Foaled in Kentucky, nominated to the Breeders’ Cup, sold at Keeneland, ridden by Pat Day at Saratoga—then McDynamo grew up.
American steeplechasing’s career earnings leader began life as many Thoroughbreds do, with aspirations of red roses in May, Belmont Park in October, and the rest of the laurels that come with success on the racetrack. He never found all that, but he did discover greatness—winning three Eclipse Awards (2003, 2005, 2006), earning more than $1 million, delighting legions of fans, and thrilling his connections in a career that improbably embarks on its eighth season in 2007.
“You don’t often have horses for as long as we’ve had him, and he’s changed,” said trainer Sanna Hendriks of Michael Moran’s now 10-year-old gelding. “When he was 4 and 5, he was a big bear, full steam ahead in everything he did. He was over-racing, and now you can see he’s more patient and kind about it. You can see the maturity. He’s willing to wait.”
As were his connections.
Moran spent $82,000 for the yearling son of Dynaformer at Keeneland September in 1998.
Approached shortly after the sale, Moran then sold half the horse to Canadian owner Steve McDonald and took McDynamo home to Pennsylvania.
“He was a good walker—a great big, good-looking horse,” said Moran. “But he had issues early on. (Van company) Ralph Smith brought him to the barn and put him in the stall and he was like a whirlybird—around and around in there. Four bales of straw looked like dust the next morning.”
Gradually, McDynamo adapted to life on the farm—by often living outside—and grew into his body. Gelded early, he did little as a yearling and started over at 2. Despite the stall antics, McDynamo was a quiet ride and exercised with the Moran children and their ponies. He still looked a long way from being a racehorse.
“He was big and gawky, like Baby Huey, pretty backward,” said Moran.
McDynamo made his career debut at 3 with a seventh on the turf at Pimlico in May 2000, the year Red Bullet beat Fusaichi Pegasus in the Preakness Stakes (gr. I).
Stretched out to 1 1/2 miles in his next start, also at Pimlico, McDynamo graduated the maiden ranks, but started just twice more before missing nearly a year with surgery to remove a hind ankle chip. At 4, he won once in five flat starts while battling the starting gate.
“When I ran him at Saratoga (August 2001), he gate-schooled for an hour and a half the morning of the race,” said Moran, also the horse’s first trainer. “(New York Racing Association starter) Bobby Duncan worked with him, was very patient, and let him run. The horse ran well, but he was more interested in getting away from the gate than anything. He was pretty much freaked.”
McDynamo finished fourth in that race (a two-other-than allowance) and sixth in a similar test at Belmont in early September, but soon embarked on a new career. McDonald opted to not come along for the ride, selling his half to Moran for $20,000.
Moran sent McDynamo to Hendriks, a neighbor who specializes in steeplechasers. The 4-year-old first-time starter handled jump racing with ease, winning by 41/4 lengths in a maiden hurdle at Far Hills, N.J., Oct. 20, 2001.
Like a child searching for a passion, McDynamo found steeplechasing—and became a star. He won nine of his first 11 starts and was named champion of 2003. He won his first Breeders’ Cup Grand National Steeplechase (NSA-I) that year and has added three more in what steeplechasing calls a “McDynasty.” McDynamo passed Hall of Famer Lonesome Glory on the career earnings list (American races only) with the 2006 Breeders’ Cup win, stopping the cash register at $1,118,104.
The 2006 championship proved extra sweet to Hendriks, due in large part to a slow start. The year began with an ugly try in the rain at Keeneland April 21. Assigned top weight of 166 pounds in the $145,429 Royal Chase for the Sport of Kings Hurdle (NSA-I), McDynamo wilted when the real running began on the backstretch and was pulled up in Sur La Tete’s powerful victory. Hendriks, Moran, and jockey Jody Petty hunted for blame, but came away empty.
After a battery of tests (with still no real answer), McDynamo aimed for a rematch with Sur La Tete three weeks after Keeneland in the $155,500 Iroquois (NSA-I) in Nashville, Tenn. Somewhere during the 14-hour van ride from Pennsylvania, McDynamo got sick and was scratched with a 102° temperature. Sur La Tete won that race easily and assumed the top spot.
McDynamo bypassed Saratoga in favor of a fall campaign which began at Meadowlands. Hendriks called the $72,750 Somerset Medical Center Race for Cancer Awareness Hurdle (NSA-II), the biggest hurdle to a championship—up for grabs again with Sur La Tete on the shelf for the fall.
“It was the smallest race, but he had pulled up at Keeneland and gotten sick at Nashville so the spring was a total disaster,” she said. “Going to Meadowlands, I felt like he was doing really well and if he didn’t run well, there had to be something I was missing. Plus he needed to start winning if we were going to think about another championship.”
She missed nothing, and neither did her horse. He stalked the pace, looked every bit the winner throughout, and won by 61/4 lengths. From there, the title train moved easily to the $204,500 Breeders’ Cup, and McDynamo waltzed home by 22 lengths against an overmatched field in the mud at Far Hills Oct. 28.
Needing a victory to cinch the championship hopes, McDynamo capped 2006 with a gutsy score in the $147,000 Colonial Cup (NSA-I) Nov. 19. Mon Villez threatened an upset with the effort of his life, but bowed to McDynamo in the stretch. The champion made off with a one-length win, a third Eclipse Award, and praise from his trainer.
“When he was younger, he wouldn’t have been able to have things go the way they went in the Colonial Cup and still pull it all together and be able to win,” said Hendriks. “Jumping is so great because it gives a horse like McDynamo a place to be special. He would have gone through his conditions and maybe won a stakes as a flat horse, but I don’t see that he would have been the special horse he’s become.”
(Article appears in the January 27, 2007 issue of The Blood-Horse)