Sunshine still bright for Kingsley

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At the end of a 22-minute interview about Sunshine Numbers, Arch Kingsley tried to put his horse into some perspective. “He’s a Grenade type of horse,” the trainer said. “Remember Grenade?”

Of course.

Grenade was something of a legend in the 1990s, winning a jump race at Saratoga for five consecutive seasons for owner John Peace and trainer Bruce Miller. Nearly black and as fragile as an Easter egg in the hands of a toddler, Grenade never ran more than five times in a single season but raced at least once for nine seasons – 1992-2000. Sunshine Numbers may or may not be the second coming of Grenade, but there are plenty of similarities. Owned by Sue and George Sensor, the 11-year-old dominated the first steeplechase stakes of the new season – Aiken’s $50,000 Imperial Cup – March 23 to improve to 9-for-20 over jumps. The record includes seven wins in his last 10 starts dating to 2009. The son of Polish Numbers ran twice in 2012, once in 2011. If Sunshine Numbers makes two more starts in 2013, Kingsley will consider the year an overwhelming success.

“It’s probably going to be a little while,” he said about his horse’s next start. “I don’t see much else for him this spring. We’ve got to be protective of where and when he goes. It’s no secret he’s a little bit fragile. He looks like he’s OK after the race, but he’s got wear and tear on him and it shows after he runs.”

More importantly, Sunshine Number is part of the family when it comes to Kingsley and longtime clients the Sensors. Purchased for $5,000 from flat trainer Ferris Allen, the New York-bred won his jump debut in 2008 and has taken his connections on a joy ride ever since. The bold-jumping, (usually) front-running gelding counts $168,200 in earnings over fences and owes no one.

At Aiken, former champion jockey Kingsley broke out the tack again (his two rides in 2012 both came aboard his stable star) and coaxed his horse off the pace early. Sunshine Numbers stayed just behind the leaders – Cuse and 2012 Imperial Cup winner Pullyourfingerout – then blasted away to score by 11 lengths over multiple stakes winner Country Cousin. It wasn’t that close.

“He’s such a cool horse,” Kingsley said. “For as little as he campaigns now, his heart is so in it. He absolutely lives for it and gives me a ton of confidence as a rider. It’s hard to do it every now and again, but you throw your leg over a horse like Sunshine and there’s no question that you’re capable of doing it. He can jump a fence like no other horse.”

Kingsley rode stakes stars Correggio, Mario, Ninepins, Romantic and others in his career. They couldn’t match this horse, whose flat career included three wins in 33 starts. Sunshine Numbers gets more push from his hind legs, and brings such confidence to the task at hand, that he’s the perfect steeplechaser.

“The good horses I rode, some of them could give you one, maybe two fences in a race like Sunshine does six or seven times,” Kingsley said. “He’s got such power to his jumping; that is his biggest strength. And when you get him relaxed, whether it’s back in the pack or alone on the lead, he’s got a relentless gallop.”

Somehow, he keeps it going for 2-plus miles a race, all these years into his career. Based in Camden, S.C. all year (other than during the Saratoga meet), Kingsley keeps the old man happy and under control – harnessing the energy, babying the legs, hoping everything comes together on raceday.

Going into Aiken, Kingsley was not exactly feeling like Coach K heading into March Madness. Sunshine Numbers worked, not well, 10 days out. He didn’t cool out all that well, backed out of the feed tub, was too aggressive when he started galloping again. Then everything changed.

“The last three days, he got it all back together,” Kingsley said. “After the breeze, none of it was going the way I’d like but he’s got a sixth sense of when something is coming and has a way of putting himself right. By the race, he was like ‘Arch, we got this man.’ “

Sunshine Numbers shouldn’t be a success story. Not still. He’s too old, too unsound, too hard on himself. But those are tangible, measurable, quantifiable characteristics of the racehorse. Measure the intangibles, and Sunshine Numbers is young, healthy, easy, great.

“It’s so rare, he’s got that ability to overcome his soundness issues,” Kingsley said. “Mentally he rises to the occasion when put under pressure. It’s the combination of qualities you look for in a horse that you can’t identify in the sales ring or even articulate very well, but when you get one, you can tell. We call it heart, toughness, ability, athleticism, all of it. He’s got that elusive ‘it’ that we look for in a good horse.”

Just like Grenade.

Beyond Sunshine

– Give Camden-based trainer Britt Graham the gold star for a double on the day – getting a $25,000 optional claiming hurdle win with veteran Sir Dynamite for owner Dale Thiel and a conditioned claiming win with Moving Violation for Thiel’s daughter Laura Shull. Mark Watts rode both winners.

Sir Dynamite, an 8-year-old son of Dynaformer (they’re still going), collected a $15,000 payday after starting for a $10,000 tag last fall at Shawan Downs and a $5,000 tag on the flat last August. At Aiken, the Pennsylvania-bred took over from last year’s 3-year-old champion More Tea Vicar late and won by 6 ½ lengths.

Kentucky-bred Moving Violation halted an eight-race and three-year losing streak (flat and jump) by building a 20-length lead and making it stand up to win by 8 ¾ lengths over Ez Mac.

– Thiel picked up another win early in the day when first-time starter Meeting (Paddy Young) graduated with a maiden claiming score for trainer Ricky Hendriks. Bred by Darley, the son of Street Sense was claimed by Hendriks in October after losing a 10th consecutive flat start. At Aiken, he emerged from mid-pack to take the lead late and won by 4 lengths over Apostasy.

– Louisiana-bred Pleasant Woodman became the year’s first jump winner, powering off by 22 ¾ lengths in a maiden hurdle for Virginia Lazenby and Farm D’Allie Racing. Doug Fout trained the winner, who used four starts last year to make the conversion from a 1-for-16 flat career.

– Aiken gave a glimpse at this weekend’s Carolina Cup novice hurdle stakes when Alajmal won the training flat race for trainer Janet Elliot. If the flat race is any indication, the 5-year-old – novice champion of 2012 – will be tough to handle in his seasonal hurdle debut.

Tod Marks Photo Gallery from Aiken.