Trained by Camden’s Kate Dalton and ridden by her husband Bernie, African Oil established himself as a rising star over fences when he overhauled a quality field on the final turn in Saratoga Race Course’s $75,000 Jonathan Kiser Novice Stakes and drew away Monday to his third straight victory.
Owned by Gary Barber, African Oil went off as the 4.10-to-1 second pick in the Kiser, which was postponed from Thursday when a downpour drenched the upstate New York track and quickly turned a firm turf course to yielding.
Undeterred by the delay, the five-year-old French-bred gelding by Royal Applause (GB) galloped to the finish line as Selection Sunday drove through the stretch to get second money. The winner ran the Kiser’s 2 1/16 miles in 3:49.40 on firm turf.
Gil Johnston’s Syros, the 1.25-to-1 favorite, lathered up before the start and jumped out to a quick lead after Orchestra Leader broke on top. Dalton placed African Oil at the back of the seven-horse field through the early going.
Passing under the finish line for the second time, Stonelea Stable’s Balance the Budget took the lead, but Syros fought back, and Orchestra Leader rallied again to take the advantage at the next to last fence.
Dalton put African Oil into the race approaching the final turn and took the lead as the field bent toward the final fence. The veteran jockey kept African Oil in check over the fence, and the first-year competitor quickly drew away from his opponents.
“He’s a horse that likes to be held up, so I dropped him in (early),” jockey Dalton said. He said he feared African Oil would not fire after making a brief advance and then dropping back again to last at the third to last fence.
“But once I pulled him out and showed him a little bit of light at the second to last, he just came back on the bridle, and it was just a matter of not getting there too soon, which I nearly did,” Dalton said. “Once he gets to the front he kind of waits on another horse. When he felt another horse come up to him after the last, he just picked right back up again.”
While Dalton was giving African Oil congratulatory slaps on the shoulder approaching the finish line, Selection Sunday cut into the winning margin to 1 3/4 lengths but never was in danger of catching the winner.
Stone Farm’s Mandola closed late to take third money from Syros by a nose.
African Oil had two victories on the flat but appeared to sour on the racetrack game in his first 2015 start at Golden Gate Fields near San Francisco. Turned over to Kate Dalton, African Oil finished third in his first start over fences at the Queen’s Cup on April 25 and then won an Iroquois Steeplechase maiden hurdle by 11 3/4 lengths.
In his start prior to the Kiser, he won a Monmouth Park optional allowance hurdle by 4 1/2 lengths on June 19. The Kiser’s $45,000 first-place purse raised his 2015 earnings to $93,000 and placed him at the head of the class among this year’s novices.
Past two Eclipse winners meet, again, at the Spa: Champions and longtime archrivals Demonstrative and Divine Fortune will face off again in Thursday’s $125,000 A. P. Smithwick Memorial.
Jacqueline Ohrstrom’s Demonstrative won last year’s Eclipse Award as champion steeplechase horse with three consecutive Grade 1 victories after finishing second by a nose in the A. P. Smithwick.
The 8-year-old Elusive Quality gelding, kicked off his championship string with a win in the New York Turf Writers Cup, the second of Saratoga’s Grade 1 steeplechase races. He subsequently won Belmont Park’s Lonesome Glory Handicap and the Grand National at Far Hills, N.J., to lock up the title.
Trainer Richard Valentine will saddle Demonstrative, who won his only 2015 start over fences, the $150,000 Calvin Houghland Iroquois (Gr. 1) at Nashville on May 9, and tightened with a Parx Racing flat win on July 12. Robbie Walsh will ride.
Bill Pape’s Divine Fortune, the 2013 Eclipse champion, was pulled up in last year’s Smithwick, skipped the New York Turf Writers, fell at the last fence of the Lonesome Glory, and finished a valiant second in the Grand National.
But the Royal Anthem gelding, now 12, twice defeated Demonstrative last year, in the Iroquois and in the Marion duPont Scott Colonial Cup where Demonstrative finished third.
Divine Fortune also has only one start this year, a fourth-place finish in the Calvin Houghland Iroquois. Racing Hall of Fame trainer Jonathan Sheppard will put 2014 champion jockey Willie McCarthy in the saddle for the Smithwick.
Sheppard also will saddle Pape’s Martini Brother and Parker’s Project.
Parker’s Project won the David Semmes Memorial at the Virginia Gold Cup on May 2 and finished third two weeks later in the National Hunt Cup at the Radnor Hunt Races. Darren Nagle rides Martini Brother, and Ross Geraghty will be aboard Parker’s Project.
Elizabeth Voss will send out The Fields Stable’s Bob Le Beau, who had a breakout victory in the National Hunt Cup. The Irish-bred gelding, who also won a Parx flat race on July 12, will be ridden by Jack Doyle.
Jack Fisher, currently the jumping sport’s leading trainer by a wide margin, will take two shots at the Smithwick Memorial, with Petticoats Loose Farm’s Choral Society and Harold A. Via’s Hinterland.
Formerly trained in England by Paul Nicholls, Hinterland will be making his first U.S. start and will be seeking his first win since a novice steeplechase in late 2013. Choral Society most recently was placed third in the Marcellus Frost Novice Stakes. Sean McDermott rides Hinterland, and Paddy Young will be aboard Choral Society.
Completing the field is Diplomat who made his American debut with a win in the $50,000 Carolina Cup for novices on March 28 and subsequently finished fifth in the Semmes. Owner-trainer Jimmy Day will have Bernie Dalton, who rode the Kintten’s Joey gelding to victory in the Carolina Cup feature, up on Thursday.