New York Turf Writers recap: The Equalizer

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Matt McCarron and Willie Dowling looked at each other going into the first turn of the New York Turf Writers Cup; they still had over 2 miles to go in the Grade I steeplechase.

“We’re going some gallop,” said Dowling, aboard 29-1 shot Luongo.

“Ridiculous,” said McCarron, aboard 8-1 Dark Equation.

Carl Rafter sent Four Schools from the drop of the flag, and Paul Carberry took Salford City along with him, stretching their seven rivals in a flash. They opened up 10 lengths, running and jumping like they robbed a bank while the rest of the runners, led by second choice Be Certain bided their time. Two circuits later, there was no talking, just a rapid retreat by the frontrunners and a wild finish between Dark Equation, Be Certain and High Action.

Be Certain (Padge Whelan) gained a slim lead turning for home but Dark Equation collared him from the outside; both had a jump on favorite High Action (Paddy Young), who got bottled behind a plummeting Salford City. McCarron gunned Dark Equation for a long stride at the final fence and the 7-year-old responded with a leap that would have earned gold in the Olympic long jump. Owned by Peggy Steinman and trained by Doug Fout, Dark Equation wrested the Grade I stakes from a game Be Certain, the only 4-year-old in the race, and a hard-luck High Action, also trained by Fout.

Nineteen furlongs. Three horses on the line.

For Fout, it was nearly an exacta sweep of both graded Saratoga jump stakes. High Action spurted through on the inside to win the A.P. Smithwick over a circling Dark Equation. Three weeks later, Dark Equation stuck to his game, running and jumping like a copy machine, steadily producing the goods while High Action died by the sword which won him the Smithwick, getting bounced around and allowing Dark Equation first run. Be Certain prevented the Fout exacta by a hard-fought neck, and High Action missed the Smithwick-Turf Writers double by less than a length.

“I wanted High Action to be part of history, Campanile is the last horse to do it (in 1999). It’s great for Ms. Steinman, it’s great for Dark Equation – they both deserve it – but deep in my heart I wanted High Action,” Fout said. “It’s probably my fault. I told Paddy, ‘Just relax it will all come together, just save the ground on the inside.’ He got stopped twice and he probably should have gone out, but you don’t know. I think that’s just experience difference between Matt and Paddy.”

McCarron has been plying his trade at Saratoga for 15 seasons while Young has just four summers at the Spa. McCarron needed all that experience to pull off this year’s Turf Writers.

The race appeared to come down to three horses. High Action, who was beaten 7 lengths by European superstar Yeats in the Ascot Gold Cup in his previous career; Be Certain, a dynamic 4-year-old trained by Tom Voss; and Irish import Salford City, who finished third to High Action and Dark Equation in the Smithwick after just stepping off the plane. Hall of Famer Jonathan Sheppard’s entry of Look At Him and Free Admission went off fourth choice. Dark Equation loomed on the fringe, fifth choice. An allowance winner over the course last season, Dark Equation rarely runs a bad race but has never won a stakes over hurdles.

The Pennsylvania-bred son of Polish Numbers won for the fourth time in his jump career, and sixth time overall. He won two races for trainer Christophe Clement on the flat. Jerry Bailey, John Velazquez and McCarron are the only jockeys to win on him.

Fout ordered a myectomy on the gelding this summer and he’s been sharp ever since, winning the training flat race at the Open House and finishing second in the Smithwick. Still, McCarron hadn’t quite pictured himself in the winner’s circle.

“I’ll be honest with you – I didn’t give this horse any shot of stepping up and running like this – I thought he could be third, and I’d have been thrilled,” McCarron said. “Jonathan Sheppard has this great saying, ‘We’re cautiously optimistic.’ I was cautiously optimistic he’d run back to the way he ran in the Smithwick. I thought this was a better race. Did I think he could really win it? No, not really. Was I going to give the horse a ride that made it possible? Sure.”

The gung-ho tactics of Rafter and Carberry made McCarron’s task a lot easier. Their renegade moves handed it off to the closers. There were three. High Action stopped cold and Be Certain did the grunt work, running the relay leg between Salford City and the rest of the field. Dark Equation closed the strongest and found the least trouble.

“My tactics went out the window over the first – I wanted to be third and I’m sixth getting run off my feet. I just couldn’t believe Salford City could keep going after that gallop. There’s nothing you can do about it, especially with my horse,” McCarron said. “He was perfect, he gave me a great trip. Every time he’d lose a little because of his deliberate jumping, he’d refill the bridle. Because we went so fast, they started to come to him going down the backside, without me having to do anything. That made him swell a little bit and when I called on him, I got some response.”

Fout took opposite approaches with his two stakes horses after the Smithwick. He sent High Action home to the farm in Virginia, under the care of assistant James Piper. A son of Theatrical, High Action worries and frets at the track and does better at the farm. Fout kept Dark Equation at Saratoga, doing the ground work himself and relying on McCarron to ride him every morning.

“Darky would have trained fine at the farm, he loves the farm, but he’s just so easy up here. High Action would fall apart up here. He gets too busy, he’s like a little pony, sweating up; he wouldn’t do anything stupid, but he’s thinking too much, that’s why I sent him home,” Fout said. “I thought we were going to get the one-two again. I’ve been disappointed with Darky in the past, he looked like he was going to be real good and I tried a bunch of things. I finally put the blinkers on him, I just never got his system down. He was always hit or miss.”

Until yesterday.