Perfect Balance

- -

“It’s a dream come true.”

That’s how race chairman Roger Smith described the Tryon Block House Races at its new course in Columbus, North Carolina. Held April 15, the six-race card delivered for horsemen, fans and, certainly, the Tryon community.

A 71-year tradition, the Tryon Block House Races needed a new venue and Smith and his partners provided it, creating a top-class racecourse with strong purses in front of an enthusiastic crowd.

“Exhilarating,” Smith said. “It’s hard to believe. Not many days you’ll remember, coming in this morning and watching the cars pour in, it really hit home, it was exhilarating.”

Smith and his wife, Jennifer, had just presented the trophy to an exhilarated Julie Gomena and Mark Watts after Balance The Budget triumphed in the Block House Handicap.

Thirteen days earlier, Gomena walked away after the Orange County Point-to-Point April 2, exhilarated and worried. Her stable star Balance The Budget won a flat race at the Virginia meet, 13 days before a projected start in the hurdle feature at Tryon.

“I hope that wasn’t our one win for the spring,” Gomena said. “Because he’s so good fresh.”

Like a red raspberry on the vine, Balance The Budget is, indeed, good fresh.

The son of Bellamy Road proved it yet again. For the third consecutive year, the chestnut gelding won in his first jump outing of the year, securing the $40,000 feature April 15 with a free-running, swift-jumping, let-me-out-of-jail display around the rolling, right-handed first-year venue.

Watts placed Stonelea Farm’s 8-year-old just off frontrunner Hardrock Eleven as the duo opened up 10 lengths on novice stakes winners All The Way Jose, Special Skills, Grade 1 winner Choral Society, Grade 1-placed Andi’amu and $896,419 earner Simenon. Watts allowed Balance The Budget to put away Hardrock Eleven as they elevated toward the backstretch the final time. From there, it was all over as Balance The Budget skipped over the final three hurdles and easily fended off Special Skills and All The Way Jose.

Gomena stood, halter and shank in her hand, and summed up Balance The Budget with three sentences. Well one sentence, three times.

“What a horse. What a horse. What a horse.”

In 2015, Balance The Budget jumped out of the blocks to win the Grade 3 Imperial Cup at Aiken. He lost his next six races. Freshened, for the winter, he began 2016 with a dominant win in the Carolina Cup. He lost his next four races. This year, the Tryon feature, restricted to horses who hadn’t won an open hurdle stakes in 2016-‘17, served as the launching pad.

“He’s just so good fresh,” Gomena said, as she walked back to the barn with the four-time hurdle winner.

The calendar said April 2017 but squares were already being crossed for April 2018.

• The mother/son combination of Wendy and Ricky Hendriks continued their torrid spring campaign, doubling on the card.

Surprising Soul took command of the allowance hurdle early, opening up 15 lengths on his five rivals and making it stand up for a 2 1/2-length score over Mercoeur and Personal Start.

Ross Geraghty employed the same tactics aboard Aiken maiden Any Given Royal in the first division of the $25,000 flat race, opening up by 6 lengths and holding off Mutasaawy by a neck.

Over three weeks, the Hendriks’ pair collected four wins (three jump, one flat) in four starts to earn $66,000.

• Kieran Norris became the answer to a trivia question, sweeping the daily double at the new Tryon meet.

The Irishman steered Balistes to win the maiden claimer for owner/breeder Sara Collette and trainer Neil Morris. Making his second hurdle start, the 5-year-old held off Life Said and Perkup.

A race later, Norris guided My Afleet to win the maiden for Jeffrey Amling and Merribelle Stable. Trained by Mark Beecher (who was riding at My Lady’s Manor) the 6-year-old son of Afleet Alex toyed with six rivals, pasting 34 1/2 lengths on Cuba Libre who had 27 3/4 lengths on Aflutter.

“It’s fantastic to win the first two. I was really excited about this horse, anybody who saw him in Aiken was in love with him, I was really happy to ride him,” Norris said after My Afleet had won the second half of the double. “I didn’t ride to instructions, Mark said to put him up in the first couple and keep going with him and I was out the back.”

Making his hurdle debut, My Afleet put flat ability that helped him win the Dueling Grounds Derby in 2014 and finish second in the John’s Call in 2016 to good use, strolling to an easy win.

“He’s a very nice horse, I didn’t think he’d like this track but he flew around there for me, I looked behind me and there was no one there. When he came up outside the wings at the second to last, I was like, ‘we have another stride in there…’ ” Norris said. “It’s a fun track, it allows horses to roll along, they get a breather up at the top of the hill, then they fly down the hill. It is testing, but I like it. I can’t complain. Next year I might say something different.”

•  Top Striker returned to win the second division of the $25,000 flat race, wrestling a 2 1/4-length win over Unsinkable and Gotta Get Away. The 2016 Colonial Cup winner sat in fourth before launching a polished rally in his 8-year-old debut.