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Paying it forward

Aizpuru repays Elliot with winning Colonial Cup ride aboard Alajmal

Posted: November 24, 2013 1:03 p.m.
Updated: November 25, 2013 5:00 a.m.

Consider the debt partially paid back.
When Xavier Aizpuru was seeking to come to and work in America as a jockey, it was Racing Hall of Fame trainer Janet Elliot who helped the English rider secure his visa. Saturday afternoon at the Springdale Race Course, the 37-year-old Aizpuru returned the favor.
When Mark Beecher sustained broken ribs in the Springdale Open timber, the race immediately preceding the 44th running of the $100,000 Marion duPont Scott Colonial Cup, it left Elliot scouring the jock’s room to find a replacement aboard Alajmal. After conferring with Alajmal’s owner, Gregory Hawkins, the two decided to offer the ride to Aizpuru. The jockey, who did not have a ride in the Camden fall classic, jumped at the chance. And, when it came crunch time, it was Alajmal who gallantly took control of the race.
Backed by a surge of momentum, the 5-year-old First Samurai gelding bolted from mid-pack and delivered a knockout blow with what Aizpuru termed a “huge jump” at the 17th and final fence to go to the lead. The pair never looked back in racing away to a 3 ½-length victory in the day’s feature ahead of a 2-3-4 finish from the Jonathan Sheppard-trained, three-horse entry of --- in order of finish --- Barnstorming, Italian Wedding and Divine Fortune.
The 2 ¾-mile trip, timed in 5:07.3/5, bracketed a sometimes puzzling and frustrating year for the 2012 National Steeplechase Association novice champion who followed up a win in last spring’s Carolina Cup feature by not finishing better than fifth in his other five starts from that race to Saturday’s Grade I chase. The ailment which plagued Alajmal between his 2013 runs at Springdale left Elliot, Hawkins and veterinarians scratching their heads as to what was going wrong.
“We did a lot of different things,” Elliot said of work performed on Alajmal over the course of the year. “We think he had a lung issue. We did a lot of tests and most of them were inconclusive. But he seemed to be doing better this fall. Whether he was really back or, wasn’t really back, we really didn’t know coming into today.
“Hopefully, I would have to say, he’s back. He must have gotten over whatever it was that he had.”
In a race which was won by a substitute jockey, the theme actually began last Tuesday when Alajmal, which was not nominated in time when nominations were accepted on Nov. 12, was entered into the Colonial Cup feature to give the race 13 starters. That figure dropped to a dozen when Sheppard scratched Martini Brother.
As for Aizpuru, he said the circumstance as to how he picked up the ride was not one which on jockey would ever wish upon a fellow rider, in this instance,  the injured Beecher.
“It’s never nice to pick up a ride in that way, but I was certainly glad to be on him,” Aizpuru said. “Janet (Elliot) has done a fantastic job because she’s had a battle on her hands all year to get this horse right after winning the Carolina Cup. Thankfully, for everybody involved, he came around today. He was great.”
In becoming just the second horse to win the Carolina Cup and Colonial Cup in the same calendar year, following in the hoof steps of Lonesome Glory who accomplished the Springdale double in 1997, Alajmal was kept handy by Aizpuru as the second Elliot-saddled jumper in the race, The Grey Express, carried Ross Geraghty to the early lead while being pursued by Gustavian, Decoy Daddy and Divine Fortune in the early stages of the chase.
Having to make a rider change in-between races left little time for Elliot and Aizpuru to discuss race strategy. Instead, the rider went by feel as to when to ask his mount to dig in.
“I said, ‘You’ve watched this horse run and he’s come from behind and, he’s run on the lead at Saratoga. Just break him off and ride him how you find him,’” Elliot said of her hurried last-minute instructions to Aizpuru. “What could I say? You could say go to the front, go to the back, do this or, that but when you’re out there, it’s a whole different ballgame.”
Decoy Daddy and Carol-Ann Sloan rallied to go to the front along with Gustavian and Paddy Young as the group of 12 headed down the backside. As Decoy Daddy came back to the pack, Gustavian made his move to the front along with Divine Fortune and Darren Nagle, running 1-2 after 13 fences.
“The race shaped up nice,” Aizpuru said of his winning ride. “I went out there without too much of a game plan; just keep him happy and get him into a rhythm jumping.”
Alajmal moved up to fourth as the field turned for home with Gustavian and Divine Fortune continuing their battle at the point. As the field was heading to the 17th and final fence, Alajmal took Aizpuru to the front. The pair went to the outside with Alajmal jumping the final fence boldly to go to the front for keeps. Gustavian, bidding for its second Grade I win of 2013, unseated Young at the final fence and was not there for the home stretch.
“We got to the front, probably, a little sooner than I wanted to, but the horse was happy to go there,” Aizpuru said of the stretch jump and run. “Going to the last, I knew I had (a lot of) horse left. It was just a question of trying to get a good last fence. The huge jump at the last fence tells you that you have a bit of horse left underneath you. It was great.”
Elliot credited the Camden-based husband and wife trainer-rider team of Kate and Bernie Dalton for getting Alajmal into shape for the race and working him and other jumpers from Elliot’s barn in the days and weeks leading up to the Colonial Cup. Bernie Dalton rode Italian Wedding to a third-place finish Saturday.
“I have to give Bernie and Kate Dalton a lot of credit,” said the part-time Camden resident. “They’ve had the horses down here for the last three or four weeks and, I don’t think without them that I would have been so successful.”
On an afternoon in which bits of sunlight gave way to clouds, the already muddied Eclipse Award for American steeplechasing picture got even fuzzier. Three of the four Grade I winners from this year were in Saturday’s feature with Italian Wedding being the highest finisher of that quartet by coming home third, a spot ahead of stablemate and $250,000 Grand National winner Divine Fortune, who earned the NSA Lonesome Glory Champions Award as the leading earner on the circuit with $207,000 in winnings. Gustavian fell while Mr. Hot Stuff was not in the race. Alajmal made for five different winners as many 2013 Grade I chases.
When asked about Aizpuru’s owing her a favor after she and Hawkins had to make what she termed “a very tough decision” following Beecher’s injury, Elliot smiled before telling a short story.
“When Xav first came to this country,” Elliot said, “he worked for me and rode for me. We got him started with his visa. It’s a little bit of a funny story but, since then, every now and again, I’ll call him up and say can you ride a horse for me. He’ll say, ‘Well, I need to call Jack (Fisher) or, I need to go check with somebody else.’
“He would say, ‘Well, Jack’s been very good to me.’ And, I said, ‘Who brought you over here? Who was good to you in the beginning?’ But (today) was kind of fun, actually.”
For all reunited parties involved.

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