Steeplechasing's stars shoot to New Jersey for the 88th annual Far Hills Races Oct. 18, as the sport's richest meeting offers six races and $550,000 in total purses, highlighted by the $250,000 Grand National (NSA-I). The all-stakes card attracted a talented cast, with top billing going to 2007 Eclipse Award winner Good Night Shirt.
Sonny Via's Good Night Shirt entered last year's Grand National as the presumptive heir to the steeplechasing throne, but McDynamo -- "The King of Far Hills" -- wasn't quite ready to abdicate. McDynamo won his fifth consecutive Grand National, while Jack Fisher's trainee finished fourth.
This year, the hunter has become the hunted. With McDynamo retired, champion Good Night Shirt is the horse with the target on his back.
“He's the one they all have to beat. Sure, there's more pressure, but like Jack says 'You're on the horse to beat so just run your race,' " said regular rider Willie Dowling. "I think last year he was winning those races but everyone thought it wasn't that big of a deal because it wasn't expected. This year we're like McDynamo was last year -- we're expected to win. So we've taken over, and though there's more pressure I think it's a good spot to be in."
Good Night Shirt has indeed taken over. The son of Concern streaked to the 2007 Eclipse Award in style, setting a single-season earnings record with $314,163. The chestnut is perfect in three Grade I starts this season and has already earned $245,520. A Grand National victory (and the $150,000 winner's check that accompanies it) would see him shatter his mark and move into third place on the all-time money list.
Good Night Shirt started his 7-year-old campaign this April in the Georgia Cup at Atlanta, where he stalked the pace and drew clear late to post a 1 1/2-length victory. The Iroquois followed next. The race served as his coming out party in 2007, when he defeated McDynamo and Sur La Tete on his way to a 5 1/4-length score. While this year's field was without those two retired stars, Good Night Shirt once again made the Iroquois a defining moment, jumping effortlessly to win by 4 1/2 lengths as much the best. After taking his usual summer break he returned at Belmont Park to repeat in the Sept. 21 Lonesome Glory.
In the past, Good Night Shirt's competition could count on the long-legged gelding erring at one fence (or more) and hope to take advantage as a result. The blueprint played out at Atlanta, where he badly botched the last, allowing Hip Hop to take command approaching the wire; all Good Night Shirt did was re-rally in the final furlong to win going away. In the Iroquois and Lonesome Glory, Good Night Shirt provided far less openings to his competition.
“I think maturity has a lot to do with it,” Dowling said. “You look at him at Belmont and he's filled out into his frame. Before, he was tall and skinny and now he's more round and a bigger horse. Plus he's just getting better with time. He jumped really well at Belmont and especially in the Iroquois and I think a course like Far Hills will suit him. He has such a big gallop and the Far Hills course will allow me to get him sorted out and get a rhythm going."
Good Night Shirt was one of the few horses who actually challenged McDynamo in last year's Grand National, taking a bold run at the Far Hills legend on the turn before yielding in the late stages. Though some may point to the boggy ground as his ultimate undoing, Dowling isn't convinced the course beat Good Night Shirt that day.
“Last year we got hurt chasing McDynamo and we got beat for second because of it,” he said. “In seven years no one got anywhere near that horse at that track, so you take McDynamo out of the picture over a soft track and I think it changes things a lot and gives us every chance to win."
Identifying the Grand National favorite is an easy task; settling on the second choice is not, as any of the other six entrants could be plausibly cast in the role of top contender.
Upstart Be Certain looms a viable candidate, provided he runs. Since he's still eligible for novice races, trainer Tom Voss has Alnoff Stable's 4-year-old son of Thunder Gulch cross-entered in the Foxbrook (NSA-I) earlier in the card. If he goes in the Grand National, Be Certain (who gets eight pounds from the favorite) looms a legitimate stretch threat under Padge Whelan.
Be Certain made a smooth transition from the flat track to hurdles last season as a 3-year-old, winning his second start over jumps in the Woolfe Memorial at Camden in November. He avoided the potential sophomore jinx by winning the National Hunt Cup (NSA-II) at Radnor this May. Runner-up against novice foes in the July 31 Jonathan Kiser at Saratoga, Be Certain then ran the race of his life in the Turf Writers (NSA-I) Aug. 28, just missing to the accomplished Dark Equation by a half-length, and tuned up for Far Hills with a second by a head in the Sept. 20 Monmouth County Hunt Novice Stakes at Monmouth Park.
Best Attack (Jody Petty to ride) looks to recapture the form that saw him take third in the 2007 Grand National. Sally Radcliffe's 7-year-old hinted at great things this spring, finishing third in the Royal Chase (NSA-I) at Keeneland in April and second to Good Night Shirt in the Iroquois in May, but disappointed in his lone start this fall, coming home seventh in the Lonesome Glory. Miller hopes last year's pattern repeats, when Best Attack also ran seventh in the Lonesome Glory before his big effort at Far Hills.
Orison (Matt McCarron) enters the Grand National as an enigma for EMO Stable and trainer Doug Fout. The 6-year-old son of Pulpit has proven he's a major contender on his best day -- like his runner-up effort to Good Night Shirt in the 2007 Lonesome Glory. But Orison's recent efforts haven't resembled that Belmont run. In five starts since the Lonesome Glory, including last year's Grand National, he has yet to finish better than fourth.
Fout also saddles Brigadoon Stable's Isti Bee (Paddy Young). The New Zealand-bred, a two-time hurdle winner in Australia, makes his American debut in the Grand National. Fout and Brigadoon have enjoyed success with imports over the years and Isti Bee, who has shown an affinity for soft turf, could move up if the rains hit Far Hills.
The Grand National Hurdle Stakes field (with jockey, trainer, owner
and weight) in post position order:
1. BE CERTAIN (Padge Whelan, Tom Voss, Alnoff Stable, 148)
2. BEST ATTACK (Jody Petty, Bruce Miller, Sally Radcliffe, 156)
3. GOOD NIGHT SHIRT (Willie Dowling, Jack Fisher, Sonny Via, 156)
4. ISTI BEE (Paddy Young, Doug Fout, Brigadoon Stable, 156)
5. DALUCCI (Xavier Aizpuru, Charlie Swan, Justin Carthy, 156)
6. RED LETTER DAY (Danielle Hodsdon, Janet Elliot, Greg Hawkins, 156)
7. ORISON (Matt McCarron, Doug Fout, EMO Stable, 156)