Robbie Power stood tall in his irons and pumped his right fist three times. A posse of Irishmen roared from the ground around him. It could have been Aintree. Cheltenham. Punchestown. Or Far Hills.
The 36-year-old Irish jockey has won the biggest races on the biggest stages. Saturday in New Jersey, he reached American steeplechasing’s biggest stage, guiding Jury Duty to an easy win the Grand National at the Far Hills Races.
“It couldn’t have worked out better, I’ve won an English and an Irish Grand National, it’s great to have an American one,” Power said, respectful of the accomplishment, as he rode on the back of a golf cart to catch a shuttle home after the races.
Owned by Sideways Syndicate and trained in Ireland by Gordon Elliott, Jury Duty stood out among the group of foreign raiders. Only one American-bred, the gallant All The Way Jose, met the starter’s flag in the $450,000 feature, which topped a record-breaking $900,000 day of racing. Without 2018 earnings leader Zanjabeel (out with a tendon injury), the Grand National looked like a solid Grade 3 chase at Aintree, Cheltenham or Punchestown.
Days Of Heaven was making his first American start since finishing third in the 2016 Colonial Cup, he had won three in a row and lost seven in a row since. Jaleo, 1-for-12 in the past two seasons was making his first American start for Bruton Street-US and British-based trainer Ben Pauling. Tornado Watch, 118-rated hurdler in Ireland, shipped in for the race for owner/trainer Emmet Mullins. Hammersly Lake tried again, after finishing fifth in the Grand National last year. Clarcam, the Galway Plate winner in August, searched for that form after two weak efforts at Saratoga and Belmont Park. Ten-year-old Hinterland had finished second at Belmont but hadn’t won since 2013. Dawalan, a champion in 2015, was making his first start since pulling up in the 2017 Iroquois.
No, it wasn’t exactly the McDynamo years.
Jury Duty, a 7-year-old son of Well Chosen, arrived at Far Hills Wednesday. He cantered Thursday, schooled Friday and earned $270,000 Saturday. A solid chaser in Ireland, he had earned $204,005 in 21 starts before the Grand National.
“A lot of money,” Elliott said of the winner’s check. “A lot of money.”
Elliott has Far Hills on his radar each year. The prolific Irishman nearly won the Grand National with Eshtiaal in 2015 and shipped Zanjabeel to win the Foxbrook Champion Hurdle last year. This year, Elliott engineered the voyages of 3-year-old Caldbeck and novice Veneer Of Charm to run at Far Hills for Rosbrian Farm and Ricky Hendriks, kept Clarcam with Hendriks for another try and decided to add Jury Duty to the mix 12 days earlier. Two days after Jury Duty chased Woodland Opera and Power in the PWC Champion Steeplechase at Gowran Park, Elliott called members of the Sideways Syndicate and offered a plan.
“To be honest, I rang the owners last Monday week and I says, ‘Look, the race could come up with a small field, will you have a go at it?’ The boys said, ‘Kick on.’ The boys are plucky, they’ll go with whatever I say, they said, we’ll have a rattle at it,” Elliott said. “He’s a good horse, a Grade 2 or Grade 3 in Ireland, that’s all you need here. I ran him in a race at Gowran Park two weeks and I was worried that it might took the edge off him. Robert gave him a great ride and it’s great to win it.”
Days Of Heaven took up the pacesetting chores early as Clarcam filed into second and Hammersly Lake settled in third. Jaleo found a spot in fourth. Jury Duty adopted a nice spot outside All The Way Jose in the middle of the group as Tornado Watch, Hinterland and Dawalan settled in the back. After three hurdles, Clarcam took over to open up on Jaleo and Hammersly Lake as Days Of Heaven slid into fourth. Jury Duty and Tornado Watch loped along as a pair. After a circuit, Jaleo picked it up and took over from Clarcam, opening an ambitious 4 lengths. Power allowed Jury Duty to creep closer, still outside and still fifth.
“He jumped the first three or four fences a little bit sticky because he had had been jumping the chase fences in Ireland,” Power said. “The further the race went the better he traveled.”
Turning down the backside the final time, Jury Duty loomed into fourth, outside and in the clear. By the time the field landed over the second-last, Jaleo still led but Jury Duty had his sights squarely on him and the others had tests on their desks. Around the turn and past the inside gap which causes friction most years, Jaleo began to waver, Jury Duty pounced from the outside, Days Of Heaven tried to sneak through on the inside, Tornado Watch tried to go outside, then switched to inside Jury Duty and All The Way Jose circled widest of all. Jury Duty lugged left slightly while Power sat still and yanked on his right rein like he was tuning a bow rather than winning the Grand National.
“From halfway down the back straight, I was fairly confident,” Power said. “He has pulled up in front once or twice, so I was just hoping he would keep on going.”
Over the road crossing and up the hill, Power finally asked and Jury Duty gave, sliding across the track to the left and flying the final hurdle as Tornado Watch gave valiant chase. Power hit Jury Duty twice right-handed, once left-handed and the Grand National was to put to bed. Jury Duty drew off to score by 3 ¼ lengths over Tornado Watch who had 10 lengths on All The Way Jose. Jury Duty finished 2 5/8 miles over yielding ground in 5:14.20.
“I was fairly hopeful coming over if he took the travel and everything went well that he had a big chance,” Power said. “His prep run at Gowran Park was unbelievable. It’s probably his ideal trip, 2 miles and 5 furlongs. He’s got beaten over 3 miles a few times when he didn’t quite get home.”
Power, riding at Far Hills for the first time, watched some vidoes of Rawnaq and Dawalan winning the Grand National and then walked the course with American-based Irishman Ross Geraghty (a winner of three American Grand Nationals).
“Ross knows this place like the back of his hand, when you get that sort of information about a track it’s a big help,” Power said. “The ground was OK, it’s American soft but it’s perfect jumping ground for an Irish horse and that’s his best surface. We would call it good to yielding, a little bit chopped up on the bends but it’s generally nice jumping ground. It’s a fantastic course, the atmosphere, even going around there, you can feel the atmosphere.”
For now, the American atmosphere will continue for Jury Duty.
“Gordon said keep him. Plan on switching him to your name and plan on running him at Montpelier (for the Noel Laing Nov. 3). He ships home on the 15th,” Hendriks said. “He’s great, not a bother on him. He looks like a nice chaser type horse. Cool looking horse, fit looking, maybe somebody will buy him, not sure what’s going to happen.”
For Power, Elliott and Sideways Syndicate, it had already happened.