C-I (Camden, S.C.) sports editor
Getting back upright after having folded himself in order to get under and tack up a young horse, Bernie Dalton emerged from a stall at the Springdale Racecourse with a smile on his face.
And, why not?
It was a sunny Wednesday morning and the Camden resident, by way of his native Ireland, was spending the day jumping on the backs of young horses along with his wife and trainer, Kate Dalton, and taking them on leisurely rides around the Springdale grounds.
That scene and his demeanor will change when Dalton steps in the irons aboard Top Striker in Saturday’s $100,000 Marion duPont Scott Colonial Cup Steeplechase. The day’s feature will be run fourth on the seven-race card at the venerable Springdale layout and will be one of Dalton’s five mounts on the day.
For Top Striker, owned by Camden’s Sue Sensor and trained in Camden by Arch Kingsley, his connections are hoping to capture lightning in a bottle twice in the same calendar year over the same race course.
It was on March 29 that, with Willie McCarthy aboard, Top Striker was kept handy in stalking the pace set by Easy Reach in that afternoon’s 2 1/8-mile $50,000 Carolina Cup Steeplechase for novice jumpers. McCarthy turned the 5-year-old Van Nistelrooy gelding loose approaching the second-to-last fence and Top Striker did the rest, romping to an 11 ½-length victory.
Among those having the best view of Top Striker’s victory in the Camden spring classic was Dalton, who came home third with the Kate Dalton-trained 6-year-old mare, Cat Feathers.
The Carolina Cup score capped a two-win afternoon for McCarthy, who has not slowed down since in having won the National Steeplechase Association’s leading rider title heading into the organization’s season finale in Camden on Saturday. As the season went along, McCarthy started getting more rides for Hall of Fame trainer Jonathan Sheppard and others. With McCarthy’s dance card quickly filling up, it led to Kingsley looking for riders for Top Striker after McCarthy rode Top Striker to a third-place finish in its next start, the $50,000 Queen’s Cup Chase in Mineral Springs, N.C. in April and then to seventh in the $75,000 Jonathan Kiser Stakes in Saratoga in July.
Kingsley gave Top Striker a pair of starts on the flat, with Junior Alvarado both rides at Belmont and Saratoga, the latter coming after Steve Pateman received a leg up from Kingsley for a sixth-place finish in the $75,000 Michael Walsh Novice Stakes in Saratoga in August.
When it came time for Kingsley to give Top Striker his first start over fences in the fall, he called on Dalton, his cross-road neighbor at Springdale. Riding the horse for the first time in the $50,000 AFLAC Supreme Hurdles Stakes at Callaway Gardens in Pine Mountain, Ga., on Nov. 1, Dalton and Top Striker came home with a 7 ¼-length win in a 2 ¼-mile race which did not seem to take much out of the horse.
"He was a steering job at Callaway Gardens," Dalton said of his first ride aboard Top Striker. "It was a nice little introduction for me to get to know him a little bit. He settled well, jumped great and showed a nice little turn of foot. I feel I learned a little bit about him anyway.
In winning for the second time this year in the Callaway Gardens chase, Top Striker topped a field of five jumpers who were on the same level. Saturday will be an entirely different animal.
Not only will Top Striker be asked to go the longest distance which he has ever run --- 2 ¾ miles --- but he will be in a six-horse field which includes likely 2104 Eclipse Award winner Demonstrative, 2013 Eclipse Award winner Divine Fortune along with tested Grade I jumpers Barnstorming, Bluegrass Summer and Parker’s Project. To make matters tougher, even though he is the youngest and least battle-tested of the six projected starters, Top Striker will carry the same weight --- 156 pounds --- as the rest of the field.
"The distance in the (Colonial) Cup, is the big question," Dalton said of his concerns coming into Saturday’s Grade I feature. "The way he won at Callaway, he felt like he could go around again. But, obviously, it’s a different caliber of horses.
"You’d also be more confident if we were getting a little break in weight. Demonstrative and Divine Fortune are going to be pretty tough nuts to crack, but the other horses in there, we should be a par with. Hopefully, we’ll get a little piece of (the purse.)"
Make no mistake about Saturday’s feature; this is Demonstrative’s race to lose in what could be the coronation of a champion in Camden. Since undergoing throat in the off-season, the 7-year-old Elusive Quality gelding has been unstoppable and carries a three-race --- all Grade I chases --- win streak into Camden with the most recent being a 3 ¾-length triumph in the $250,000 Grand National in Far Hills, N.J. on Oct. 18.
The Grand National triumph came after Robbie Walsh rode Demonstrative to victory in the $150,000 Lonesome Glory Handicap at Belmont Park in September which came after a streak-opening win in the $150,000 New York Turf Writers Cup in Saratoga on Aug. 25.
Dalton said Demonstrative’s dominant recent run is hardly a fluke. Instead, he said the Richard Valentine-conditioned jumper and 2014 NSA Lonesome Glory Champion Award winner is the real deal. So, he was asked, what would it take for any of the other five horses to bump Demonstrative from a fourth consecutive trip to the winners’ circle and his second Colonial Cup win in three years.
"A small miracle," Dalton said while breaking into a full-fledged laugh.
"With the way Demonstrative’s been running this year, it would take a small miracle to beat him. It seemed like before his operation, he was strong so they would hold him up and creep into the race. Now, he seems like he’s the complete package. They can put him anywhere in a race.
"They’ve been riding him a lot handier so he has even less ground to make up and he’s even harder to beat, in my opinion anyway. I haven’t seen anything out there that can beat him, yet."
Dalton said the six-horse starting field should not factor into what Demonstrative does since Walsh is going to ride his race regardless of who is running in front, beside or behind his horse.
Demonstrative, like the Sheppard-trained quartet of starters which includes every starter not named Demonstrative or Top Striker, has run distances either longer or, nearly equal to the Colonial Cup distance. Top Striker, though, has never been asked to go any longer than 2 ¼ miles, which he traveled at Callaway Gardens three weeks ago.
Dalton said that when the field makes its turn for home in the Colonial Cup, jockeys know when their mount has what it takes to complete the job or, whether the challenging distance is not to their liking.
"Usually," Dalton said, "by the time you’re starting to turn off the backside and you are going to the third last (fence), they’ve gone from traveling to, all of a sudden, the pace has quickened up and you’re giving them a little squeeze (on the reins) and they’re coming back underneath you and not going forward. You usually start to know that you’re running out of gas."
With a small starting field of six jumpers, Dalton will not change the way he rides Top Striker. In a large field, he said, there would be spots in which he could take his horse and be covered up by other jumpers and try to sneak his way toward the front as the group heads for home.
Saturday, it is expected that Divine Fortune will take Darren Nagle to the early lead with Demonstrative nestling in. Dalton wants Top Striker to settle into the race and stay in mid-pack and then, see what his horse has left in the tank at the end. "In a small field, even if you are last," he said, "you probably wouldn’t be more than five or six lengths off the pace, anyway."
Whether or not Top Striker can get the 2 ¾-mile trip is a question which Kingsley himself is anxious to find out. But given the fact that the Carolina Cup champion does not have to ship since his stall is across the street alongside the schooling course, he has won over the relatively flat going at Springdale twice before, including breaking his maiden over fences at second asking in last year’s Colonial Cup. Add to those facts that Top Striker is running out of conditions as to which race to be entered into, the Colonial Cup is a perfect landing spot at this stage in the season for a jumper who seems to be getting it.
When he took in Paddy Young’s ride Top Striker to victory on the flat in Aiken in a tune-up for the following week’s chase at Callaway Gardens, Bernie Dalton said he saw a different horse than the one he watched earlier in the year.
"I watched him run and he looked very rank, early on, in his races, and then he would settle," Dalton said. "He always looked like he was doing too much. Then, I watched him in the flat race at Aiken and Paddy Young rode him and he switched off really good. He switched off really good at Callaway, too. He’s matured a little bit over the summer.
"I schooled him the day before he ran at Callaway and he was strong on his own, but as soon as you put him alongside another horse, he was more content. Usually, it’s the other way around which, I thought was very interesting. He was that way in the race, too. He seemed content to be in the pack. That’s a sign of his maturing as the year has gone on."