Steeplechase Rewind: 2014 hurdle horses put on a show

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Demonstrative and Divine Fortune. Divine Fortune and Demonstrative. It seems like this CD has been playing for a while. Nobody touch the repeat button. It’s too cool of a track.

The steeplechase stars of 2014 were, once again, the big names who collectively won five of the six Grade 1 jump races of the year and combined to earn $557,500 to vault into the exclusive $800,000 club among American steeplechasers along with all-timers McDynamo, Good Night Shirt and Lonesome Glory.

Demonstrative and Divine Fortune have been lining up together for three years now, with a fourth coming along in 2015. But there was plenty more to the 2014 jump season when it came to hurdle horses.

Classy Irish-bred veteran Decoy Daddy went 3-for-3 in his races – the Temple Gwathmey, the National Hunt Cup and the Noel Laing. He won all three in 2013, too. Novice All The Way Jose made six starts, winning three and finishing second in three others to finish just behind the big names on the earnings list. Another novice, English-bred Address Unknown, lived up to his gaudy overseas flat form with three wins in four starts. Bittersweetheart won two stakes, one by disqualification, to claim the filly/mare championship, the first title for trainer Leslie Young. Owner Peggy Steinman and trainer Doug Fout teamed up to win the 3-year-old title with Perfect Union, who won at Far Hills and was second at Camden.

Nobody ran and jumped the way Demonstrative and Divine Fortune did, however.

1202DivineFortuneThe latter, in his 11-year-old campaign, took the first swing – owning the Iroquois in May for Bill Pape, Jonathan Sheppard and Willie McCarthy. The 2013 jump champion bounded to the front at the start and stayed there, shrugging off challenges for 3 miles. He won by 3 1/4 lengths, and awed anyone who saw the race.

McCarthy, who wound up the year’s champion jockey with 23 wins, put it best.

“It’s just an honor and a real privilege to be part of the whole thing,” said the Irishman. “He’ll go down as one of the legends of the sport for years to come. It’s a great feeling to be part of it for one day. Marvelous horse.”

Almost 12 lengths behind Divine Fortune (left, photo by Tod Marks) that day, Demonstrative lost his fifth consecutive race in his first start since off-season throat surgery. Quietly, the three-time Grade 1 winner was coming to form for owner Jacqueline Ohrstrom and trainer Richard Valentine.

The next Grade 1 came at Saratoga in the A.P. Smithwick Memorial, where Demonstrative did everything but win when coming up a nose short of 2014 English import Makari. Racing for Merriebelle Farm and trainer Elizabeth Voss, the 7-year-old came from off the pace and won a slugfest while getting 12 pounds from the runner-up. Behind them, Divine Fortune was pulled up – unable to make his staying/front-running style work at 2 1/16 miles.

Three weeks later in the New York Turf Writers Cup, Demonstrative and Makari met again and reached the last fence on nearly even terms with Makari rallying up the inside and Demonstrative powering home a few paths toward the outside. The race had all the makings of another photo finish, but Makari fell while landing. Demonstrative won by a half-length over Barnstorming. Makari never recovered and was euthanized, halting a career before it ever really got started.

The Turf Writers snuffed out one career and reignited another as Demonstrative seized control of the steeplechase ranks.

“I’m excited and happy for the horse because he deserves it but nobody needs to see that and nobody deserves to feel the way you feel after that happens,” said Demonstrative’s trainer Richard Valentine afterward. “They don’t need that. It’s just a kick in the knees. But that’s why we work so hard at it. It can happen. They’re animals. You can do everything right, and it can still happen. It’s what you deal with, somehow, but you also know that you’re giving them a chance, a second chance in steeplechasing, and we prepare them the best possible way we can.”

1202DemonstrativeDemonstartive, a son of Elusive Quality bred by Gainsborough Farm, did it again about three weeks later when he handled seven rivals in the Grade 1 Lonesome Glory at Belmont Park. Reunited with Darren Nagle, Divine Fortune led early, but never found a comfort zone and fell hard at the last fence. Demonstrative (left, photo by Tod Marks) looked as good as ever, holding off Parker’s Project by a measured length in the stretch while giving 18 pounds to the runner-up.

On to Far Hills the soldiers marched for the Grand National – the greatest Grade 1 at $250,000. Divine Fortune won the 2 5/8-mile test in 2013. Demonstrative was winless in four tries at the meet, but flying.

Pre-race, Sheppard wondered about his 11-year-old gelding’s form. Valentine questioned his 7-year-old’s ability in soft (ish) turf and on a course that was far different than the flat ovals where he’d won his previous two races.

The horses quieted their trainers’ nerves, with Divine Fortune turning in a polished effort that was good, just not good enough to beat Demonstative who drew off late to score by 3 3/4 lengths in the performance of the year. The third consecutive Grade 1 win silenced any doubters and put the Eclipse Award on ice, or at least in the refrigerator.

“He about ran off with me two or three times around there. He’d switch off going down the hills and then he’d grab me when he met the rising ground,” said jockey Robbie Walsh. “I had to back off wide around the bend just to make sure I didn’t get there way too soon, I knew I’d be there too soon today the way he was traveling. I sat third last year, but Darren (Nagle, aboard Divine Fortune) walked the dog and his wind caught him out and he didn’t quicken, this year he just opened up.”

Then came the Colonial Cup. On the season’s final day, four weeks after Far Hills, Divine Fortune produced the finest effort. He led throughout the 2 3/4 miles, applied pressure with his jumping and won by 9 lengths with Demonstrative a comparatively dull third (a nose behind Barnstorming for second).

The winning effort was as good as the Iroquois, as good as the Grand National, and hushed any thoughts of age finally catching up with the Pennsylvania-bred chestnut.

“He’s unreal, special, real special to me,” said Nagle. “He’s a very professional horse, a smart horse. He just lives life every day like it’s normal. If he was a human, he’d probably be a World War veteran with a couple of bullet holes or something. But happy with life. He’s amazing. He’s young at heart I suppose. He still has enthusiasm.”

They met five times on the year. Divine Fortune won twice, finished second once, fell once and was pulled up once. Demonstrative won twice and added a second and a third. He also won the Turf Writers, which Divine Fortune skipped. Over the past three seasons, they’ve appeared in the same race 13 times – all in Grade 1 company – to prove that good Thoroughbreds do indeed stick around. Demonstrative owns five wins, Divine Fortune three. Just one other steeplechaser has won more than one Grade 1 stakes in the past three seasons and that was Pierrot Lunaire’s double in 2012.

Both of the 2014 stars appear headed to 2015 campaigns, though you might see some changes. Divine Fortune has pretty much told Sheppard not to bother with racetrack steeplechases (and at the very least Saratoga) so the 12-year-old season might include fewer starts. Valentine and Ohrstrom, and a host of eager witnesses, were talking about England where Demonstrative would be a worthy American challenger, perhaps in the Aintree Hurdle in April.

One plan would involve a relatively normal winter prep schedule, a flat race or two here in the early spring and then a race at Aintree in April or stay home and go for the Iroquois in May.

The Rest of the Story
You can read the standings report and get a good idea of who had good years, but there’s a crew worth mentioning for any number of achievements.

Pleasant Woodman turned into a viable stakes horse, even if he was not quite Grade 1 caliber, for owner Gigi Lazenby and trainer Doug Fout. Once a runaway on the front end, he learned to settle and won at Aiken and Nashville to finish the year with $98,000 and unofficial title top Louisiana-bred steeplechaser of 2014 (or perhaps all-time). The son of Woodman injured a tendon in the Zeke Ferguson at Great Meadow in October, however, and was eventually euthanized – turning off a bright light too soon. Bred in Louisiana, the 6-year-old won four jump races, plus another on the flat and earned $155,220.

Sue Sensor’s Top Striker closed 2013 with a maiden win at Camden to announce his presence, then quickly vaulted into the bigger picture with two wins from six jump starts for trainer Arch Kingsley. The Maryland-bred son of Van Nistelrooy won the Carolina Cup in March, finished third in the Queen’s Cup in April, weathered a tough Saratoga, but bounced back to take the AFLAC Supreme at Callaway in November. The 5-year-old took on the big names in the season-ending Colonial Cup and was not disgraced when fourth behind veterans Divine Fortune, Barnstorming and Demonstrative.

Speaking of Barnstorming, what a year he had. In six starts, he had the distinction of being the highest earner among horses that did not win races in 2014. Jonathan Sheppard’s 8-year-old Thunder Gulch gelding finished second in the Turf Writers at Saratoga and the Colonial Cup to help fuel $63,500 in earnings.

For sheer drama, nobody ran the way Schoodic did in 2014. Edie Dixon’s novice hurdler, off two wins and a 3-year-old championship in 2013, spotted the field 10 lengths or so at the start of the $75,000 Mickey Walsh Novice at Saratoga, then ran past everyone to win by 4 lengths for trainer Jack Fisher and jockey Paddy Young.

“This horse doesn’t even know what he’s doing out there, he’s still a big backward baby,” said Young afterward. “My God he’s got some gears when you go for him. I’ve never felt that from him before in the three times I’ve ridden him, but today that was like a power boost. It was brilliant.That’s the difference between and OK horse and a very good horse.”

The son of Tiznow finished with two wins and a third in six starts, though the year ended with two sub-par efforts at Belmont Park and Far Hills. He eyes a 5-year-old campaign in 2015.

If Schoodic represented the youngsters, Fisher-trained stablemate All Together spoke up for the old-timers with yet another successful season. The son of Danzig put up $62,000 in earnings thanks to a win and three seconds in seven starts for owners Andre Brewster and Sheila Williams. The 9-year-old gelding, second in multiple Grade 1 starts in his career, won the restricted W. Gary Baker Memorial at Virginia Fall in October and passed $360,000 in lifetime earnings. He’ll be back for more in 2015.

Steeplechase fans barely got to know Long House Saint, but Rosbrian Farm’s Irish import stormed the late-autumn season with back-to-back wins at Far Hills and the Colonial Cup for trainer Ricky Hendriks. And there will be more opportunities next year. The 5-year-old knocked off the likes of Witor, Selection Sunday and Choral Society in the two wins after breaking his jump maiden in August at Ireland’s Kilbeggan meeting.

Relatively big names on the flat, Harrods Creek and Sal The Barber turned to steeplechasing in 2014 with varying degrees of the success. The former, racing for his breeder Dr. J. David Richardson and partners Michael Chipman and Richard Knapp, won a maiden hurdle at Monmouth Park in June and finished second in a Saratoga allowance for trainer Arch Kingsley. Harrods Creek placed in graded stakes on the flat and boasts career earnings of $319,971.

Eight-year-old Sal the Barber won a graded stakes on the flat for owner/breeder Lewis Schaffel and converted to jump racing after missing 2013. The son of Alphabet Soup fell in his first start, but improved steadily thereafter and won a maiden hurdle at Middleburg in October for trainer Jonathan Sheppard and leading jockey Willie McCarthy.

As always, there were others. Decoy Daddy went unbeaten in three starts to continue an unparalleled American career. The Irish-bred has won 10 jump races – and another on the flat – since coming to the U.S. in October 2010. He’ll never challenge the established Grade 1 stars, but would be a formidable opponent on the right course.

If Demonstrative and Divine Fortune ever want to try Montpelier’s Noel Laing in November, Decoy Daddy will be there.

“I think that course would give him more of an edge than the Temple Gwathmey (at Middleburg),” said Cyril Murphy, who trains the veteran for Irv Naylor. “Around there, he’s pretty good, but they’ve got better options. At level weights, it would be hard work. But you get 110 percent every time. It’s a shame there wasn’t another race for him after Montpelier. He would have peaked again.”

Murphy also got great production out of first-year jumper Address Unknown, who went from maiden to $93,000 earner with three wins and a second in four starts. The English-bred skipped Far Hills when Murphy was concerned with the turf being a little too soft, and opted to shut down the 2014 campaign.

“That was everything he was bought to do, and to see it come together was very nice,” said the trainer. “You probably won’t see much of him next spring because I think he truly is a racetrack-type horse. People were skeptical when we didn’t run at Far Hills, but he wants that racetrack firm ground. At Saratoga (a second to Schoodic) our horse was a little flat when push came to shove. Monmouth and Belmont (both wins), you saw what he could do.”

Looking Ahead
Pretty much all steeplechasers are getting some down time right now, though a few are out there in the foxhunting fields of Pennsylvania, Maryland, Virginia, the Carolinas and even Tennessee. Horses looking at spring campaigns will get back to work in January, others a bit later.

The National Steeplechase Association schedule launches again at Aiken, S.C. March 21 with the point-to-point season starting in February in Virginia.