In 2005, flat trainer Dale Romans unknowingly set into motion a chain of events that led to one of the greatest accomplishments of late steeplechase trainer Tom Voss’ career. And it all began with a horse Romans didn’t like.
Ken and Sarah Ramsey sent Romans a big, gray 2-year-old son of Skip Away and the Slew’s Royalty mare Aurora Slew, bred in Kentucky by the Greathouse family’s Glencrest Farm, Trontz and Madison. The Ramseys purchased him for $16,000 as a short yearling at Keeneland January in 2004. Romans was never impressed, finding the horse too slow, and the owners sent their charge to Ronny Werner for his 3-year-old season, only to get the same assessment.
Ken Ramsey had sold future steeplechase champion (and $592,306 earner) Flat Top for $5,000 and had since sent a few horses to Voss in hopes of not repeating the mistake. Barlow flew the famed red and white silks for one start in 1999, and Man From Artemus and Party Airs joined the ranks in 2003 after flopping on the flat. Slip Away never even made a flat start, and joined Voss in time to finish second as a 3-year-old at the season-ending Colonial Cup meet in 2006.
He ran just twice the next season, pulling up at High Hope, falling at Colonial Downs and going to the sidelines with a tendon injury.
Mary Jane “MJ” Kirwan worked for Voss, left for a similar spot with Jack Fisher for a time, and then returned. When she did, she told her boss she wanted to look after “Slipper.” They were practically inseparable from there.
“He was a big, gangly horse when he was young, and he’s not the best mover,” she said. “I mean, he could run and jump, but when he got tired, he’d start looking like he could swim pretty good. He was pretty tough to ride. It was very difficult to hold him if you were galloping him at home.”
Voss once compared that stride to a harvester, but it produced plenty of hay in the end.
After nearly a year on the sidelines, Slip Away kicked off his 5-year-old season with a maiden-breaking score at the Ramseys’ hometown meet High Hope at the Kentucky Horse Park in May 2008. Slip Away made eight starts that year, reeling off four consecutive wins in claiming (you could have had him for $10,000) and starter ranks to close out the campaign. The five wins came at High Hope, Morven Park, Aiken, Camden and Palm Beach.
By 2009, Voss considered Slip Away a stakes horse. In his second start that season, he won the Zeke Ferguson Memorial at Colonial Downs to extend his winning streak to six. He lost his next four, but closed the year with a victory in the Noel Laing at Montpelier.
“What he used to do was run off at the beginning of a race, and maybe they’d catch him, maybe they wouldn’t,” Kirwan said. “I remember he was 15 lengths in front, flying around the racetrack [in the Colonial Downs win]. He did win [by 5], but they were starting to zero in on him a little bit.”
It was all business again in 2010, marking the turning point for Slip Away and his connections. In his seasonal debut, he won the Temple Gwathmey by 9 lengths without being challenged – thriving at Middleburg’s 2 1/2 miles and up-and-down course, but was still unsettled and rank. In his next start, the Iroquois, Slip Away partnered with jockey Paddy Young for the first time, and the tumblers started to click. Together the rest of the season, they produced more polished efforts and finished third in the A.P. Smithwick Memorial, second in the Helen Haskell Sampson and Grand National before settling all scores with a monster effort in the Colonial Cup on the season’s final day.
Young had ridden Slip Away five times going in, and lost all five. The jockey wanted, needed, a win.
“Every time I get off him I know there’s nothing left,” Young said in 2010. “It’s all out there on the course. Every time I ride him he gives 120 percent. He walks away with his head down, he gives his all. And he keeps getting beat. How can it not break his heart to walk away like that time after time? Today was his day.”
And then some. Slip Away went after bold-jumping leader Preemptive Strike with six fences to go and won by 25 3/4 lengths.
Kirwan cheered every stride.
“That was just astronomical,” she said. “Paddy started moving on the turn, and I thought ‘Oh no, he’s moving too soon.’ But he just kept pulling away from everybody. It was like Secretariat in the Belmont.”
The victory clinched the seasonal earnings title, and gave Slip Away the Eclipse Award as champion steeplechaser.
Voss brought Slip Away back for two starts in each of the next three seasons – 2011, 2012 and 2013 – but he was never quite as good despite another second in the Iroquois in 2011. Fourth in that race’s 2013 running, behind future champions Demonstrative and Divine Fortune, Slip Away retired to Voss’ Atlanta Hall Farm in Monkton, Md. The 10-time winner and $377,665 earner hasn’t left.
“I just really love him, he’s a cool horse,” Kirwan said of the 17-year-old. “And he loves to get dirty. I can remember Tom said we were going to retire him, and I asked where he was going to go. He said ‘Out in the meadow,’ and I said ‘Oh good,’ because there is a great stream out there – it’s part of the Little Gunpowder River – so he could go out and play in the stream all the time and he’d love that.”
There was never a concrete plan for Slip Away to have a second career. Voss died in January 2014, taking away any chance of the trainer adding his racing charge to the foxhunting string. Slip Away earned an easy retirement.
“He might have made a master’s horse, because you’d have wanted him up front,” Kirwan said. “I think he might have dragged someone around if he’d been in the back; he’d have been too aggressive to his fences.”
Young’s riding career ended with a traumatic brain injury sustained in 2017, but the five-time champion jockey still visits with his wife Leslie. The Ramseys honored Slip Away with a barn named in his honor at Ramsey Farm, the 1,200-acre Thoroughbred operation in Nicholasville, Ky. The Slip Away Barn joins a list of barns named for Kitten’s Joy, Roses in May and other Ramsey Farm stars.
There was never any question that the Ramseys would leave Slip Away in Maryland upon his retirement.
“It probably was never up for discussion,” Kirwan laughed. “I don’t think Tom ever wanted his Eclipse Award winner to leave the farm.”