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Not just phoning it in
Personal Start trying to become first jumper in 60 years to win consecutive Carolina Cups
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TRAINER RICHARD VALENTINE TALKS to the stewards while jockey Barry Foley awaits word of their decision following Personal Start’s win in last year’s Carolina Cup novice chase. The race was reviewed and the claim dismissed after a stewards’ inquiry. - photo by Tom Didato/C-I
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OSKAR DENARIUS, one of two Carolina Cup starters for trainer Richard Valentine, sticks his tongue out for the camera from his stall at the Springdale Race Course on Tuesday morning. - photo by Tom Didato/C-I

First surprised, then elated, then nervous followed by a bout of sheepishness.

Sounds like a full day, doesn’t it? Try all those emotions coming at you in the span of about 10 minutes.

Richard Valentine knows the feeling quite well. Valentine, who spends most of his winters training on the grounds of the Springdale Race Course in Camden, entered Personal Start into last spring’s $75,000 Carolina Cup on a whim, not having any pie in the sky notion that the Magalen O. Bryant-owned 7-year old would have a chance against a staunch field of seven other novice jumpers.

When jockey Barry Foley crossed the line aboard Personal Start 1 ¼-lengths ahead of No Wunder, with Jack Doyle up, Valentine reached into his pocket for his cell phone to give the news to Bryant, who was unable to attend the races.

Shortly thereafter, the inquiry signed flashed on the tote board. Suddenly, Valentine was back on his phone, this time pleading his case with the stewards after Doyle claimed he and his mount were interfered with by Personal Start and Doyle. After Foley and Doyle gave their sides of the story to the men upstairs, who took several looks at the race replay to discern whether or not a foul had occurred, the stewards found no wrongdoing and the final result went unchanged.

While the stewards watched the race rerun on a small TV screen, Valentine, watched along with those in the grandstand area as the race replay was beamed on the track’s Jumbotron. In the middle of all the on-course discussions, Valentine was forced to call Bryant to tell her not to celebrate, just yet.

“I was kicking myself because I called the owner and said that he won because I heard there was a stewards inquiry,” a smiling Valentine said Tuesday morning from his barn located beside the National Steeplechase Museum.

“I was more freaking out because I had to call and tell her, ‘Whoa, wait a minute … he didn’t win it.’ Mrs. Bryant’s such a sportswoman. She’s seen it all and she has been in the game long enough so she understood.

“The thing is, Jack (Doyle) doesn’t really claim a lot of fouls. Watching it on the video, it really wasn’t anything.”

Minutes after the original order of finish was upheld, Valentine said he was a bit surprised that Personal Start, who capped his 2017 campaign with a flag-to-wire win at Great Meadow, Va., --- its second in 12 starts over fences ---, was able to hold off such a deep and talented field of novice jumpers which included the likes of No Wunder and Ice it.

As Personal Start prepared to defend his Carolina Cup title, something which only five horses had previously done successfully -- and none since Grand Chal in 1959 and not a one since the Camden spring classic went from a timber race to being contested over natural brush and, in 2012, National Fences ---, Valentine is still left to shake his head when thinking about this race a year ago and his hoisting the Carolina Cup trophy in the winners’ circle, albeit, following a fairly lengthy delay.

“I was very surprised with the outcome because I didn’t think he would have done it as decisively as he did,” Valentine said. “He was an improving horse last year so I thought we had to take a shot. I thought it was a tough race, though.”

As Personal Start did in winning at Great Meadow in October of 2017, it went to the front in Camden and never relinquished the lead. Its longest margin at any measured spot on the course came when the Jump Start gelding stretched its advantage to 2 ½-lengths over New Member at the one-mile mark in the 2 1/8-mile race.

The momentum gained at the Carolina Cup grew as Personal Start won the $75,000 David Semmes Memorial Stakes at the Virginia Gold Cup at Great Meadow on May 5. This time, however, Personal Start rated a bit and did not stay on the lead from the get-go. Instead, Foley tucked his mount in behind 2018 $150,000 Marion duPont Scott Colonial Cup winner Balance the Budget and Mark Watts until Foley took Personal Start to the front  at the top of the stretch, overtaking Balance the Budget and grabbing a two-length lead which grew to eight lengths by the end of the 2 1/8-mile trek.

It was the third consecutive win for Personal Start and Foley who have developed a nice rapport.

“I don’t have to say much to him,” Valentine said of any pre-race instructions he gives to Foley. “It used to be that this horse was a confirmed front-runner, but he proved at Great Meadow that he could settle in.”

Things started to unravel for Personal Start in the summer. A fourth-place finish in the $175,000 A.P. Smithwick Memorial (Gr. I) at Saratoga was followed by a seventh in the $175,000 Lonesome Glory Handicap (Gr. I) at Belmont in September. A fifth in its final start in 2018, in the $75,000 Zeke Ferguson Memorial at Great Meadow gave Valentine a cause to be concerned as to whether something may have been wrong with Personal Start other than running up against top-flight competition.

“He kind of lost his way during the summer. We took a shot in the bigger races and, he’s not a Grade 1 horse, but we had to do it,” Valentine said. “I just wasn’t happy with the way he finished at Belmont or, in the fall so we sent him off to have a nuclear scan of, scintigraphy. We found that he had a couple issues that we never really knew existed. Hopefully, we have him back to being good.”

Brought to Camden in early January, Personal Start is showing signs of returning to the jumper which closed the 2017 campaign and opened the 2018 with wins. In that same timeframe, the Carolina Cup went from being a novice chase to being a Ratings Handicap hurdle in which jumpers would be assigned weights --- from 158 to 144 pounds --- based on their standings in the National Steeplechase Association’s ratings. Personal Start will carry Foley and 153 pounds.

Valentine said that as soon as the conditions for the Carolina Cup changed, he pointed Personal Start for a shot at defending his title.

“As soon as I knew it was going to be here in the winter, I said, ‘What the hell.’ He likes the course and it would be a good place to start him back,” said the trainer of 2014 Eclipse Award winner Demonstrative. “He’s been training great. Mentally, he’s in a great place. It certainly is not an easy spot, but we’ll see. It’s a start.

“If he were to finish in the first three, I would think it would be a very, very good run.”

With nine entries, the Carolina Cup has attracted a strong field which, Valentine said, is a smaller number of starters than what he figured. “I thought there would be more, to be honest with you,” he said of the field. “It seemed like everybody was going for it. It turned out to be quite a nice little race.”

In addition to the defending champion, Valentine also entered Oskar Denarius owned by Apple Equipment LLC. The 8-year-old Irish bred Authorized (IRE) gelding made 24 starts in England, Wales and Scotland winning seven times over hurdles before coming to this side of the Atlantic on the recommendation of Irish jockey Thomas Garner, who is scheduled to have five rides on Saturday.

Eased in its American debut, the $175,000 A.P. Smithwick Memorial at Saratoga while trained by England-based conditioner Ben Pauling, Oskar Denarius was sold to its current owners who sent the jumper to Valentine’s barn.

Valentine Oskar Denarius a start on the flat at Callaway Garden in November before returning his newest jumper over fences and to a third-place finish in a $30,000 handicap chase in Charleston later that month.

“He’s been plagued by foot issues. He has been a very hard horse to keep right. He has done well in Camden on the sandy soil in the winter,” Valentine said.

Originally entered to run in the $30,000 feature in Aiken last Saturday, Valentine made Oskar Denarius a race day scratch when the going came up firm and dry at Ford Conger Field. The ground should not be an issue in Camden as Valentine has Oskar Denarius sitting on go for Saturday’s $50,000 feature in which it will go off as the lightweight in the field at 153 pounds.

“I think (the Carolina Cup) will suit him because he’s not terribly fast, but he can stay at a strong gallop. I think there is plenty of speed in this race and it might set up for a horse like him and with a light weight,” Valentine said. “His form in England would certainly suggest that he is good enough. I wouldn’t say that Saturday will be his day, but it’s a good place to start.”