Jack Fisher tells it straight. Always has. In the paddock before the Grade 3 Temple Gwathmey at Glenwood Park in Middleburg, Va., April 18, the eight-time champion trainer looked around at his four jockeys and offered brief instructions. He saved four-time champion Paddy Young for last.
“He’s been off two years,” Fisher said. “If you can win, win. But if you can’t, take care of him.”
Mr. Hot Stuff could win. And did win. Returning from a 20-month layoff, the 9-year-old son of Tiznow rallied on the inside to vanquish veteran Decoy Daddy. The latter, aiming at his third straight and fourth overall win in the $50,000 stakes, jumped with aplomb while leading most of the way but couldn’t stave off the winner, eventually succumbing by a neck while giving 10 pounds to Mr. Hot Stuff. Ten-year-old veteran All Together finished third, 22 lengths behind Decoy Daddy after 2 1/2 miles in 5:32.60.
Owned by Gillian Johnston, Mr. Hot Stuff continued to build on his improbable career. The full-brother to Travers winner Colonel John tried big things on the flat, finishing third in the Santa Anita Derby and 15th in the Kentucky Derby in 2009. He lost 14 in a row on the flat and was jumping by 2011.
Mr. Hot Stuff won two of four starts in 2011, then skipped 2012. He won two of five starts, including the Marcellus Frost and Grade 1 A.P. Smithwick at Saratoga, in 2013. Then skipped 2014.
“You said he was a good-looking horse but when I saw him, I said, ‘Wow, he’s even better than what you said,’ ” Fisher told me after the race. “It’s good for steeplechase racing to see that horse, after two years, come back in winning fashion.”
Editor’s Note: In one of his other careers, TIHR’s Sean Clancy put Fisher and Mr. Hot Stuff together.
The Temple Gwathmey win propelled Johnston to the top of the owners’ standings, helped Fisher open a three-win lead at the top of the trainers’ standings and catapulted Young – part of a triple on his first appearance on the NSA circuit in 2015 – to a tie at the top of the jockeys’ race.
As always, the Gwathmey attracted a well-established field. Mr. Hot Stuff returned from the longest layoff, but none of the seven horses had started this year. Ranging from from ages 7-13, the field had combined to earn $1.8 million over jumps and included former champion Pierrot Lunaire and filly/mare champion Kisser N Run.
Across the long Glenwood Park backside the last time, Decoy Daddy and Mr. Hot Stuff split it in two. Young eased Mr. Hot Stuff through on the inside to join Decoy Daddy. The Irish-bred continued to jump slickly and opened up again. They jumped the last together. With the inside advantage around the elbow, Mr. Hot Stuff eked it out by a neck.
Fisher was elated and worried.
“I don’t think he’s putting that much out at the end,” Fisher said. “But I still hope it wasn’t too hard a race. I thought he was ready but I know Decoy Daddy is very tough around here.”
Fisher accounted for 57 percent of the field, while looking for answers.
“Essentially, I put those four horses in there to see where to go next,” Fisher said. “All Together probably to the hurdle stake at the Gold Cup, this horse the Iroquois, Staying On the ratings race and Dahoud, I’m not so sure where to go.”
– Cornhusker returned to form in the Middleburg Hunt Cup timber stakes, rallying from the back to hold off Super Saturday by nearly 3 lengths. Jeff Murphy picked up the ride as Mark Beecher went to the Grand National and Kieran Norris opted to ride last year’s timber champion Hot Rize in the $30,000 stakes. Trained by Alicia Murphy for Armata Stable, Corhusker snapped a four-race losing streak, including a sixth at the Manor a week earlier. Murphy wasn’t worried.
“I think the ground had a lot to do with today, I never thought he had a problem with heavy ground but that’s what riders have come back and said,” Murphy said. “Last week at the Manor, even though he was second-to-last, it wasn’t that bad, watching the replay, I thought we would be OK.”
Murphy entered Cornhusker at the Grand National but opted to return a course where Cornhusker had won in 2014.
“I wasn’t worried about him coming back in a week, not the way he trained this week,” Murphy said. “He likes it here. He didn’t look that happy during the race but a lot of the race fell apart, it was easy for him.”
Fisher entered three in the timber stakes. Brave Prospect lost Sean McDermott with a mistake early, Young pulled up Rugged Rascal and Three Hundred pulled up coming to the final fence.
Imported from England, Cornhusker won twice over hurdles while with Tom Voss and has won four races over timber.
As for Hot Rize, trainer Russell Haynes was happy with his fourth, as he looked forward to the Virginia Gold Cup in two weeks.
“I told Kieran we needed a tune up,” Haynes said. “That’s exactly what I wanted.”
– Apprentice Gerard Galligan earned his third win of the year to tie Young and defending champion Willie McCarthy at the top. Galligan picked up a spare ride on Irv Naylor’s Saluda Sam who wired six rivals in the finale, the Alfred Hunt Memorial. Trained by Billy Meister, the 10-year-old South Carolina-bred jumped with authority to win easily over Schoolhouse Woods and Spy In The Sky. Saluda Sam improved his record over the steeplethon course to two wins, a second and a third in four tries.
– Young guided Stone Farm’s homebred Mandola to win the opener for Jonathan Sheppard. Last year’s champion 3-year-old Perfect Union finished second in his 4-year-old debut. Young also guided Sharon Sheppard’s Ajzaa to win a division of the maiden for his wife Leslie. Purchased for 7,200 guineas at Tattersalls July Sale in 2013, the son of Dynaformer led every step to turn back Naylor’s Ride Away and Tubal.
– Apprentice jockey Brendan Brooks won his first career race when guiding Bruce Smart’s In Todd We Trust to an easy win in the maiden claimer for Jimmy Day. The winner spent time with Todd Pletcher, David Jacobson and Joe Orseno before finding his way to Day’s stable. It was his fifth attempt over hurdles.
– Jockey Tom Foley won his first jump race since guiding Bow Strada to an optional claimer win in 2008, guiding Western Expression to win a division of the maiden hurdle. Foley had a successful career over jumps before switching to the flat. He won 57 races on the flat in 2009, then went winless in 2010, skipped 2011-13 and returned to riding jump races last fall. Eddie Graham trained the winner for Caves Farm. The son of Exchange Rate finished fifth and fourth in two hurdle starts last year. Western Exchange finished 14 seconds faster than Ajzaa.
– Champion Demonstrative enjoyed his second training flat race of the spring, winning the opener by a half-length over Dr. Skip and Maserati. Next stop, Iroquois. Last year, the Richard Valentine-trainee prepped once on the flat at Queen’s Cup before finishing sixth in the 3-mile stakes on the second Saturday in May.