The steeplechasers are not the youngest Eclipse Award finalists, nor are they the fastest or the most valuable. The are, at this time of year anyway, the dirtiest.
Bob Le Beau, Dawalan and Demonstrative spent December getting turned out, eating grass, rolling in the mud and otherwise doing what Thoroughreds do when they’re not training or racing. With no American jump racing in December, January or February, there’s not much need to train established horses – especially championship contenders.
One of the three dirtballs will be crowned champion steeplechaser of 2015 at Saturday’s Eclipse Awards Dinner at Gulfstream Park in Florida.
“He’s not too pretty right now, happy and dirty” is how trainer Elizabeth Voss described Bob Le Beau, a winner of two Grade 1 stakes in 2015 and the only horse to win three hurdle stakes on the year. The Irish-bred, now 9, will stay on vacation for a bit longer.
Owned by The Fields Stable, Bob Le Beau won the Grade 3 National Hunt Cup at Radnor to start the season last May. The son of Big Bad Bob won on the flat at Parx in July and was fourth in the Grade 1 A.P. Smithwick at Saratoga. He vaulted into the championship picture with back-to-back Grade 1 wins – in the New York Turf Writers Cup at Saratoga and the Lonesome Glory at Belmont Park. Bob Le Beau beat Demonstrative in the Turf Writers and took down Dawalan (while giving away eight pounds) in the Lonesome Glory. The season ended with a fifth behind both rivals in the Grade 1 Colonial Cup.
It’s easy to envision a similar schedule in 2016, though Voss won’t rush.
“He is still on holiday and turned out with Tempt Me Alex (his main man), and Wanganui, Kingdom and Gnostic,” the Maryland-based trainer said via email. “He will return to training in a few weeks.”
The dark bay gelding earned $220,250 over jumps in 2015, second only to Dawalan and helped reward his connections in a painful year. Co-owner Betty Merck passed away at 95 in April, leaving the horses to her son Laddie and family. The stable carried on admirably with five wins and $266,350.
“We’re going to keep it going,” said Laddie Merck in November. “Mom loved the thrill of the competition and she loved the animals – it was another facet of the world for her. The challenge will be to have as much fun as she did.”
Voss, whose father Tom trained 2010 steeplechase champion Slip Away and 2000 Eclipse Award finalist John’s Call, will be at Gulfstream with Merck for the dinner.
“This was a great year and he’s come out of the year great,” said Voss. “Who knows when it will happen again, right?”
A few miles across some Maryland fields from Bob Le Beau, Dawalan recently returned to light work after a break. The gray 6-year-old led all U.S. jumpers in earnings with $255,000 – thanks to Grade 1 wins in the $300,000 Grand National in October and the $100,000 Colonial Cup in November. The French-bred ate plenty of grass, soaked up the extended autumn weather and tried to fit in with the crowd.
“They all got kicked out in the field for six weeks and he was just like the rest of them,” said trainer Cyril Murphy, who manages most of leading owner Irv Naylor’s string. “There was a little bit of green grass for them and I think it did them all some good. They spent most of December out there with no blankets on them and some got potbellies. They’ve all enjoyed themselves.”
Now the work begins. Dawalan, whose likely target is the Grade 1 Iroquois in May, started back on the road to fitness this week. The routine starts with jogging (trotting) sessions in the fields or on the roads depending on turf conditions. Now, it’s 2 miles and by mid-February it’ll be 5 or 6.
“He’s very easygoing, drops his head and jogs along on the road,” Murphy said. “You go out in the field where he’s got a bit of space and he’ll give you a buck and a squeal.”
Win or lose, Murphy looks forward to representing his horse – and experiencing some history – at the Eclipse Awards dinner Saturday.
“He produced for us, the least we can do is represent him,” said the trainer. “There’s a Triple Crown winner getting an award. Just to be part of the whole thing is a big deal for me.”
Richard Valentine knows how Murphy feels. Demonstrative’s trainer attended two Eclipse dinners, and got a chance to take a bow on the big stage for his horse’s 2014 championship. Back for his third trip as a finalist (he finished second by 17 votes in 2012), Demonstrative will most likely have a to settle for another minor placing.
Not that anyone is complaining about Jacqueline Ohrstrom’s stable star. Now 9, the son of Elusive Quality won the Grade 1 Iroquois in May and extended a run of top-level performances dating back to August 2012. He’s run in 19 consecutive Grade 1 stakes in that time, winning seven and placing in four, while pushing his steeplechase earnings to the brink of $1 million.
“To be nominated again is something, so we’re happy to be included,” said Valentine. “He won it once and has been very good to us.”
Demonstrative’s 2015 took a turn for the worse at Saratoga, where he finished third in the Smithwick and was pulled up in the Turf Writers. Exams revealed “a severe case of pneumonia,” Valentine said. Demonstrative returned in the Grand National in October and was a well-beaten ninth after clouting a fence at an important point. The Kentucky-bred returned to form in November, winning a training flat race and finishing third in the Colonial Cup.
Like Dawalan, Demonstrative aims for the 2016 Iroquois (which he’s won twice) and recently went back into light work at the Ohrstrom family’s Whitewood Farm in Virginia.
“He goes on the walker, walking and trotting,” said Valentine. “He’ll be under tack in the next couple of weeks and we’ll try to have a flat race or two and then go to the Iroquois. It was nice to end up the way he did in the Colonial Cup. He missed second by a neck and it gave us hope that he still has the same spark.”