The battle lines drawn last fall will play out again March 28 at the 77th annual Carolina Cup Races, when two-time steeplechase champion Good Night Shirt and speedball Preemptive Strike renew a budding rivalry in the day’s featured $75,000 Carolina First Carolina Cup (NSA-II).
Historic Springdale Race Course hosts six races totaling $170,000 but none more important than the 2 1/4-mile feature, an open stakes for the first time since 2005.
Last fall Good Night Shirt and Preemptive Strike hooked up in a memorable running of the Colonial Cup (NSA-I), with the former needing every inch of the 2 3/4 miles to wear down a stubborn and tenacious Preemptive Strike and score by a neck. The victory capped off an undefeated season for Sonny Via's Good Night Shirt, and cemented his second consecutive Eclipse Award as champion steeplechaser.
Trained by Jack Fisher, Good Night Shirt continued to raise the bar in 2008. The son of Concern broke the single-season earnings record he set in 2007 with $485,520. All five of his victories – the Georgia Cup, Iroquois, Lonesome Glory, Grand National and Colonial Cup – came in grade I stakes, and prior to the Colonial Cup he had won his four races by 13 3/4 lengths.
On Saturday, Good Night Shirt embarks on his path to a three-peat, and will carry 158 pounds under allowance conditions. Last fall, he carried level weights (156) with Preemptive Strike in the Colonial Cup. This year the latter gets in at 150 pounds, and that spread is one of the many things that Good Night Shirt's regular jockey Willie Dowling will have to think about.
"The weight is a little bit of a worry, but really the half-mile shorter is the big advantage Preemptive Strike will have,” said Dowling. “Obviously I'll be more aware of Preemptive Strike this time around and I won't let him get away again early; I'll be right beside him.
"But I watched the Colonial Cup about 100 times this week and we were going pretty good too a half-mile from home, so I think we'll be fine. Jack and I also think that the shorter trip helps with Good Night Shirt's first run of the year, as it has him pretty keen."
Like the Colonial Cup last fall, the Carolina Cup is run over Springdale's larger brush fences that Preemptive Strike has excelled over in the past. Fisher enters knowing it won't be easy.
"Preemptive Strike's my biggest threat," Fisher said. "He ran a great race last fall, and he's a good enough horse to make you think. He's better over the Cup fences and he's even tougher at a shorter distance. I don't worry about a lot of things, but he's one of them."
Polaris Stable's Preemptive Strike (Jody Petty to ride, 150 pounds) brings a dangerous blend of speed and stamina every time he meets the starter. Now 11, the son of Roanoke did little wrong in 2008, finishing in the money in all four starts, including a win in the Imperial Cup to open the season.
Trainer Sanna Hendriks has gotten Preemptive Strike – once known as a runaway who would open 20 to 30 lengths on the field – to settle early in his races and leave more starch for the stretch run. The style worked to perfection in the 2008 Imperial Cup, where Preemptive Strike set a measured pace and drew off in the lane, and it almost worked in the Colonial Cup, where he held a sensible three- to four-length lead over Good Night Shirt for much of the running.
"We've worked hard at harnessing his speed since he came into our program and it helped him have a really good year in 2008," Hendriks said. "He missed all of 2006 with an injury and I just feel like in 2007 it took some time to get to know him, and for him to get to know us and our program."
While Preemptive Strike enters as the elder statesman in the Carolina Cup, he does have a distinct advantage over his younger rivals: a confirmed liking for the taller brush fences (as opposed to the standard National Fence) employed for both the Carolina Cup and the Colonial Cup.
"He handles those bigger fences better than he does other ones, which helps. That's a big, galloping course down there, and he uses that to his advantage and it fits his style," Hendriks said. "I know he's 11 now, but it's just a number because he's not over-raced and is very enthusiastic in his training, so his age doesn't show. Certainly, you can't feel too confident facing Good Night Shirt, but at the same time we gave him his biggest scare last year so hopefully we can do that again."
Sally Radcliffe's Best Attack (Xavier Aizpuru, 150 pounds) tried Good Night Shirt four times last season and was hardly disgraced while compiling a second and two thirds. The 8-year-old Bruce Miller charge made a bold move in the Colonial Cup, drawing within a half-length of Preemptive Strike and Good Night Shirt, before finishing third and 6 3/4 lengths behind that pair. Miller sees Saturday as a good starting point for a 2009 campaign but knows he faces the division's best.
"He's doing really well, but I don't know if he can beat Good Night Shirt," Miller said. "I don't have that many places to run my horse and the race he ran (at Camden) last fall was the best race he's run.
That's a big reason why I'm going. Good Night Shirt is the horse to beat, but they'll have a hard time catching Preemptive Strike too."
Hall of Fame trainer Jonathan Sheppard will saddle Calvin Houghland's Dr. Bloomer (Robbie Walsh, 154 ponuds) in the Carolina Cup. Last season Dr. Bloomer won the Marcellus Frost (NSA-III) over open company in May at Nashville and then returned to novice company and scored in the AFLAC Championship (NSA-I) in November at Callaway Gardens. Dr. Bloomer went flag-to-wire in the AFLAC and his early speed could have him tangling with Preemptive Strike on the front end.
Isti Bee (Paddy Young, 142 pounds), for Maggie Bryant and trainer Doug Fout, rounds out the field for the Carolina Cup. The 8-year-old New Zealand-bred made his United States debut last fall in the Grand National, where he fell early in the running. He returned in the Noel Laing at Montpelier in November and checked in a close fifth. Prior to coming to the States, Isti Bee was a two-time winner over hurdles in Australia in 2008.
The Carolina Cup field (with jockey, trainer, owner, and weight):
1. Isto Bee (Paddy Young, Doug Fout, Maggie Bryant, 142)
2. Best Attack (Xavier Aizpuru, Bruce Miller, Sally Radcliffe, 150)
3. Preemptive Strike (Jody Petty, Sanna Hendriks, Polaris Stable,
4. Dr. Bloomer (Robbie Walsh, Jonathan Sheppard, Calvin Houghland, 154)
5. Good Night Shirt (Willie Dowling, Jack Fisher, Sonny Via, 158)
Undercard Comes Up Strong
While the Carolina Cup anchors the program, the card offers five other races that will showcase several accomplished horses. The $30,000 Woodward-Kirkover serves as the supporting feature to the Carolina Cup and the 2 1/8-mile starter allowance hurdle drew a field of six, led by Bee Charmer, Red Letter Day, and Class Real Rock.
A stakes performer on the flat, Whitewood Stable's Bee Charmer turned heads last summer after an easy maiden win at Colonial Downs. He followed that with a close third in the Jonathan Kiser Novice at Saratoga. Trained by Richard Valentine, Bee Charmer tuned up with a nose defeat behind Isti Bee in a 2-mile hurdle race at the Warrenton Hunt Point-to-Point March 14.
Greg Hawkins' Red Letter Day distinguished himself in 2008 for trainer Janet Elliot, checking in behind Good Night Shirt twice during the fall season--a third in the Lonesome Glory and a fourth in the Grand National.
Mede Cahaba Stable's Class Real Rock was named 3-year-old champion last year, based in large part to his victory in the $50,000 Gladstone at Far Hills in October. He'll make his first start against older horses Saturday.
Fantorini, Barrington, and Zozimus are also entered.
The Carolina Cup card opens with an over-filled training flat that has lured well-known runners Torino Luge, Seeking No More and Rainiero.
The $25,000 maiden hurdle drew a field of nine, including a pair from Doug Fout's barn (Northern Bay and Indy Run) and Tom Voss trainee Mischief.
The $20,000 allowance timber at three miles drew several that could progress to stakes company with a solid performance. Former Carolina Cup winner Orison has looked good in a pair of point-to-point timber wins this spring, and will make his first NSA start over the lumber for EMO Stable's and Fout. Woodmont and Patriot's Path represent stiff competition and could move to a stakes start at My Lady's Manor with good runs Saturday.
The card closes with a $20,000 filly/mare maiden hurdle at 2 1/8 miles. Moon Dolly, Class Tie, Dynaskill, The Manner Born and Diva Maria all could be key players in the division before season's end.
Live Video Streaming
The NSA and Carolina Cup Races will conduct live streaming video of the Carolina Cup Races on their websites Saturday, March 28. Viewers will be able to see all the live action with post time for the first race at 1:30 p.m. To view the races, go to the NSA's website, www.nationalsteeplechase.com or Carolina Cup's website, www.carolina-cup.org and click on the link on the homepage.