Editorials

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Match races, an attempt on England, trophy retirements, historic comparisons . . . they were all in play this spring with the emergence of three major timber horses on the National Steeplechase Association circuit.

Granted, they’re a little different, but that’s half the fun.

Senior Senator was something of a legend with trainer Flint Stites at Penn National. The horse never got tired while training, once bucked so hard in the shedrow that his exercise rider’s head hit a ceiling rafter, and dropped riders in the post parade the way some horses gulp mints. Claimed based on little more than an online video, the Pennsylvania-bred son of Domestic Dispute flipped his career on its end once he started jumping for Maryland-based trainer Joe Davies and team, however. Senior Senator won the Maryland Hunt Cup at 6 in 2016 and added a second this year. 

All being well he will go for three, a feat turned by just eight horses, at age 9 next year. The success has drawn comparisons to the great Jay Trump, who won Hunt Cups in 1963-64 and ’66 with an English Grand National sandwiched in there in 1965. Purchased cheaply at Charles Town, Jay Trump is the yardstick for all great Hunt Cup horses who come from humble beginnings. Like Senior Senator, Jay Trump was 6 when he won his first Hunt Cup. Ages weren’t always recorded, but in 122 runnings the race counts four 6-year-olds (Senior Senator, Jay Trump, Burgeois in 1916 and Landslide in 1904) and two 5-year-olds (the mare Conbe in 1911 and Judge Parker in 1908) among its winners. 

History like that will make people dream. Owned by Skip Crawford, Senior Senator could retire the Hunt Cup’s challenge trophy (in play since 1984) with a win next year. After that, the bay gelding could try England. He’s young enough. He jumps well enough. He does not race on Lasix. History awaits.

Two weeks before, and one week after Senior Senator’s Hunt Cup win, a Virginia-bred provoked similar thoughts. Aintree may not be in play, but My Lady’s Manor and Virginia Gold Cup winner Zanclus made people wonder. The 8-year-old won both historic timber races – with authority – for owner/breeder Sara Collette and trainer Neil Morris. The chestnut is by Collette’s hurdle winner Xenodon out of her Two Smart mare Jordani – whose racing career included two starts (an eighth and a ninth). Unraced on the flat, Zanclus made two dismal hurdle starts in 2014 and emerged as a timber force in 2016. He’s been first or second in all seven starts. 

The $147,700-earner is a testament to Collette’s breeding program – she also bred two-time Gold Cup winner Salmo – and also an example of Virginia’s well-spent rewards program. Collette earned an additional $10,000 bonus as the owner of a Virginia-bred Virginia Gold Cup winner. The chestnut gelding – whose long stride and leggy frame make steeplechase people drool – should be back for the fall, where he’ll have the International Gold Cup on his agenda. Can’t wait.

Eight days after Zanclus’ heroics, a third timber star tossed his shoe into the conversation. Like the others, he’s just an 8-year-old (again, young by timber standards). Also like the others, he’s got a backstory that does not exactly shout quality with his final start coming at Charles Town for a $4,500 claiming price. But Doc Cebu, like the others, is a timber dynamo with five wins, a second and a third in seven starts. Rebounding from a third at Middleburg in April, he won the Willowdale timber stakes May 13. Owner Charlie Fenwick has already said the horse gives him a chance to dream big. How big? We’ll see, but some sort of showdown with Zanclus this fall would be a start.

Though they’ve found success apart, the horses’ divided excellence makes anyone follow Fenwick’s lead and dream.

“I got a call about a match race for the three of them this fall,” said Davies. 

The trainer in him laughed at the notion. The fan in him? Maybe, just maybe.

“It’s fun to discuss,” he said, “but it’s not very likely.”

Regardless, the biggest takeaway from seeing three good, young timber horses at the same time is one of second chances. Senior Senator, Zanclus and Doc Cebu were destined for nothing as flat horses. The first hated it, even though he finished second a couple times. The second never even got there. The third cost $260,000 as a 2-year-old, shared space in Todd Pletcher’s stable with Princess of Sylmar and Palace Malice in 2013, but quickly proved not worthy of such expectations.

Given the chance, all three put a twist on the notion of a successful Thoroughbred and found their callings. And deserve celebration.

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