The Year of the Shirt: How did it happen?

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Good Night Shirt heads into this weekend unbeaten and virtually untested in four Grade I starts this season. The drive for five leads to the Colonial Cup at Camden, where a win would cap one greatest seasons ever in American steeplechasing. How did he do it? The Times asked The Shirt’s regular jockey Willie Dowling that very question.

Atlanta, April 12 – Grade I, $100,000 Georgia Cup. 2 miles.

Good Night Shirt stared the 2008 season as steeplechasing's brightest star. The legendary McDynamo had retired but Good Night Shirt showed in the 2007 Colonial Cup that he was ready to take over the reins. Trainer Jack Fisher opted to kick of his campaign with the shorter Georgia Cup, a 2-mile stakes run under weight-for-age conditions, rather than the Grade I Royal Chase, a 2 1/2-mile handicap held five days later at Keeneland.

Though Atlanta didn't figure to be Good Night Shirt's sternest test of the season, the distance and five-month layoff were reasons for trepidation. Good Night Shirt broke running and settled into second behind the accomplished Hip Hop, who had the benefit of a run on the season and a liking to the shorter distance. Good Night Shirt stalked Hip Hop early and bid for command at the second-last. The two leaders reached the final fence together when Good Night Shirt’s old habit of erring at a crucial jump returned. He botched the last, spotting Hip Hop a 2-length lead as they sprinted to the wire. Showing his class and determination, he re-rallied late and pulled clear in the final yards for a 1 1/2-length win. Though the circumstances were far from ideal it was obvious the champ was back.

“I didn’t think the ground was very nice that day. It was pretty slick and that contributed to his jumping not being the best,” Dowling said. “It was his first run for a long time and he was a bit rusty but he showed that he’s pretty classy to be able to swap back to the 2 miles and be as good as he was because 2 miles was not his thing.”

Nashville, May 10 – Grade I, $150,000 Iroquois. 3 miles.

The 2007 Iroquois marked Good Night Shirt’s coming-out party; the 2008 edition validated him as a true superstar. Bounding straight to the lead in the 3-mile stakes, the champion never looked back and never had an anxious moment en route to a 4 1/2-length win. The margin could have been three times that much if Dowling wanted. The errors that plagued Good Night Shirt in the past, and at Atlanta, were nowhere to be found at Percy Warner Park, which is quickly becoming one of his favorite haunts.

“He loves that place and the 3 miles. The track there gives him more time to do whatever he needs to do. He broke his maiden there as well so there’s something about that place that he likes,” Dowling said. “I think last year when we won it it was a bit of a surprise, but this year we were the ones to beat and he ran like it. He improved a lot off the Atlanta race and his jumping was great.”

Belmont Park, Sept. 21 – Grade I, $150,000 Lonesome Glory. 2 1/2 miles.

After a customary summer freshening of “just being a horse,” as Fisher likes to say, Good Night Shirt returned at Belmont for a defense of his Lonesome Glory title. Dowling almost came a cropper at the last in 2007, when what seemed an easy score turned tenuous late before the Irishman righted himself – and Good Night Shirt – to hold sway for the win.

This year there was no such drama. Good Night Shirt stalked pace setter Red Letter Day early, took charge with four fences remaining and drew off with ease to score by 3 3/4 lengths while leaving plenty in the tank for Far Hills.

As at Nashville, Belmont’s expansive oval allows Good night Shirt to stretch his legs and keep up his relentless gallop that wears his competition down.

“For a racetrack, it’s a big galloping course and one that suits him. He gets to keep his momentum up,” Dowling said. “Going 2 1/2 miles and only two circuits, he was very professional and as good as ever.”

Far Hills, Oct. 18 – Grade I, $250,000 Grand National. 2 5/8 miles.

One question remained. Could he handle Far Hills?

Good Night Shirt wavered in boggy ground there as a novice in 2005, checking in fourth – beaten 27 lengths – in the Grade I Foxbrook. Two years later he returned to test the McDynamo over his favorite course and the soggy turf he loved. Good Night Shirt took a bold run at McDynamo down the hill the final time before tailing off and finishing fourth.

Entering Far Hills this year the critics pointed to Good Night Shirt’s 0-for-2 record at the meet, while his fans noted that he is a much-improved horse. Score one for the latter. Good Night Shirt dominated the Grand National, stalking the early pace of Red Letter Day before dragging Dowling to the lead on the downhill turn and winning by a geared-down 4 lengths. Once again Dowling spared the competition.

Far Hills represented the last uncleared hurdle for Good Night Shirt. The accomplishment wasn’t lost on his jockey.

“It was nice to take the monkey off his back, good to get it done there after last year. For the horse to win there was something special for me because I knew how much Jack wanted it,” Dowling said. “The ground stayed good, which helped, but he would have been tough on any ground. He was relaxed and very good for me. This year, he’s won at 2 miles, 3 miles, 2 1/2 miles, 2 5/8 miles. Now we’ve got to add 2 3/4 miles to it.”