Cyril Murphy made the long, slow, contemplative walk toward Irv and Diane Naylor’s house on a cold March morning. There is nothing like a trainer delivering bad news to an owner. And this was bad news.
Ebanour had tied up after a quiet jog, succumbing to an ailment that had haunted him throughout his career. The 2016 Virginia Gold Cup winner struggled to walk back to the barn and was quickly sent to New Bolton Center, a little over an hour from his base. He was being pumped full of fluids, on the verge of kidney failure as Murphy opened the door to the Naylors’ house.
“We’re not going to the Manor, it’s highly unlikely we’re going anywhere this spring…” Murphy said.
An hour at New Bolton is too long, Ebanour was there for five days, five long days.
Then, as fast as he had relapsed, the Irish-bred 10-year-old rebounded, came home and flourished. A planned stop at My Lady’s Manor was out, but, perhaps, the spring could be saved. On May 6, it was more than saved, it was celebrated as Ebanour earned his second consecutive Virginia Gold Cup victory, relaxing well off the pace and scoring with ease. The chestnut son of Indian Ridge improved his timber record to six wins from nine starts with a polished score over Manor winner Lemony Bay and former timber champion Hot Rize. Jockey Gus Dahl improved his record aboard Ebanour to five wins from six rides (they parted company at Genesee Valley last fall).
As easily as it looked on paper and on the track, it was far from textbook.
“Five weeks ago, I didn’t think we were going anywhere, we were hoping to go to the Manor like we did last year, we had that cold week in the middle of March, he tied up so bad,” Murphy said. “I went into the Naylors and said we’re not running this spring, as bad as he got, he came back around to us just as quick. I ended up taking him to Atlanta for the training flat race, he went down there and got a great blow. He came home, he was bucking and squealing. Gus came in and schooled him Wednesday, the rain came in this morning and I figured if we get the trip we got last year it’s easy money.”
Like an ATM stuck on dispense.
International Gold Cup winner Grand Manan loped on the lead, a slow-motion stroll over the soft ground as 2015 Maryland Hunt Cup winner Raven’s Choice and Lemony Bay tracked him in second and third, building a gap to Canyon Road and Hot Rize who led a relaxed Ebanour, well off the pace. Passing the stands with a circuit to go, the sextet hadn’t changed order as Ebanour crept closer from the inside but had yet to get out of first gear.
Cutting toward the water jump, Grand Manan led as Raven’s Choice and Canyon Road began to feel the pinch, Lemony Bay crept closer, Hot Rize loomed toward the outside and Ebanour hovered like a buzzard over road kill. Around the bottom bend, Ebanour slid through another gear or two (far from all) and crept ever closer. Coming to the last Dahl opted to split Hot Rize and Gerard Galligan to his left and Lemony Bay and Sean McDermott to his right.
Ebanour hopped over the last with another precise jump, Dahl switched his whip to his left hand, then switched it back to his right without turning it over, a hand ride and a couple of keep-at-it slaps on the shoulder and it was in the books, the only thing left was for assistant Beth Supik to hug him on the walk back to the winner’s circle just like last year.
“He was taking a pull out of him the whole time, Gus knows, like the rest of us here, he appreciates what we’ve got, you don’t have to tell him what to do, just let him do it. He’s a very, very good horse, a very, very good horse,” Murphy said. “He’s got the ability, in that ground he quickened, I was down by the stone wall and Gus was looking over and laughing at Sean after the last.”
Imported after winning two hurdle races and reaching a highest rating of 119 in England, Ebanour tried hurdles twice here, finishing fifth in the William Entenmann and fifth in an optional claimer at Virginia Fall in 2012. A month after his second start, he was a timber horse, finishing second im the maiden timber at Callaway Gardens. In the spring, he broke his maiden at the Manor and finished third at Winterthur for trainer Brianne Slater. After two years on the sidelines, he returned with Murphy and has only lost twice (a neck decision at the Manor in 2015 and losing Dahl at Genesee Valley last fall). If you’re blocking out squares on a calendar, he’s made just 12 starts in 56 months, mostly because of the vagaries of rhabdomyolysis.
“If you look at his form, that’s why. Every so often, for no particular reason, something will upset him and he’ll tie up. Last year, we managed to get through the whole year without it happening one time,” Murphy said. “This winter, we turned him out for six weeks, did nothing with him, brought him back in and I thought, ‘if it’s going to happen, it will happen now.’ Nothing until this random day, just jogging. It took all of five days for him to come around, he came home, then it was tippy-toe, tippy-toe for another 10 days, two weeks, then all of a sudden, like that, he’s back on his game.”
Some game – Ebanour slogged 4 miles and jumped 23 fences and was accelerating after 9 minutes and 49 seconds of soul search.
“He’s something else, he’s something else,” Murphy said. “He might be better than even the hurdle horses to be around day in day out, he enjoys his training, he’s easy to work with, the jumping…Beth does all the schooling with him, it’s just playing for him. He might be the best one I’ve ever…”
Questions filled the gap. Better than back-to-back hurdle champions Dawalan and Rawnaq? How would he run in the Grade 1 Iroquois against the likes of Dawalan, Scorpiancer, Mr. Hot Stuff…
“I’d love to know,” Murphy said. “He doesn’t train any different than the hurdle horses, he works with them, he does everything with them. I’d have no doubts you could stick him in there and he’d run with credit.”