Cup of Coffee: Dirty Work

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On May 16, 2006…

Saddam Hussein refused to enter a plea to formal charges of crimes against humanity.  Richard Hatch, the winner of the first Survivor Series, was sentenced to four years in prison for failing to pay taxes on his reality TV earnings. Barry Bonds chased Babe Ruth and Hank Aaron for the all-time home run title. President Bush said he would send 6,000 National Guard troops to help secure the Mexican border. Invasor approached his American debut. The Saratoga Special was three months away from beginning year six. And Jonathan Sheppard unveiled a first-time starter in the fourth race at Delaware Park.

Today, only Sheppard’s action holds any relevance.

Ramon Dominguez took the call on a gawky chestnut gelding. Bettors sent them off at nearly 6-1 in the 5 ½-furlong maiden claimer, they didn’t threaten, finishing 10 lengths behind Ancient Fleet.

Nine years later, Dominguez is retired, Ancient Fleet hasn’t been seen since finishing eighth in a $4,000 claimer at Penn National in 2008 and Divine Fortune is still going strong. He makes his sixth appearance in the A.P. Smithwick Memorial Steeplechase today.

After his career debut, the long-striding, big-boned, head-high son of Royal Anthem and the Northern Fling mare My Tombola made two more starts on the flat before making his hurdle debut at Virginia Fall in October 2006. He lost his first four starts over hurdles, then won four of his next five, including a flat race at Colonial Downs, an allowance hurdle at Saratoga and a novice hurdle stakes at the Meadowlands. Yes, the Meadowlands. He was another burgeoning star for the high-octane barn. 

Then he went missing from November 3, 2007 to November 7, 2009. That’s 734 days if you’re counting. Stall rest, turn out, forgotten about, that’s kind of the routine around Sheppard’s Pennsylvania farm when a horse bows a tendon or strains a suspensory. It happens. Nobody panics. Time heals all wounds.

Divine Fortune proved he was healed, winning an allowance race over hurdles in April 2010 and returning to Saratoga three years after his debut here to win the Smithwick.

Two starts and a year later, he won it again. A year later, he finished fifth in the Smithwick, then crashed at the last fence in the New York Turf Writers Cup. He bounced back. In 2013, he picked up a third-place check in the Smithwick. Last year, he pulled up in the Smithwick.

And today, 44 starts after making his debut, Divine Fortune makes another hike up the mountain, taking on seven rivals – ranging from three to six years younger – in today’s $125,000 hurdle feature. It will be Divine Fortune’s sixth appearance in the Grade 1 stakes. Most likely, he won’t win – 2 1/6-miles seem too sharp for him these days – but that’s OK, he owes us nothing.

As recently as November, Divine Fortune turned back the clock with a flawless performance in the Colonial Cup. They say dance like nobody’s watching, that day, Divine Fortune jumped like nobody was watching, lengthening his stride as he approached the wings and lifting off. Horsemen and fans, with nothing to do with him, gasped for split seconds every time he launched. It was a work of art, in a tornado. Divine Fortune skipped across the line, 9 lengths clear of Demonstrative, who had drubbed him three straight times leading up to the Colonial Cup.

I walked away that day, awed by Divine Fortune’s performance and what he’s taught us over the years.

Resiliency. He lost his first 14 attempts in Grade 1 stakes, finally breaking out with a win in the 2013 Grand National. How many horses start in 14 Grade 1 stakes? Divine Fortune lost his first 14 tilts at the ultimate prize. When he finally won his Grade 1, at age 10, the sport stopped and saluted.

Forgiveness. He’s fallen twice and lost his jockey once. When you jump with panache, sometimes you fall with panache. His falls are dramatic, then he gets up, shakes it off like he was in a charity dunk tank and comes back again, jumping like he’d never fallen. His defeats can look humbling, then he walks home, regroups and comes back swinging for more.

Respect. Every time, a rival trainer beats him, they walk toward the winner’s circle in awe of what he had done ahead of their horse. See, Divine Fortune does the dirty work, day after day, race after race, he’s in front, running free, going a tick faster than even he should.

Enjoyment. Watching Divine Fortune train Wednesday morning, it’s hard to know who’s enjoying it more, the horse, the trainer, the exercise rider or the writer. He glided, high-stepping, like he was let out for recess.

Today, Divine Fortune lines up for his 46th career start – nine years, two months and 22 days since his debut at Delaware Park. But, who’s counting?