To say that Thomas Garner had a fabulous week at Saratoga Race Course may be something of an understatement. It was huge; totally over the top.
He started out on July 24 by winning Saratoga Race Course’s $75,000 Jonathan Kiser Novice Stakes aboard new arrival Redicean for owner Sharon Sheppard and trainer Leslie Young.
The most delicious victory came a day later with Hudson River Farms’ Winston C in Saratoga’s $150,000 A. P. Smithwick Memorial (Gr. 1) for Racing Hall of Fame trainer Jonathan Sheppard. Not only was the 28-year-old Gloucestershire native in the saddle for his first Grade 1 victory, but he and now-retired rider Noel Fehily also had shopped the five-year-old Rip Van Winkle gelding to the Sheppard barn.
Thus, Garner had two Grade 1 triumphs in less than four minutes: first one ridden in the U.S. and his first sale of a Grade 1 winner. Making a huge jump in class, Winston C fought past fellow newcomer Vosne Romanee and won going away by 3½ lengths.
The Smithwick marked the culmination of Winston C’s rapid rise in the hurdle ranks. He won his maiden victory over fences at Wincanton in January with Fehily in the saddle. He then took down a midlevel novice hurdle at Sandown in February and jumped to victory in a good-quality handicap at Kelso in March. Then trained by Harry Fry, he departed England with a fifth-place finish in an Aintree novice stakes on Grand National weekend in April.
Garner contacted Sheppard’s assistant, Keri Brion, and suggested Winston C as an American jumps prospect. Brion then approached longtime Sheppard owner Edward Swyer, who races as Hudson River Farms. Swyer agreed, and Winston C arrived in May.
He flashed talent immediately in finishing third, beaten three-quarters of a length, in the Iroquois Steeplechase’s Marcellus Frost Champion Hurdle for novices on May 11.
The Irish-bred lagged behind through the first mile, suddenly awakened on the final turn, but then hung after the final fence while still running gamely to the wire.
Brion and Sheppard’s crew in Pennsylvania went to work on Winston C, and he was bursting with shiny good health when he shipped to Saratoga. Sheppard said he believed Winston C had made enough progress to jump into Grade 1 company. “He ran well in his last start at Iroquois in Tennessee, and I thought he was well enough to come back and enter here, and he showed it today,” Sheppard said.
He was deservedly 6-to-1 in Saratoga’s program betting line, but bettors--- mindful of Sheppard’s magic at the New York Racing Association track and 47 consecutive years of at least one winner at Saratoga through 2015 --- bet Winston C down to 3.35-to-1, only a few dollars less than favored newcomer Bedrock, also at 3.35-to-1.
As in the Nashville race, Winston C took up a position at the back of the field early as Irv Naylor’s Sempre Medici laid down the pace with a multiple-length early lead, followed by Sheppard-trained Grade 1 winner All the Way Jose and Riverdee Stable’s Gibralfaro.
Racing in midpack early were Foxtrot NH Racing Partnership’s Vosne Romanee and jockey Sam Twiston-Davies, who had been the eight-year-old’s regular partner in most of his recent starts, including a victory in an Ascot handicap steeplechase stakes last November. Keeping Winston C and Garner company at the back of the field was Naylor’s recent acquisition Bedrock. The rearward position was not what Sheppard and Garner had planned for Winston C. “We had it planned in our head that we were going to line up halfway down the field,” the jockey said. “It didn’t go quite to plan. We didn’t get the best of starts and went at a really, really quick gallop for the first mile. My lad didn’t go as well as I hoped. He wasn’t jumping.”
Garner made a quick adjustment to the game plan and took Winston C to a more comfortable position at the back of the field. “I just wanted to get him in rhythm and make sure he was doing his job properly, so I put a pull on him,” Garner said. “I got his confidence going and got him back jumping.”
Bedrock, ridden by Sean McDermott, made the first move on the final run down Saratoga’s backstretch, followed by Vosne Romanee and then Winston C. Sempre Medici led over the last fence and ran on into the final turn before beginning to tire.
With four horses across the turf course approaching the lane, Winston C and Garner were on the outside while making headway on his opponents. “He went four- or five-wide because I had no choice,” Garner said. “I swung into the stretch, and he just kept going.”
Winston C and Vosne Romanee began to separate themselves from the rest of the field in midstretch, with Winston C battling past Vosne Romanee to gain a length lead at the furlong pole and Vosne Romanee up by two lengths over Bedrock. Through the final 200 yards, Winston C proved to have the superior speed, much to trainer Sheppard’s delight.
“I’m not going to say I expected that flat run from him, but I hoped for it. He’s a little quicker than the average European steeplechase type,” he said.
Bedrock tired through the final furlong to finish sixth in a full field of 12 for the Smithwick. Sonny Via’s Hinterland again ran well in a supporting role and finished third, three-quarters of a length behind Vosne Romanee. Gibralfaro finished fourth. Leading trainer Jack Fisher trained the second, third, and fourth finishers.
Winston C popped to the top of the year’s earnings list with $100,000 in the bank. He ran the Smithwick’s 2 1/16 miles in 3:45.99 on firm turf.