MALVERN, Pa. – Things were different a year ago. Be Certain hadn’t yet seen a race course, let alone a National Fence. Planets Aligned had just tasted his first success following two disastrous steeplechase starts. And Chip Miller caught Matt McCarron at the wire to win the National Hunt Cup. Some 363 days and 4:54 later, everything had changed.
Be Certain posed for a third win picture, Planets Aligned tasted defeat after having grown accustomed to victory and McCarron flashed a smile at the finish.
The 2008 renewal of the $75,000 BNY Mellon National Hunt Cup drew a field of eight novice hurdlers eager to take home the third leg of the Steeplechase Triple Crown.
Sunshine Numbers (Arch Kingsley) ran to daylight early, followed by Planets Aligned (Miller), and the pair distanced themselves from the field for most of the proceedings. Approaching the second-last, Planets Aligned had eclipsed the fading pacesetter and appeared ascendent. But Be Certain (McCarron) wasn’t content to simply witness his stablemate’s coronation. After rating comfortably, he crept into contention in the stretch, where the 4-year-old – toting just 139 pounds – surged forward to head a gutsy but tired Planets Aligned at the wire. The duo completed a Tom Voss-trained exacta, finishing nearly 16 lengths clear of The Price Of Love (Danielle Hodsdon) in third.
“He was as game as could be,” said McCarron, impressed after his first ride on the winner. “Chip tightened it up a good bit on me coming to the last fence and for a 4-year-old to pick up for me when I needed him to was phenomenal. It just shows you how much grit and determination he has. He landed, picked himself up, locked back on to Planets Aligned and wore him down.”
Planets Aligned entered the Grade II stakes as the favorite after taking the 2007 NSA novice championship and kicking off this year’s campaign with a win in the Temple Gwathmey. But all that success earned the 7-year-old highweight of 157 pounds under the allowance conditions. Alnoff Stable’s Be Certain, recently crowned champion New York-bred steeplechaser of 2007, had surely come a long way in a short time, but as a 4-year-old with only one allowance win he got in with a feathery 139.
“Well, he got lucky today,” said Voss of the winner. As for Planets Aligned, “it was not his kind of race. He was a little on the muscle early. I thought they’d all come up, but they all just sat in behind him. He was in front way too early. He just sort of had to run into that. And 18 pounds makes a big difference, I don’t care what you say.”
Miller didn’t use the weight as an excuse, but wondered if success hadn’t gone to Planets Aligned’s head.
“When I rode him last year I always broke sharp and I could take him back and I could basically do what I wanted. Today, he was a horse that had been winning races, so he was a little braver, a little cockier – ‘I want to go where I want to go.’ You couldn’t just get him to switch off and come back a little bit.”
Be Certain entered the day a novice among novices. Bred in New York by Sugar Maple Farm, he made two flat starts against state-bred maiden company last year (placing seventh and eighth) for trainer Roger Horgan before being transferred to Voss’ barn after an impromptu school at Saratoga.
The chestnut son of Thunder Gulch didn’t go for his first proper school until September, but finished third in his debut and won his second start, the Raymond Woolfe Memorial at Camden in November. He came to Radnor off an allowance victory at the Virginia Gold Cup May 3.
“He ran a really good race there, a real gutsy race.” said Voss. “It was sort of a second thought to run him here. But the weight was right for him. There wasn’t a whole lot for him at Colonial (Downs in the summer). It’s tough there, hot, a long ship – might as well run him here and just put him away until Saratoga or something. That’s what I thought, that’s what we did and it worked out. One of those things that sometimes work out.”
– Like a shelf of Wheaties boxes, the $40,000 Bellevue Radnor Hunt Cup was stacked with champions. Yet despite the presence of timber titlists Bubble Economy (2004), Miles Ahead (2005) and Irish Prince (2007), the day belonged to Nick Arundel’s Monte Bianco, who flashed championship form of his own as he coasted to a 2 1/2-length victory under Aizpuru.
Monte Bianco put in a great effort at Great Meadow, coming within a length of taking the Virginia Gold Cup, only to settle for honorable mention as Bubble Economy, Miles Ahead and Hot Springs all squeaked home ahead of him. At Radnor, the Jack Fisher trainee enjoyed the cutback from 4 to 3 1/4 miles and enjoyed his biggest victory, holding off Miles Ahead and Irish Prince through the stretch to win in a final time of 7:15 2/5.
Aizpuru set the Irish-bred to stalking Grand National winner Private Attack (Billy Santoro) early, only to find himself on the lead after less than a mile.
“There was just no genuine pace out there and I didn’t want to be in front, certainly not from the start or as early as I was, so I tried my hardest to keep him behind but I could only try for so long and then he wouldn’t let me do it any more,” Aizpuru said. “I was afraid that I was going to start messing him up but luckily when he got to the front he actually started to relax a little bit.”
Running in second, Private Attack fell over the 17th and Irish Prince (Jody Petty) picked up the chase, followed by Erin Go Bragh (Young) and Miles Ahead.
Monte Bianco ratcheted up the pressure as the field began the uphill swing for home, and Irish Prince countered, drawing even with two fences remaining. Bubble Economy didn’t go on with it but Miles Ahead, mired in traffic for much of the running, finally got clear and the pieces were in place for a stirring stretch drive.
But Monte Bianco never let it develop. Like Shaquille O’Neal posting up Spud Webb, Monte Bianco shrugged off the challenge of Irish Prince and drove to the hoop, crossing the line comfortably ahead of a hard-charging but too late Miles Ahead, who caught Irish Prince for second.
Not quite how Aizpuru drew it up on paper, but not all that bad either.
“When Irish Prince came to him at the top of the hill I actually thought we would jump the last couple of fences together and see which horse was the best,” the jockey said. “But we hit level ground and I gave him a little tap on the shoulder and he absolutely flew home.”
Though Aizpuru had been impressed with Monte Bianco’s run in the Gold Cup, he headed to Radnor not knowing if the 7-year-old would handle the tricky course. Add in the stiff competition, and last season’s champion jockey was as cautious as he was optimistic heading into Saturday’s test.
“Horses either like Radnor or they hate it, but I thought if he took to it he would be a pretty tough horse,” Aizpuru said. “Unless there’s genuine pace in the race I’m always going to be nearer to the front than the back and those horses like to come from behind, Miles Ahead, Bubble Economy, Irish Prince, so it gets to the point where you just have to focus on your horse and ride your race. And then, if he’s good enough then he’s good enough. It would have taken a pretty special performance to beat him.”
– Tom Petty got it wrong – the waiting isn’t the hardest part. It’s not even hard. Just ask Chip Miller, who won the opener with a patented, patient ride aboard Armata Stable’s Dynaski.
“At my age (37), when you’ve ridden long enough, you’re willing to take your chances and sit chilly where if he’s good enough you’ve still got plenty of time.”
Aboard the maiden son of Dynaformer for the first time, Miller comfortably stalked the pace as the field made its preliminary passes of the finish line. Heading for home, Dynaski loomed like a fun-house ghost, ready to pop-out and scare the unsuspecting trio of Coupe De Ville, Rainbows For Luck and Nat Grew. Miller was right where he wanted to be.
“I was on the best horse and found myself in the perfect spot,” Miller said. “I could have tried to win the race coming up the hill before we got to the second-last but we still had a long way to go and on a day like this the race course is really difficult; you jump a lot of fences, soft ground, so I just thought I would take my chances and wait as long as I could because all that stuff adds up.”
It added up to victory. Fresh and full of run, Dynaski charged past Nat Grew (Carl Rafter) in the stretch to score by three-quarters of a length, with Coupe De Ville (Paddy Young) third.
Dynaski’s trainer, Tom Voss, was rewarded for his patience as well. The 5-year-old didn’t make his steeplechase debut until May 3 at Great Meadow.
“I love him. Just love him. He took a long time to get jumping, he was real safe,” Voss said. “He’s so big and heavy, I tried to give him a flat race, just to get the flab off more than anything else. It just never worked out. But he’s fitter than I thought he was, anyway . . . The first time he ran, I thought he’d be green, safe, but he ran very well. If we’d tried real hard, he could have won the race. But he closed real good and finished second. Came back real fresh, like it wasn’t anything for him, and he’s still fresh after this race. You get a good turn of foot when you go, which I didn’t think he had. He’s a real good horse, I think.”
– Augustin Stable’s Rainiero looked strong in the second, taking the $30,000 allowance by 1 1/4 lengths over Look At Him (Hodsdon) and Delacroix (Willie Dowling). Trained by Sanna Hendriks, the winner covered the 2 3/8 miles in 5:03.
Put into the race immediately, Rainiero (Petty) clung to pacesetter Look At Him for the first 2 miles. As the field entered the stretch the pair made it a match race, powering 8 lengths ahead of the field. Rainiero began to edge clear with two jumps remaining and held sway under the line. Look At Him finished a neck to the good of Delacroix, who closed well after balking at the start.
“He was a real bearcat and really on his game,” Petty said of his mount. “He was strong and jumped his way right into it for me today. He ran huge, it was one of his best efforts.”
A 6-year-old Chilean-bred son of African Dancer, Rainiero made his steeplechase and U.S. debut with a maiden score at Philadelphia Park last October. Fifth in the Foxbrook novice at Far Hills, he was given the rest of the season off, and returned for 2008 at Aiken, where he fell while in front at the last. Rainiero built some momentum at Strawberry Hill, where he was second behind Lead Us Not, and things peaked at Radnor.
“He fell at Aiken and I got stuck at the last at Strawberry Hill, so I throttled him down and tried to stay behind Danielle,” Petty said. “I wasn’t sure if he would handle the soft ground but he impressed me a lot. I think he’s just coming into his best form. He might have been a little rattled last time, from the fall at Aiken, but he had his game face on (at Radnor).”
– At this point, anybody surprised by Duke Of Earl simply hasn’t been paying attention. The little claimer that could notched his seventh career hurdle score Saturday, taking the $25,000 Sport of Kings claimer for owner Ann Stern. Aizpuru and Fisher paired for their second win on the card as the Duke scored for the fourth time in his last six outings, a string of success that dates to last July at Colonial Downs.
“He’s such a cool horse,” Aizpuru said. “He’s so little but he’s got the heart and the try in him.”
Duke Of Earl rated comfortably in third, used his push-button acceleration to draw clear in the stretch and never looked in any danger. He finished in 4:58, 6 1/4 lengths clear of Pleasant Pick (Kingsley), with Four Schools (Richard McWade) third.
Aizpuru acknowledged that those viewing the diminutive Duke have reason to doubt the 9-year-old Irish-bred.
“Every time you see him in the paddock you say, ‘How’s he going to compete with these horses?’ But then he goes out there and gets the job done, and that’s what sets him apart.”
– Closertoyourheart further endeared himself to trainer Todd Wyatt, closing out the card with a maiden-breaking score for owner Richard Stokes.
Trying hurdles for the fourth time, the chestnut sat comfortably in the middle of the pack early in the $20,000 maiden claimer. As the field, which had dwindled from nine to five, headed for home, it was a three-horse race between Closertoyourheart (Jeff Murphy), pacesetter Zozimus (Young) and Happy Seamus. But having taken a short lead into the second-last, Happy Seamus stumbled over the fence and lost Robbie Walsh, leaving the way clear for Closertoyourheart. He pulled away to finish 3 1/2 lengths clear of Zozimus, in 4:55 3/5 for the 2 3/8 miles. Meadow Larking (Aizpuru) ambled home a distant third.
A 5-year-old son of Awad, Closertoyourheart gave Wyatt his first victory after leaving a job as Voss’ chief assistant, winning a flat race at Pimlico last spring under the trainer’s wife, Blair. After scoring once more on the flat, he switched to steeplechasing, closing out 2007 with two distant finishes. The learning curve is now on the upswing.
“He’s run a few times, he was second at Middleburg,” said Wyatt. “He got the job done today, that was nice.
Murphy didn’t receive too many pre-race instructions from the trainer.
“Maybe just keep him tucked in.” Wyatt said. “Get a good lead, he’s honest, he’d like the trip.”
The Irish-born jockey liked the trip as well, as he notched his 15th career victory. The win marked the end of his days as an apprentice, which began more than six years ago.
With additional reporting by Brian Nadeau and Joe Clancy