Dave Duggan stood at the big-screen TV in the clubhouse, minutes ticking down before the A.P. Smithwick Steeplechase, Thursday’s co-feature.
“This horse of Jimmy’s have any shot in here?” the flat trainer asked, after saddling Jimmy Day’s Spy In The Sky for the $100,000 stakes.
“Nah, he’s over the top,” a steeplechase insider said. “He just hasn’t done it for so long now.”
Duggan nodded his head, watched the screen.
As the field of 10 rounded into the stretch with one hurdle to go, the insider whipped around and slapped Duggan on the arm.
“He’s got a shot, this horse.”
Spy In The Sky, the longest shot on the board at 25-1, whipsawed into the stretch, getting first run on a pancake stack on the turn, auditioned for a Harley Davidson commercial at the last, and kept grinding to win by a diminishing nose. Owned by Randleston Farm, trained by Day and ridden by Danielle Hodsdon, the 8-year-old son of Thunder Gulch won for the fifth time in his 26-race jump career and erased a winless streak spanning 10 races and 28 months.
Breaking from the outside, Spy In The Sky dove at the first hurdle, chipped in at the second which placed him in a relaxed spot outside in fifth as Tax Ruling took the big field through the opening splits. Cruising along in fifth, with a circuit to go, Spy In The Sky followed Tax Ruling, Dynaski, All Together and Via Galilei as two-time Smithwick winner Divine Fortune tracked him in seventh. Leaving the backside, Tax Ruling continued to grind as Via Galilei took over and All Together slipped through on the inside. Left Unsaid circled from the far outside, Spy In The Sky continued to simmer just off the leaders and Divine Fortune loomed from between horses.
On the turn, Hodsdon swung the hammer, gunning Spy In The Sky five wide past All Together, Tax Ruling, Via Galilei and Dynaski. Spy In The Sky opened up as Hodsdon slapped him on his right shoulder, whip turned down. Spy In The Sky lengthened like he was going to stand off at the last, then changed his mind, jamming in a short stride which was barely there. Landing on his back legs first, Spy In The Sky clawed the ground and leapt back to work like he was shocked by his own unorthodox jump. The winner stayed at it, repelling a long, steady run by Left Unsaid who took the worst of it on the turn. All Together held on for third. Favorite Divine Fortune wound up fifth. Decoy Daddy, the best finisher among a four-horse Irv Naylor entry, wound up fourth.
Bred by Gainsborough Farm, Spy In The Sky sports a deep pedigree page. Out of Monaassabaat, a half-sister to Note Musicale who’s the dam of Grade I winners Music Note and Musical Chimes, Spy In The Sky made his career debut at Saratoga in 2006, finishing fifth in a 2-year-old maiden (anybody remember the likes of Kon Krete Kid, Inquisitive, Fernando Po, Rocket Legs who finished in front of him?). The chestnut made five starts for trainer Kiaran McLaughlin before being sold to his present connections who have weathered several losing streaks and celebrated several Saratoga upsets along the way. Spy In The Sky paid double digits in the Happy Intellectual Hurdle Stakes in 2008, the New York Turf Writers Cup in 2009 and again in the Smithwick in 2012.
Spy In The Sky hit the shelf with a nagging suspensory and a mild tendon from May, 2010 to April 2011. He failed to get back to his best in six tries last year.
This year, he managed two fourths while competing in the Grade II Frost at Nashville and the Zeke Ferguson at Colonial Downs this summer before returning to his glory ground at Saratoga.
“The old boy came up and ran a big race,” Day said. “It was a perfect scenario, the ground was perfect, Danielle gave him a beautiful ride, he likes that kind of rider, soft hands, just let him do his thing.”
Next time Duggan asks, he’ll get a better answer.
“You know, Dave, Jimmy’s a sneaky good trainer. He doesn’t come up here for lunch at the Reading Room, actually he didn’t come up at all this year. The horse, well, the horse loves the tempo of major track racing where the speed carries him along. Yeah, he’s got a shot and at a price!”
As for Hodsdon, she came in fresh off her wedding, a honeymoon in Spain and a new job with Tony Dutrow at Fair Hill Training Center. A longtime fixture in the mornings and afternoons for Jonathan Sheppard, Hodsdon switched jobs and came to Saratoga in a completely different capacity.
“A lot of people have lost confidence in my riding because I think Jonathan has a little,” Hodsdon said. “I came up here feeling great, I feel fit, I was really excited about the horses I was riding. I watched a lot of replays of horses in previous years, I wanted to do that again, I felt like I was plenty capable of doing that and I wanted to give it a good shot.”
The former champion jockey, who’s won just three races this year, hung out a shingle, er, in today’s parlance sent a text about Saratoga rides.
“As soon as the nominations came out, I texted Jimmy,” Hodsdon said. “I didn’t even know if he texted, but I said, ‘Do you have a rider in mind for Spy?’ He texted back, ‘You.’ I spoke to him yesterday and we made a plan.”
Based “over the mountain” in White Post, Va., Day and his wife Emily work hard with a string of flat horses and jumpers. Spy In The Sky has been their torchbearer for years. He’s now collected four stakes wins over hurdles and added an allowance turf win at Aqueduct three years ago.
A former event rider, Hodsdon began her steeplechase career under Day’s tutelage, before going to work for Tom Voss and then switching to Sheppard where she won big races, including three runnings of the Smithwick and engineered huge works on the likes of Forever Together and Informed Decision.
Hodsdon had confidence in her first boss while taking on her ex-boss.
“Jimmy had him right and I knew he would. I knew he wouldn’t be sending a horse up here if it wasn’t right and ready and if it wasn’t going to be 100 percent fit,” Hodsdon said. “He agreed that he’s a little older now and maybe he needed to sit a little closer, I knew if I did that he wouldn’t run out of gas going two and a sixteenth. I gave him all my confidence, he traveled beautifully the whole way. It was the absolute perfect spot, drafting in, it made for a nice trip for him, he’s just a neat old horse.”
For years, Hodsdon was a Saratoga regular, working in the mornings and riding in the afternoons. This year, she’ll be a regular on Thursdays.
She did leave one thing for the meet.
“I wasn’t sure whether I’d be able to pack my tack bag and leave it or I’d have to take it home,” Hodsdon said. “I’m really glad to leave it.”