As good as he was as a racehorse, I will always remember the eye and the expression of 2004 steeplechase champion Hirapour. When the Irish-bred looked at you, he looked at you.
Retired since 2006 and 27 years old, Hirapour died Sunday in Virginia. Trainer Doug Fout called it one of his “saddest days of horse training” and I understand. Hirapour was pretty special.
For Fout and owner Ken Luke’s Eldon Farm, the bay gelding made 15 starts (all but one over hurdles). He won seven, finished second four times and was third three times. Each start over jumps came in a major stakes race, topped by Grade 1 scores in the 2004 and 2005 Royal Chase at Keeneland, 2004 Colonial Cup in South Carolina and 2005 New York Turf Writers Cup at Saratoga. Hirapour earned $591,210 in his American career, collected the 2004 Eclipse Award as champion jumper and – when the time came – received a fitting retirement.
A second career as a riding horse was somewhat out of the question thanks in part to an old ankle injury and a habit of spooking at pretty much anything he thought he saw. Instead, Hirapour became a mascot around the place.
“He was a ham,” said Fout of Hirapour’s life after racing. “He would come up every evening and people would rub on him. He loved the attention. And he’d outrun anybody we put him with. He was the pet of the farm.”
More recently, Hirapour had lost several teeth and had difficulty eating so was fed a mash every day. When spring arrived, he didn’t lose his winter coat, didn’t carry as much weight and didn’t respond the way he had as a younger horse. His people made the difficult decision to have him euthanized.
“You could tell he wasn’t looking as good, wasn’t as comfortable and you’d hate to see it get worse,” Fout said. “He was my once-in-a-lifetime horse and will be sorely missed.”
Bred by the Aga Khan’s Studs, the son of Irish stallion Kahyasi and the Mouktar mare Himaya was meant to be a flat horse and made two starts with trainer John Oxx as a 3-year-old. He and jockey Johnny Murtagh won a maiden in August 1999. Sold to Michael Watt and transferred to Irish trainer Dermot Weld, Hirapour won again and even tried Ascot’s Duke of Edinburgh Handicap in 2000. Hirapour finished 17th, far behind Katiykha (also a member of the Aga Khan’s 1996 Irish crop). Moved to trainer Amanda Perrett in 2001, Hirapour won twice on the flat but didn’t progress and sold for 11,000 guineas as a jump prospect at the end of the 2002 season.
Over hurdles with trainer Ian Williams in 2003, Hirapour won five in a row – handicaps at Ludlow (April 2), Exeter (April 8), Perth (April 24), Aintree (May 16) and Kelso (May 21) – by a combined 68 1/2 lengths. The connections entered him in the Doncaster sale, and the price was going to be well above 11,000 guineas. On the advice of agent Aidan Murphy, Fout and Luke’s racing manager Rob Nelson went to England to look at Hirapour – a potential big step forward for the Eldon steeplechase division.
“I vividly remember that day,” said Nelson. “He was covered in mud and all furry, but he was also so strong and confident. He really impressed Dougie. We went over there to look at this one horse and ended up buying him after a long conversation with Ken.”
For his new connections, Hirapour won on the flat at Great Meadow in October 2003, then won a $100,000 novice hurdle stakes in the first of several battles with Preemptive Strike at Pine Mountain.
The 2004 season took another step forward. Second to Preemptive Strike at the Carolina Cup in March, Hirapour defeated that rival in the $150,000 Royal Chase at Keeneland in April. Shelved over the summer, he finished second to McDynamo in the Breeders’ Cup at Far Hills in October and then ousted that champion, Preemptive Strike and Sur La Tete in the season-ending Colonial Cup in a showdown for the championship. Preemptive Strike built a huge lead early, denied Sur La Tete’s challenge with a half-mile to go and turned back McDynamo, but couldn’t hold off Hirapour – who ran by them all in the stretch.
“He’s one of the hardest-trying horses in this game,” said jockey Matt McCarron afterward. “He did everything right. He jumped the fences perfectly, he waited for the right time and when I called on him, he gave me absolutely 1,000 percent. He just wore that other horse down and was absolutely legless exhausted when he pulled up.”
Hirapour won the Eclipse Award vote in a landslide.
Back for more in 2005, Hirapour didn’t win the championship but was every bit as good while trading punches with a strong cast of heavyweights.
Sur La Tete won the Carolina Cup by a head over Hirapour, who conceded four pounds, with Preemptive Strike third. Back at Keeneland, McDynamo (162 pounds), Hirapour (160) and Sur La Tete (156) lined up going 2 1/2 miles. Hirapour rallied from seventh to win going away. Sur La Tete captured the Iroquois over McDynamo as Hirapour waited for Saratoga. Hirapour won a training flat race at the Open House July 24, but McCarron broke his arm in a fall three days later. Third for Chip Miller in the A.P. Smithwick Aug. 8, Hirapour reunited with a healed McCarron for the Turf Writers Sept. 2 and won by 3 3/4 lengths. They returned to a standing ovation from the crowd in the box seats.
“That was the best moment for me,” said Fout. “He had hurt that ankle a little bit, Matt got hurt and came back. Hirapour was so gutsy and did everything right. He just stood there as cool as could be afterward and soaked it up.”
McDynamo clinched the 2005 championship with season-ending wins in the Breeders’ Cup at Far Hills (Hirapour finished third in soft ground) and the Colonial Cup (Hirapour finished second).
Nelson always figured personality helped Hirapour, along with all the ability.
“He had his own mindset and was a very determined horse, super competitive about everything,” he said. “We were competing against some really good horses when you think about it. I think he knew he was good, so confident, and he wasn’t afraid of anybody else.”
In 2006, Hirapour didn’t run until Saratoga – where he won the Smithwick by 4 over future champion Good Night Shirt and was fifth (his only worse-than-third finish) in the Turf Writers. McDynamo won the Colonial Cup, with Hirapour third, to close the 2006 season and clinch a third Eclipse Award in four years.
That would be Hirapour’s final start, as the racing career ended and the turnout career began. All in, Hirapour earned $697,486 and won at least once for each of his four owners.
“He did everything for us and opened a ton of doors,” said Nelson, who helped Luke (who died last year) navigate to the upper reaches of racing as an owner, breeder and pinhooker. “I feel so good to have been a small part of it.”
Nobody spent more time with Hirapour in retirement than Beth Fout. A regular aboard former racehorses such as High Action and Dark Equation in second careers, she didn’t turn Hirapour into a foxhunter or a show horse but she loved his company.
“I only rode him twice,” she said of two sessions while he was still a racehorse. “Halfway through the first one he lit up and there were not too many horses I’ve sat on and felt I was way over-horsed. He was so athletic, and ambidextrous with the way he would go. I knew ever after that he was not one I wanted to take home and ride.”
She cared for pretty much his every need in retirement though, making sure he was healthy, getting his “mush” ready to eat after he lost his teeth (one in the hindquarters of Dark Equation) and simply letting and old horse enjoy life.
“He connected with you,” she said. “He had an unusual personality in a very tough little body. He was sweet in the paddock, sweet all the years we had him retired. He lived 20 yards out the back door and was loved every step of the way.”