Finally, Buttonwood Farm's All the Way Jose went all the way.
He could not have found a better time to shake off a couple years worth of questions about his ability than in the $150,000 Lonesome Glory Hurdle Handicap (NSA-1) Sept. 21 at Belmont Park.
Three years ago, All the Way Jose looked to be a big star of the future. Bred and trained by Hall of Famer Jonathan Sheppard, the Senor Swinger gelding, then 4, breezed to the National Steeplechase Association's novice champion honors for horses in their first years of competition over fences.
His subsequent two seasons were disappointing at best. The closest he came to a placing in seven starts was a race where he reached the wire third, but was disqualified to fourth.
Under the guidance of Sheppard's assistant Keri Brion this year, All the Way Jose showed that he was not a has-been or could-have-been. He finished second in a handicap at Nashville's Iroquois Steeplechase in mid-May and then annihilated a field in the Fair Hill Races' Valentine Memorial Handicap over Memorial Day weekend.
He sustained a minor hiccup when apprentice Brion came off in Saratoga Race Course's A. P. Smithwick Memorial Hurdle Handicap (NSA-1) July 27 and then, with Darren Nagle now aboard, finished third in the New York Turf Writers Cup Hurdle Handicap (NSA-1) four weeks later.
In Thursday's Lonesome Glory at Belmont, All the Way Jose went all the way in top-class company to win by 1 1/4 lengths over Modem, who now has finished second in all of the New York Racing Association's top-rated jumps races.
Sheppard plotted a winning path for All the Way Jose, and Nagle followed the road map.
"The plan coming in was to jump him off, sit him where he was comfortable, on or close to the lead, and it worked out nicely, because he got to sit and carry along with him stalking nicely for the first part of the race," Sheppard said. "He jumped great."
All the Way Jose got out to the lead early, but Nagle allowed veteran Charminster to set a modest pace while he kept his mount on the inside path. Charminster led to the backstretch the second time, but began to slow at the eighth fence, where All the Way Jose punched to the lead. After the last fence, All the Way Jose had a two-length lead, and Nagle dropped his hands to give his mount a break around the turn.
At the three-sixteenths pole, Nagle asked All the Way Jose to pick up the pace, as Modem and Jack Doyle closed ground. While retaining his inside position, Nagle urged All the Way Jose to the finish.
"I just wanted to ride the horse to suit him best, which was to not rush him early, but once he got into stride, to not check his momentum. I just wanted to let him roll," said Nagle, who notched his first NSA grade 1 race at a NYRA track. "His stride is his biggest asset, so you better use it. I think he's more of a three-mile horse, so he's pretty constant in his stamina. Even though it was a 2 1/2-mile race, I wanted to ride it like a three-mile race to suit my horse. I could've looked stupid, but it went right to plan. It couldn't have worked out any better than that."