Music City Matchup in the Iroquois

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It’s the best starting five since Gretzky, Tikkanen, Kurri, Coffey and Huddy. Only these five have all of their teeth. Saturday’s Iroquois Steeplechase – a 3-mile, $150,000 rumble – attracted a standout group led by two of the sport’s five all-time leading earners in Demonstrative and Divine Fortune.

Those two and Pierrot Lunaire have won the last three steeplechase Eclipse Awards and each has an Iroquois win. Newer names Mr. Hot Stuff and Barnstorming add to the depth and make the year’s first Grade 1 jump race a worthy headliner on a $415,000 day of racing. 

The field, in post-position order:

1. Demonstrative. Champion steeplechaser of 2014. Iroquois winner in 2013. Eleven wins in 28 starts over jumps, $819,800 in earnings for Jacqueline Ohrstrom, Richard Valentine and Robbie Walsh.

2. Pierrot Lunaire. Champion steeplechaser of 2012. Iroquois winner in 2009. Five wins and $502,247 earned. Spotty schedule the last few years for Mary Ann Houghland and Bruce Miller, but 11-year-old’s best work has come here. Kiaran Norris rides.

3. Barnstorming. Second in three Grade 1 stakes, he could be a breakthrough horse for new partnership Around The Ben, trainer Jonathan Sheppard and jockey Willie McCarthy. Least-accomplished horse in field, but no doubting quality.

4. Mr. Hot Stuff. He ran in the 2009 Kentucky Derby and placed in the Grade 1 Santa Anita Derby. He’s a full-brother to the sire Colonel John. And the 9-year-old has won half of his 10 jump races for Gill Johnston and Jack Fisher. Paddy Young gets board for the fourth time – they’ve won twice including the 2013 A.P. Smithwick and this year’s Temple Gwathmey. Should be sharp off that race.

5. Divine Fortune. He won this last year in a truly dominant performance – leading throughout, applying pressure with his jumping  and turning aside all challengers for owners/breeders Bill Pape and Jonathan Sheppard. Darren Nagle rides the 11-time winner and earner of $801,390. Makes 41st start over jumps.

The race revolves around Divine Fortune. The 12-year-old Royal Anthem gelding is too good at what he does to be ignored and will make an impact from the start with his front-running, bold-jumping tactics. Last year, he put a weaker field on the ropes early and knocked 

them out over the final half-mile. The 2013 steeplechase champion opened and closed 2014 with Grade 1 wins, but lost the title vote to Demonstrative (who won three Grade 1 stakes). This year, the Pennsylvania-bred prepped with a third on the flat at the Queen’s Cup April 25 and spent the two weeks since in South Carolina after a long, cold winter.

“He seems better than ever,” said assistant trainer and exercise rider Keri Brion. “We had a hard winter, but he did a lot of snow galloping which he loves. It gets them very fit.”

Divine Fortune packs plenty of personality into his lanky frame to go with all that ability.

“He doesn’t really like you to pet him,” Brion said. “He likes to watch everything happen, but he doesn’t really like attention, in our barn anyway. But he’s super cool to be around. It’s his world and he does what he wants. He’s spoiled rotten. He doesn’t owe anybody anything and he knows that. He has a high-pitched whinny that pierces your ears and any other horse we’d probably move to the other barn. But that’s Fortune.”

Brion will watch her favorite horse try to deliver another big performance on a big stage Saturday, though it won’t be easy. He and Demonstrative have traded punches for more than three years now – making 13 starts together. Demonstrative has won five, Divine Fortune three. Head-to-head, Demonstrative has finished in front of his rival eight times.

At the Iroquois, they’re all square at one win each and the familiarity breeds some predictability – on paper anyway.

“The horses have all run against each other on numerous occasions,” said Walsh, who rides Demonstrative. “It kind of simplifies it really. You know where everyone’s going to be more than likely.”

Divine Fortune is going to be in front. Demonstrative will aim to stalk, from a comfort zone in second or third. Mr. Hot Stuff probably wants the same trip. Barnstorming might be a bit farther back early and Pierrot Lunaire does his best running from the back – though his last win came in 2012.

“Divine Fortune is there to be shot at and you have four pretty decent horses behind him trying to get the better of him,” said Young, who rides Mr. Hot Stuff. “That’s a much harder task than you’d think because he’s not an easy horse to pass.”

At Nashville, jumping becomes a weapon for Divine Fortune. Nagle can inject speed into the race with a big jump, or take speed out of the race with a more conservative leap. Behind him, horses and jockeys try to adjust.

“All you have to do is get in close to one fence and you’re playing catch-up,” said Young. “Last year, going around the turn to the third last he picked it up again and he put us under pressure that far out. He puts that pressure on you at the wrong time. It’s a very tactical race looking at it on paper.”

Young likes his chances on Mr. Hot Stuff, whose conversion from top-level flat horse to steeplechaser is well-documented. The son of Tiznow has missed time with injuries, but is 5-for-10 over jumps with a Grade 1 win in 2013 and a season-opening score over ultra-tough Decoy Daddy at Middleburg last month. Young’s never ridden Divine Fortune or Demonstrative, but wouldn’t swap mounts Saturday.

“Mr. Hot Stuff deserves to go there and have a shot at it,” the jockey said. “Coming from such a layoff, I thought he jumped better (at Middleburg) than the other times I rode him. The best thing with him is to get him to switch off a little bit. We’re all just going to give ourselves as good a chance as possible to take on Divine Fortune when we want to.”

Demonstrative has taken on Divine Fortune plenty, including a neck win in the 2013 Iroquois and back-to-back wins over his rival last September and October. The 8-year-old son of Elusive Quality prepped with two training flat races – a second at the Carolina Cup in late March and a win at Middleburg three weeks ago. Walsh loved the way his horse did both.

“He feels great,” he said. “I schooled him (over jumps) as well and he felt superb. No knocks, no faults. He’s tremendous.”

Like Young, Walsh will play the race off Divine Fortune. If the pace is slow, Demonstrative will be close. If it’s fast, he’ll be a bit farther back but never too far.

“Everything goes right, leaving the back I’m second tracking Divine Fortune,” Walsh said. “Getting horses switched off, to me that’s a big key there. The third-last is fairly important, but it’s still a long run from there. It’s tough to make up ground because it’s steep, but you can do it.”

Demonstrative did just that in his Iroquois win two years ago – catching Divine Fortune in the final yards to win by a neck as they surged well clear of the rest of the field.

“They’re two pretty impressive horses,” said Walsh. “Mr. Hot Stuff is joining that crew now. He’s obviously proven he’s talented and looked pretty impressive (at Middleburg). On his best effort, you’d have to give him a chance too.”

 

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