Divine intervention, meet Divine Fortune.
In the days leading up to Saturday’s 45th running of the $100,000 Marion DuPont Scott International Colonial Cup Steeplechase, Bernie Dalton, who would be aboard Top Striker in the feature chase, said it would take a heavenly act for any horse to unseat probable Eclipse Award winner Demonstrative.
Enter Divine Fortune.
In a move akin to a race car driver smashing the accelerator at the drop of the green flag, Divine Fortune carried Darren Nagle to a quick six-length lead before starter Barry Watson could roll his red flag back up. From there, the rest of the five horses in the starting --- and finishing --- field of six ran in the 11-year-old’s hoof prints.
When the 17 National Fences had all been jumped and 2 ¾ miles of the Springdale Racecourse had been traversed, it was Divine Fortune beating Barnstorming to the wire by a comfy nine lengths in a time of 5:13 2/5 for his second win of 2014. That gave owner/trainer Jonathan Sheppard an exacta in the Camden fall classic in which he saddled four of the six starters in the field.
Finishing third, in being nosed out by Barnstorming, was Demonstrative whose three-race win streak came to an end in a race which he won as a 5-year-old in 2012.
While Demonstrative has already started piling up the honors --- having sewn up the National Steeplechase Association’s Lonesome Glory Champions Award before stepping onto the Springdale grass --- this sun-filled but chilly Saturday in Camden belonged to Divine Fortune.
Playing a game of "catch me if you can," the homebred of Sheppard and co-owner William L. Pape won for the second time in five starts over fences this year after having been voted as the 2013 Eclipse Award winner for steeplechasing.
After the top three came, Top Striker, owned by Camden’s Sue Sensor, trained here by Arch Kingsley and ridden by Camden’s Bernie Dalton, Bluegrass Summer and Parker’s Project; the latter pair both out of Sheppard’s barn, to finish the running order.
All week long, it was a given that Divine Fortune would set the pace for the rest of the field. Few, however, could have projected his bolting to the point so quickly.
"(Divine Fortune) kind of stole the start, a little bit," Sheppard said. "That kind of set the race up right there. That’s where he wants to be. Then, he keeps putting in those huge jumps when they close up to him and he opens up a bit at the fences."
For his part, Nagle said all Divine Fortune did to begin the race was to do as he was told. "I let him bounce out early. When the starter says ‘Go,’ you go," he said.
In his instructions, Sheppard said he told Nagle that if Demonstrative wanted to go to the early lead that Divine Fortune should let him go to the front. That was never an option given Divine Fortune’s big move at the start of the race. Early on, Top Striker which was trying to become only the third horse to ever win the Carolina Cup and the Colonial Cup in the same calendar year, and Demonstrative ran second and third, hardly ever getting within three lengths of the leader.
That was the scenario for the entire race as Divine Fortune was never seriously threatened him throughout the race. Had another jumper, especially Demonstrative, come up and tried to challenge Divine Fortune, Nagle and Sheppard had a plan in place.
"I thought it was a sensible pace," Sheppard said. "They weren’t dawdling but (Divine Fortune) wasn’t running too quick, either ... he wasn’t really pressed. I didn’t actually expect that.
"I expected Top Striker and, possibly, Demonstrative being closer to us than they were. Of course, (Divine Fortune) jumped out to a very quick start and before everyone realized where they were, he was gone. It was a very smart move on the part of Darren."
Nagle, a native of Ireland, smiled when asked about Divine Fortune’s wanting to go to the front from the drop of the red flag. He said that move should not have taken any of his fellow riders by surprise.
"Everybody knows he makes the running anyways so, I think they were happy to let him go in front and take the lead," said the native of Ireland.
"If they were going quicker than I was going, I would happy to let them go ahead and get the lead off of him. But this horse likes to run along and be the boss and have everybody follow him. He jumps great. He’s a special horse."
Traveling along unbothered on the lead and cruising at a sensible pace, Divine Fortune never had to fend off a challenge throughout a race in which his lead rarely fell to less than three lengths.
Given the way Divine Fortune was both running and jumping, Nagle said he was not shocked that no horse wanted to get into a battle with him and come up on his mount.
"I didn’t want to give them the chance to challenge me so, I went quick and let him take a breather down the straight," he said. "There are six fences going down the back and he’s a great jumper; I just wanted him to roll over them and if there was a horse good enough to go quicker than him over those six fences then, fair play to them. But he stuck to his job real well today.
"Sometimes, he has a habit of not finishing his races very well when he does go quick from start to finish. But today was a going day and he stayed."
Demonstrative’s lead remained at three lengths as the field hit the far turn and the final three jumps for home. Dalton stayed within striking distance with Top Striker while Demonstrative refused to give in heading to the 17th and finale fence. From there, it was Divine Fortune exhibiting one last burst which took any and all the little bit of wind out of the sails of his long-put away pursuers.
Divine Fortune, whose first win of the year came at the $150,000 Calvin Houghland Iroquois Steeplechase in Nashville in May, was coming off a second place finish behind Demonstrative in the $250,000 Grand National in Far Hills, N.J., on Oct. 18. On that afternoon, Demonstrative was dominant. He was not able to muster that same type effort on Saturday in a race which he won as a 5-year-old in 2012.
Having earned $362,500, the best in the NSA ranks this season, coming into the Colonial Cup feature, Demonstrative had already locked up the NSA’s Lonesome Glory Champions Award as the top-earner on the circuit for 2014. Following Demonstrative’s second loss in six starts this season, trainer Richard Valentine was more relieved that his horse returned back without injury.
"I guess, maybe, the Far Hills race took a lot out of him," Valentine said after meeting with Demonstrative’s jockey Robbie Walsh. "But I thought he ran well. Robbie said he wasn’t his normal aggressive self. but it’s nice to see Divine Fortune win.
"I’m happy my horse came home in one piece. We can regroup. I was just concerned that something awful was going to happen so, I’m relieved."
For Nagle, his win on Saturday capped a campaign in which he sat out the spring with a leg injury before returning to the saddle in the summer. For someone who missed winning the 2013 NSA riding title by one victory, Nagle’s first Colonial Cup score took some of the sting out from a tough season.
Rather than making this victory about himself, Nagle showered Divine Fortune with praise for another job well done.
"He’s got great scope. He’s very athletic, he’s very, very brave and very accurate. He’s a real professional," Nagle said. "He probably knows more about racing than most of the jockeys riding, including me. You’re just along for the ride. He’s a pleasure to ride. He’s special horse and today was his day."