Steeplechase Eclipse race not easy choice

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Eenie, Meenie, Miney, Moe . . . catch a Tiger by its toe . . . if he hollers let him go . . . and my mother said to pick the very best one and you are not it.

You may need that and more to determine a champion in the steeplechase category of the 2013 Eclipse Awards. It was that competitive, that back-and-forth. There was that much parity, that much in inconclusive moments. Jump racing’s six Grade 1 stakes produces six winners.

But, hey, the NFL makes billions on the “any given Sunday” theme. The horses tried. They ran early, late, often. They were good, bad, unlucky. They provided thrills galore from South Carolina to Saratoga. Say what you want, but it was a great year.

For me, the six can be narrowed down to three contenders fairly easily.

1. Divine Fortune. He started in all six Grade 1 stakes, won one, finished second (by a neck) in another and led the jumpers with $207,000 earned. The 10-year-old started the year with an allowance win at Stoneybrook in April, knocking off former Eclipse champion Slip Away and classy stakes campaigner Decoy Daddy. Next, Divine Fortune finished a game (he’s always game) second to Demonstrative in the Iroquois in May. Then came New York, and three losses. The Pennsylvania-bred finished third in the A.P. Smithwick to start Saratoga, then wound up seventh while clearly not meshing with new jockey Sean McDermott in the New York Turf Writers also at the Spa. Trainer Jonathan Sheppard sent his horse to Belmont Park in September and nothing went right (pressure on the lead from a stablemate and a lost shoe for starters) in another seventh in the Lonesome Glory. Five times a groomsman in Grade 1 stakes for his career, Divine Fortune went to Far Hills in October to contest the $250,000 Grand National. And owned the place. Darren Nagle put the long-legged chestnut on the lead and produced a brave, bold, brazen performance. Divine Fortune flew every fence, clearing the black plastic branches by feet and overwhelming the field, which included Eclipse rivals Demonstrative, Gustavian and Italian Wedding. The Grand National was the race of the year, and Divine Fortune’s win was the performance of the year. Of course, this being the year of sharing, he closed his season with a loss – getting harried and harassed into submission by Gustavian and finished fourth behind Alajmal. Gustavian faded late and lost his jockey with a mistake at the last fence. Owned and bred by Sheppard and Bill Pape, Divine Fortune finished 2013 with $606,39 earned over jumps with nine wins and eight seconds. The earnings figure puts him in the top 10 of all-time.

iroquois22. Demonstrative. He should have been champion last year, when Pierrot Lunaire won by 17 votes (and 36 voters abstained). He was the best horse in 2012 and picked up where he left off by opening 2013 with a hard-charging Iroquois win. The 6-year-old was good, tough, game, sharp and overpowering in the stretch – catching Divine Fortune in the final strides. The rest of his year was brutal. He missed the Smithwick with a cough and was not himself three weeks later in the Turf Writers (a sixth behind Italian Wedding). Trainer Richard Valentine went to Belmont in September and Demonstrative was better, but flattened out to finish fourth after being well back early. He ran well, but got caught in Divine Fortune’s wake when third in the Grand National. In the season finale, the Colonial Cup, Demonstrative dropped far back in the early stages, made a huge run to reach contention in the stretch but couldn’t sustain the move and wound up fifth. Watching it, 2013 looked like a lost year for the son of Elusive Quality. He never got back to the Iroquois form, or his three wins of 2012. Maybe next year.

Alajmal2

3. Alajmal. The novice champion (like a 3-year-old in flat racing) of 2012 opened this year with a novice score in the Carolina Cup in March. The win proved last year was no fluke and signaled big things. Then it didn’t. The son of First Samurai was sixth at Charlotte. Trainer Janet Elliot moved her horse to the flat for June and July and he finished sixth and fifth in maiden races. Still at the drawing board, Alajmal tried Saratoga novice stakes in July and August. They were both awful – 10th in the Kiser and sixth in the Walsh. Elliot is in the Hall of Fame for a reason and shut down her horse. He didn’t run in September or October, trained off and on, and returned in November – winning the Grade 1 Colonial Cup on the season’s final day. Behind him were Divine Fortune, Demonstrative, Gustavian and Italian Wedding. Alajmal proved his ability and class by winning the year’s final big race. Some years, that’s enough to win a championship. Maybe this year.

The others in the mix didn’t do enough. Mr. Hot Stuff won a novice and a Grade 1 (like Alajmal), but missed the fall season. The former Kentucky Derby starter also missed his best opportunity when too strong early (and eventually fourth) in the Turf Writers. Italian Wedding provided a mild shock in the Turf Writers, but flopped in the Grand National and was too-little-too-late in the Colonial Cup. Gustavian was consistent with good races all year, but he won just once and his Grade 1 came by a nose over All Together.

So who do you vote for? The steeplechase category is on the first page of the Eclipse Awards voters’ guide and might make people feel like they’re staring at a tough SAT question. But don’t blame the horses. Some years, it’s like this – no matter the category.

Sharpen your number 2 pencils and pick one. I’m leaning toward Divine Fortune. He won twice, he led the earnings list, he just missed to a good horse going 3 miles in the Iroquois and he hung tough in the Colonial Cup despite never getting a break. Alajmal is my second choice, with Demonstrative third.

Unless somebody wants to get them to race one more time before New Year’s. 

Equibase profiles of Alajmal, Demonstrative and Divine Fortune.

 

*Photos by Tod Marks.