Steeplechase great McDynamo dies at 22

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Sunday October 14, 2001. Six days out, Sanna Neilson worked her runners for the Far Hills Races. Praise The Prince and Lord Zada targeted the Breeders’ Cup Steeplechase. Spring Salute fit in the secondary feature. Comanche Raider eyed the novice. The maiden just tried to keep up.

“We didn’t have him that long before he ran, maybe six to eight weeks,” said trainer Sanna Neilson. “I was working him and I remember thinking he was doing too much, just doing too much. Our work strip, you’d go around the bend and if you were doing too much you’d peter out at the end.”

And, trying to keep up with his more-accomplished stablemates, McDynamo would work too hard early and peter out at the end. Until he didn’t.

The last work before Far Hills, alongside those roughnecks, he got it.

“He went up there kind as a kitten and I pulled him out and he took off and it was such a feeling,” Neilson remembered Monday afternoon. “It was a pretty good feeling.”

Neilson pulled up and told the horse, “All right buddy, if you can do that you’ll be pretty good; we might have something.”

Did they ever. McDynamo won his hurdle debut at Far Hills, launching a steeplechase career that saw him capture three Eclipse Awards, earn a record $1,310,104 over jumps and reach Thoroughbred racing’s Hall of Fame. He won at Far Hills seven consecutive years – that maiden score in 2001, the novice in 2002 and five straight features (variously called the Breeders’ Cup Steeplechase or the Grand National). Racing for Michael and Anne Moran, McDynamo ruled the 2000s the way five-time champion Lonesome Glory lorded over the 1990s. The bay gelding retired after the 2007 season to a life of foxhunting and babysitting on Neilson’s farm in Chester County, Pa. He died at 22 Dec. 1, humanely euthanized with arthritis and other maladies of age. Neilson made the call, after plenty of thought.

“Nothing in particular happened,” she said. “He had one stifle that bothered him, and it was just arthritic and whatever and there was nothing to do to it. It got harder to keep weight on him, he never did well in the wintertime. He looked a little unsteady behind to me and he wasn’t going to get any better. He was happy and comfortable and everything. I was nervous with the weather coming in – he’d have a hard time on frozen ground – and it felt like the right thing to do.”

But not an easy thing to do. McDynamo was the best horse Neilson ever trained. He’d be in the top five horses anybody ever trained. He was only 22, getting old for a Thoroughbred but still young for a retiree. He was also a fixture, the horse Neilson would see every day, the one she counted on seeing.

“I got up in the morning and had my cereal and there he’d be,” she said. “I was lucky I got to keep him here.”

But horse trainers take care of horses, even at the end.

“It’s the kind of decision you’re supposed to make,” Neilson said. “We’re their caretakers. He was his same trusting, lovely horse. He would have kept going along until something went wrong. It was a difficult decision, but also an easy decision. He’s always been a worrier, but it seemed like he was getting a little more worried about everything. So, as hard as it was, it felt like the right thing to do. The only reasons I wouldn’t have done it would have been selfish reasons, like I didn’t want him to go.”

So she and the Morans and anyone who knew him let him go.

McDynamo was buried next to Neilson’s driveway. She’ll order a plaque, plant a garden, move on, but remember a true great whose first impression on his trainer was that of “a big, gangly goofball.” Michael Moran bought the son of Dynaformer for $82,000 as a Keeneland September yearling in 1998, won two flat races with him and soon realized the starting gate and other tight spaces brought on anxiety and near panic attacks. Early jumping lessons showed some promise and Neilson became the trainer in time for that 2001 hurdle debut.

Neilson was at the height of her success, fueled by the likes of 2001 champion Pompeyo, Grade 1 winner Praise The Prince and a slew of others. She’d won the NSA training championship in 1998 and would do so again in 2005. McDynamo joined a deep stable, borne out by that pre-Far Hills training set. Praise The Prince and Lord Zada finished second and third in the feature, Spring Salute won, so did timber horse Bredesen Moe. And McDynamo started one of the great careers in American jump racing.

He won four of six in his second season, with novice stakes wins coming at Churchill Downs, Far Hills and Callaway Gardens. He was unbeaten in 2003, his first championship season, with wins in the Iroquois, the Breeders’ Cup and the Colonial Cup. Hock surgery sidelined him for almost a year, but he returned off an 11-month layoff to win the Breeders’ Cup at Far Hills again in 2004. McDynamo lost his first four starts (a third and three seconds) in 2005, but came through late with wins in the Breeders’ Cup and Colonial Cup to claim a second Eclipse Award. The championship went his way again in 2006, thanks to wins at The Meadowlands, Far Hills (for the sixth time) and the Colonial Cup. In his final season, at age 10, McDynamo added one more exclamation point at Far Hills.

Neilson called that her favorite race, though making her choose is unfair.

“His last Breeders’ Cup (by then called the Grand National) was such a stunner,” she said. “He was oldest horse running on the day and all these upstarts were coming. I knew the end was near. He was 10. Win, lose or draw, we probably wouldn’t run him the next year. When he won, I was dumbfounded. When they’re young and fierce, you just assume that’s how it’s always going to be. Then they get to a certain point and you’re like, ‘How can this horse keep doing this?’ To have a horse with that kind of longevity was really special.”

Bred in Kentucky by Richard and Nathan Fox and Richard Kaster, McDynamo retired with 17 wins (15 over jumps), six seconds, a third, $1,354,994 in combined earnings, the three Eclipse Awards. The Hall of Fame nod came in 2013. He’s one of 19 steeplechasers on the list.

He wasn’t perfect, and didn’t win them all, but competed against standouts such as 2004 champion Hirapour and two-time Iroquois winner Sur La Tete while racing at the typical steeplechase stops plus Keeneland, Churchill Downs, The Meadowlands, Pimlico, Belmont Park and Colonial Downs. Neilson said soundness was a major asset.

“He never had a tendon, never had a suspensory,” she said. “That’s extraordinary. To run that many years, over jumps, to operate at that level for so long, and never have a problem like that is saying something about him. He had a lovely, easy disposition but was so fiercely competitive.”

McDymamo won over jumps for four jockeys – Craig Thornton, Matt McCarron, Gus Brown and Jody Petty. The latter won six of nine rides, getting aboard for the first time after McDynamo lost five in a row, and engineering a front-running upset (OK, maybe not an upset) at Far Hills in 2005.

“McDynamo had lost his way a little bit, and I’m sure a lot of jockeys would have done fine on him late in his career but Jody and he were a match made in heaven at that time,” Neilson said. “McDynamo needed to be kind of freed up and Jody was the man to do it. Jody was so good at his jumping, he took advantage of it. That was a lot of pressure. Hirapour was in there and was a faster horse. I wanted to see if we could use our gallop and take some of that speed away.”

They won by 9 lengths.

Retirement for McDynamo involved foxhunting, making periodic celebrity appearances (Far Hills honored him with a “King of the Hills” presentation in 2008), befriending ponies on the farm, watching Neilson eat breakfast and generally living a life of leisure.

“It’s weird to walk in the barn and not have him staring at me,” Neilson said. “It seems like it all went by fast. When you’re in it, it’s going by quickly, but it feels like a long time.”

A few McDynamo highlights: The best stuff is in Steeplechase Times, and at least some editions are online including the entrie 2007 season.

See retirement feature on page 9 of the Dec. 14 edition.

Tod Marks photos and memories.

Blood-Horse retirement column.