Colonial Cup.

YoungVoss– Nothing was as dramatic as Paddy Young’s last-race jockey championship. Tied with Darren Nagle heading into the day, the three-time champ won the season’s final race aboard Kingdom (photo at left). The winner was making his 10th start of the year and Young was still dusting himself off from a fall from Gustavian two races earlier. Young, 37, got that 16th win to edge Nagle and claim a fourth NSA crown in five years. Young won three straight 2009-11. Only Hall of Famers Dooley Adams, Paddy Smithwick, Joe Aitcheson and Jerry Fishback have won more. Young won the earnings race with $563,510. Nagle finished with 15 wins. Newcomer Sean Flanagan doubled at Camden to finish third with 13 wins, from just 49 rides.

“I’ve loved this horse from day one, we’ve had a lot of questions, every time I’ve come back, there’s been another excuse but I never lost faith in him. He stuck his head out and was brilliant,” Young said. “It’s mixed emotions. Darren is my best friend. We’re competitive, I know how much everybody wants to be champion, I’ve been there and done it, I would have been more than happy to share it with him. I thought after last year, it would never happen again.”

– Jack Fisher came into Camden trailing Jonathan Sheppard by two wins,  20-18, and looked destined for second place. Sheppard started 10 horses on the card, Fisher just four. Before the races, Fisher joked (or did he?), “I’ve got him right where I want him.” Three races into the six-race card, Fisher had forced a tie with wins by Schoodic and Straight To It. Sheppard went 2-3-4 in the Colonial Cup (while Fisher just watched). Fisher saddled favorite All Together for the Hobkirk Hill starter allowance, and the veteran turned for home battling for the lead only to settle for second behind Bodie Island. So the race ended in a tie. Wildly, Fisher had 26 seconds from his 120 starters. It’s the seventh crown since 2003 for Fisher and 25th since 1970 for Sheppard. The earnings race went to Sheppard with $836,810.

– Longtime owner Bill Pape collected his first seasonal championship with $551,310, dethroning three-time defending champion Irv Naylor by less than $50,000 despite making 44 fewer starts. Pape won 15 races and campaigned leading earner Divine Fortune.


Other Divisional Crowns

– Schoodic left no doubt about the country’s top 3-year-old as he won both stakes on the  year – the Gladstone at Far Hills and the Ray Woolfe at Camden – for owner/breeder Edie Dixon, trainer Jack Fisher and jockey Sean Flanagan. The son of Tiznow lost all five flat starts for Dixon and trainer Michael Matz, but is unbeaten in two jump starts.

“He was very, very impressive. His run at Far Hills, he was impressive towards the end of the race, but it took a little while to get going,” Flanagan said. “Today, he traveled all the way, jumped absolutely brilliantly, he’s a nice horse. His work at home before he ran at Far Hills, it hadn’t fallen into play. His run at Far Hills put every thing into motion. I was surprised at Far Hills, I wasn’t surprised at all today. His work stepped up at home from Far Hills, he’s improving all the time.”

– Bluegrass Summer wound up champion novice (for horses that start the year as maidens) based on three wins from six starts and $99,600 for Pape and Sheppard. The 5-year-old broke his maiden at Stoneybrook in April, added a Saratoga optional claimer and captured the Foxbrook at Far Hills. The son of Purge is a half-brother to graded stakes winners (on the flat) Laragh and Summer Front.

– Kisser N Run pocketed $95,400 for Clarke Ohrstrom and Richard Valentine, thanks to two wins and two seconds. The 5-year-old Pleasant Tap mare, a Florida-bred, won the Peapack at Far Hills and Crown Royal at Callaway.

– Maryland-bred Foyle ran away with the timber championship thanks to autumn victories in the International Gold Cup and Pennsylvania Hunt Cup stakes for Merriefield Farm and trainer Bruce Fenwick.

– It’s not an official championship, but the TIHR handicappers’ challenge went to Joe Clancy with 55 winners. Last year’s winner Sean Clancy wound up second with 48, followed by rookie Tom Law with 44. Everybody had two winners Saturday, headed by Address Unknown in the training flat. Joe came up with maiden Top Striker while Sean and Tom both had 3-year-old Schoodic. There were 188 races carded this year, and we missed the nine at Saratoga (too many commitments) so the batting averages are .307 for Joe; .268 for Sean; .246 for Tom. See you at the chalkboards next year.

Tod Marks photos from Colonial Cup.

NSA results from Colonial Cup.

NSA final season standings.