Sonny Via traded sandy beaches for sanded roads Tuesday, but the winter chill that greeted him back home in Free Union, Va., did little to diminish his spirits. After all, he was fresh from accepting Good Night Shirt’s second consecutive Eclipse Award as champion steeplechaser.
“The whole event was as marvelous as you might expect and it was a lot of fun,” Via said of the awards ceremony, held at the Fontainebleau in Miami Beach, Fla. “It was a different kind of experience this year because we had done it before. Last year in California I really had no idea what to expect, but this year I was a lot more relaxed.”
Via didn't have to worry much about the outcome, either, not with Good Night Shirt’s resume. The lanky chestnut posted a perfect 5-for-5 mark in 2008 – each win a Grade I race – and banked $485,520, shattering the NSA single-season earnings record he set in 2007. The 7-year-old son of Concern toyed with his competition during his first four starts, winning the Atlanta Cup, Iroquois, Lonesome Glory and Grand National by a combined 13 3/4 lengths. While impressive, Good Night Shirt's neck victory at Camden Nov. 16 thrilled his owner most of all.
“Winning the Colonial Cup the way he did it and perfecting the season had to be one of the biggest highlights. That showed the heart and determination he had and that’s the mark of a true champion,” Via said. “Of course, winning the Iroquois back-to-back and the Grand National for the first time rank right up there as well.”
Good Night Shirt certainly earned his first Eclipse in 2007, defeating the legendary McDynamo in two of their three meetings during a campaign that included Grade I wins in the Iroquois, Lonesome Glory and Colonial Cup. But he raised his game to another level in 2008, producing what was arguably the best season in the history of the sport.
“You just take it one race at a time and all of a sudden it’s ‘Wow, it happened.’ It just got done. We weren’t thinking about it or wondering about it, it just happened,” Via said. “I think after it was all over – after we had the perfect season – it was nice to sit back and relax because we didn’t have to sweat it out any more. We could finally enjoy it.”
"The Shirt" will be back in 2009 to defend his crown, and tentative plans put him on a path similar to those taken in 2007 and 2008. Whatever route Good Night Shirt follows, his owner looks forward to the journey.
“He’s just something else, that horse. I hope for his sake he can come back next year and keep on going because a horse like that deserves to go on and do some more great things," Via said. "I look forward to trying to win the Iroquois three years in a row. No horse has ever done that.”
Ever the storyteller, Via related one of his first memories as a steeplechase owner. Approaching the first fence at Saratoga, his horse Banjo Man suddenly decided he had better things to do and refused the jump. Via had seen enough, and decided he too had better things to do.
“I always like to tell that story of Saratoga, when I one of my early horses didn’t want to run," Via said. "I was ready to walk away and give it up but Jonathan Sheppard caught me and said, ‘Sonny, you’ve got to hang on.’ Well, now you see what happens when you hang on.”
And the ride isn’t over yet.