Marablue Farm's Bon Fleur took the lead with an inside move on the final run down the backstretch and stayed there to win the $100,000 AFLAC U.S. Championship Novice hurdle stakes (NSA-I) at the Callaway Gardens Steeplechase Saturday.
Trained by Jonathan Sheppard, the 5-year-old son of Bon Point sat just off the pace of Latino for most of the 2 1/4-mile trip. Heading down the backstretch the final time, Bon Fleur accelerated at the cue of jockey Bernie Dalton and jumped the 10th of 14 fences in front. Bon Fleur did the rest, jumping superbly and galloping off with an 8 1/2-length win in 3:58 1/5. Good Night Shirt (Xavier Aizpuru) rallied for second with Thegooddieyoung (Zach Miller) third.
Bred by the owner in Florida, Bon Fleur won for the second time in four jump starts this year and surprised even Sheppard with his skill.
"He had a good work at Delaware Park 10 days ago, and I was still thinking of running him on the flat," said the Hall of Fame trainer. "Then I couldn't find a race for him so we came here. The rest was up to Bernie, and he did a fabulous job."
Dalton, a part-time steeplechase jockey who also exercises flat horses for trainer Kiaran McLaughlin in New York, credited the horse's jumping with making the difference. The Irish native coaxed Bon Fleur into settling early, saving enough for the end of the race.
"The horse jumped brilliant the whole way, and I was able to get a little breather into him after the third-last," said Dalton. "He flew the second-last and I got four lengths there. I think I got five lengths at the last. If there were anything coming, he would have put them away."
Owner John Henderson, who has converted a handful of Thoroughbreds from his sizeable stable to steeplechasing this year, scored a $60,000 payday with Bon Fleur.
"It's wonderful to win for owners like this because they are very intrigued by the whole jump situation," said Sheppard. "They are a little bit burned out on the flat to some extent, hasn't had a good horse for some years, and he realizes there are some good purses like this out there."
The race capped the National Steeplechase Association's 2005 novice stakes program that offers grade I and II stakes to first and second year hurdlers. The program also includes the Steeplechase Triple Crown in the spring and a $100,000 novice stakes at Far Hills, N.J. two weeks before Callaway.
In other action on the card, The Fields Stable's Guelph locked up the NSA's filly/mare championship with a dominant performance in the $50,000 Crown Royal Stakes. Trained by Tom Voss, the daughter of Sky Classic
led throughout and improved to 3-for-4 over jumps with $69,000 earned this year.