Throwing a Strike in the Colonial Cup

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Sue Sensor hugged and cried at the top of the grandstand. Arch Kingsley numbly walked down the far steps. Wendy Kingsley walked up the center steps in slow-motion awe. Jaime Camacho, hell, he was on the inside rail pumping his left fist and throwing a halter and shank like a cowboy throws a lasso.  

“He was brilliant, wasn’t he?” Sensor said, crying, moments after the race. “Just brilliant.”

“Oh my God,” said Wendy Kingsley as she searched for her husband in the bedlam of winning the sport’s most iconic race.

“He’s a nice horse,” Arch Kingsley said, jostling between bear hugs and high fives. “He’s a nice horse.”

A nice horse before the Colonial Cup, Top Striker became a top horse in the Colonial Cup, handing certain Eclipse Award winner Rawnaq his first and only defeat during the season. Not just a defeat, a drubbing, as Top Striker drew off to win the $150,000 stakes by 10 ½ lengths at Springdale Race Course in Camden, S.C. Nov. 19. Owned by Sue and George Sensor, trained by Kingsley and ridden by Ross Geraghty, Top Striker earned his fifth career victory – his first Grade 1 stakes – in his 16th start over hurdles. The 7-year-old son of Van Nistelrooy missed the 2015 season but made up for it with a busy 2016, starting seven times over hurdles from Fair Hill to Saratoga and once on the flat at Laurel Park. The Maryland-bred somehow got better as the season wore on, winning the Zeke Ferguson Memorial at the International Gold Cup in October and the Colonial Cup in November.

Two days before the Colonial Cup, Kingsley touted his stable star.

“He seems really well with himself, coming off a win always gives you confidence, the home-field advantage always seems to count for something for me around here,” Kingsley said, from his shedrow down the sandy lane between the training field and the hunter trial field at Springdale Training Center. “The horse is doing as well as he’s ever done, he’s run well here before, he won the Carolina Cup, he broke his maiden here. Look at him, that’s him squealing right there, he’s announcing himself.”

With that, Camacho led Top Striker out of a stall and down the shedrow for Kingsley to shoe. The former champion steeplechase jockey breaks young horses and trains a handful of jumpers. He gallops them himself, and yes, shoes them too.

Thursday morning, two days before his biggest day, Top Striker was too fresh to shoe.

“Look at this son of a…” Kingsley said, as the gelding aiming a jump race looked more like a stallion going to the breeding shed. “Take him out Jaime, we’ll come back later. Go ahead and turn him out.”

Hand clutching a snap shank underneath Top Striker’s halter, Camacho talked to his horse, “Hey, hey…ahchacha….achhcahchca…Banderro…”

Kingsley laughed.

“He’s doing great, man, he’s doing great,” Kingsley said as Camacho led Top Striker to a small paddock and unfurled the torrent.

Top Striker, bandaged in front, bucked, kicked, pranced, squealed and spun for minutes, then settled down to pick at a pile of loose timothy hay.

“He’ll be out for the afternoon, sun on his back,” Kingsley said. “He loves it, he’s a very expressive horse, you know exactly how he’s doing.”

Two days later, Geraghty knew exactly how he was doing.

“It was like we just cantered around in a Grade 1,” Geraghty said. “It was the pace I wanted to go and I knew I could quicken off it.”

Sean McDermott sent Rawnaq to the front, creating separation quickly to the first hurdle. Geraghty slid Top Striker from the outside post to the inside in a matter of strides.

“I was hoping to get to the inside,” Geraghty said. “I broke, Sean was handy, and I looked over and said, ‘What are they doing?’ I drifted over and got a lead.”

Rawnaq rumbled over the first three hurdles as Days Of Heaven pulled into a stalking spot from the outside and Geraghty convinced Top Striker into a lone spot in third on the inside. The rest lumped in a clump, biding their time in a separate sphere. Under the wire for the first time, Days Of Heaven hounded Rawnaq from the outside while Top Striker continued to lope comfortably in third. Rawnaq led, but perhaps without the same verve as he displayed in his three stakes wins this season.

Heading down the backside with the famous five in a line, Rawnaq met the first one short, but was efficient. He met the next one, short, but adequately. The next hurdle came up short again, fine, but far from tempo-breaking. McDermott opened the tap and gunned Rawnaq at the next one, the Irish-bred launched low and long, the same mode as his deal breaker at the first down the back in the Grand National. Instead of cracking the egg in half like he did that day, the jump hardly altered the tempo of the chasing pack.

Rawnaq led over the third-last but the rest were in touch, a far cry from Rawnaq’s three previous wins this year when his high cruising speed and relentless gallop put rivals on the defense from the beginning.

Geraghty wanted to wait but felt the others coming and knew he couldn’t sneak through McDermott’s inside. Sometimes you have to turn the switch, just to see what happens.

“The plan was to get a lead over the last but I was afraid they were going to box me in, I moved out and as soon as I gave him daylight, he jumped on the bit and started running,” Geraghty said. “I said, ‘I’m not disappointing you.’ I let him go. He flew the second-to-last, then the last was there, I had lots of horse, when he landed, away he went.”

Before the race, Kingsley and Geraghty, riding Top Striker for the first time, rehearsed the Colonial Cup. Kingsley explained how he wanted Top Striker to settle in the 2 ¾-mile stakes, how he wanted Geraghty to sit still, just squeeze, at the hurdles. Geraghty explained how he rode Dawalan to win the Grade 1 hurdle stakes last year, how he saw similarities between the two horses.

The trainer and the jockey went over every scenario and then Kingsley offered Geraghty freedom.

“Everything we talked about, throw it out the window and do whatever you want,” Kingsley said to Geraghty as the Irish veteran climbed aboard Top Striker in the paddock, moments before the upset of the year.

In seven starts this year, Bernie Dalton and Paddy Young partnered Top Striker. With Young tabbed for Jamarjo and Dalton pegged for Diplomat, Kingsley needed a jockey. He thought of doing it himself (he’s come in and out of retirement over the years), then he talked to Australian jockey Steven Pateman, who rode Top Striker in 2014, then he took a call from Geraghty a week or so before the Colonial Cup.

“Willie McCarthy called me and we’re chitchatting about the Colonial Cup, we talked about Top Striker, we didn’t know who was going to ride him. I was sitting on my own horse, Black Quartz, and I said, ‘I’ll just call Arch and see.’ That was it, I called and he said 80 percent,” Geraghty said. “I had to sell myself to him, I wanted to ride this horse, I didn’t want to just take part, I wanted a live shot. I’m not sure he thought I would suit the horse and then we talked about how I rode Dawalan last year, he said, ‘That’s how I want my horse ridden.’ I was excited about this horse, I thought he would win it.”

So did Kingsley. Openly confident as a jockey and quietly confident as a trainer, Kingsley knew he had the wheels greased.

“He’s finally fit, I don’t think he’s been quite all-the-way fit all year,” Kingsley said. “He’s an older man, he’s taken his time getting right, he’s really well right now. I love the way he’s training.”

There is nothing like a local win in Camden. Whether it’s the Carolina Cup in the spring (which Top Striker won in 2014) or the Colonial Cup in the fall. For the Sensors, it was the culmination of a lifetime in steeplechasing.

“He just exploded after the last fence,” George Sensor said. “There was a lot of green and yellow (silks). It was hard to tell if it was him or not. You never know. I said, ‘I’ll be happy if he gets around safely,’ but to see him win like that…Wow.”

Long after the trophy celebration, Sue Sensor was still in awe.

“I’m stunned, I am stunned. Ever since Great Meadow, his attitude has been like ‘I’m the man. When do we run again?’ When Arch pulled the truck and trailer up to go to Callaway (two weeks before), he was like, ‘Me? My turn, my turn,’ ” she said. “I thought the distance and the weights and the ground suited him at Great Meadow and coming here I figured Rawnaq was going to do it again. We could be second, third, fourth. I would have been delighted with that. And then for him to do what he did…watching it, I had dropped my glasses and I saw Rawnaq come over the (last fence) and I thought we were going to be second and then it was ‘Whoa, that’s that face I know.’ It’s Top Striker.’ “

Bred in Maryland by Richard Golden’s Sycamore Hall Farm, Top Striker won his first two starts on the flat for Golden and trainer Rodney Jenkins in the summer of 2012. Switched to Michael Matz that fall, the son of Van Nistelrooy won for a $30,000 claming price at Gulfstream Park in January. Kingsley made the private purchase shortly thereafter. Produced from the Cozzene mare Two’s Cozy, the 7-year-old has won five of 16 hurdle starts and earned $264,650. Two’s Cozy, whose dam Sparkling Number was a multiple stakes winner, is a half-sister to Grade 1 winner Illuminant, a recent $900,000 purchase at Fasig-Tipton November.