When the list of entries was released for last Saturday’s 47th running of the $150,000 Marion duPont Scott Colonial Cup Steeplechase, Top Striker had everything a horse needed in order to run in the race ... except for a rider.
Owned by Camden’s Sue Sensor and trained by Camden’s Arch Kingsley Jr., the 2014 Carolina Cup winner had a fair share of suitors to hop aboard his back in the final Grade I jump races of the National Steeplechase Association season. One, however, stood out above the rest.
Left without a ride for the race himself, Ross Geraghty reached out to Kingsley in the days leading up to Camden fall classic. Geraghty, the NSA’s leading rider in 2012, rode Dawalan to victory in last year’s Colonial Cup.
On Sunday, in front of a sun-drenched but wind-swept crowd, Geraghty made a triumphant return trip to the winners’ circle at the Springdale Race Course by piloting Top Striker to an impressive 10 ½-length victory over pre-race and odds-on Eclipse Award favorite Rawnaq, which suffered his first loss of the year after having won each of its first three starts over fences. European invader, Days of Heaven, was another length and half back in third in the finishing field of nine jumpers.
Top Striker made the 2 ¾-mile trip in a clocking of 5:12.40 over rain-starved ground listed as firm.
As he and Geraghty went over their final plan of attack, Kingsley told the native of Pelletstown, Ireland to run the same type of race with Top Striker as he did with Dawalan. Shortly thereafter, Kingsley said he scratched those plans and left the driving and decision-making to his jockey.
“We talked about just making one run and not getting impatient and forcing the pace,” he said. “We talked about how last year’s race was run and we did a fair amount of strategizing. The last thing I told him before he went out there was, ‘Disregard everything we talked about and do whatever feels right.’”
Just being able to receive instructions in this race was something which was not in the cards for Geraghty until early last week.
“I called Arch last week ... I was sort of shopping around,” Geraghty said of looking for a Colonial Cup ride. “Honestly, I said to Arch that I didn’t want to just take part in the race, I wanted to win it. His horse won that race (the $75,000 Zeke Ferguson Memorial Stakes) at Great Meadow (Va., on Oct. 22) and I finished third; I was impressed by (Top Striker.) I knew he was a horse that was going to suit no matter what.”
Kingsley said he was forced to find a new rider for Top Striker.
“I’ve been happy with the last two jockeys I had on him but they both had other rides. It was just thrust upon me that I had a jockey change,” he said. “You have to adjust accordingly and that’s where I found myself and it worked out beautifully.”
For the team of Sensor and Kingsley, this was their third win in a Camden feature chase after having teamed to send out Sunshine Numbers and Top Striker to victory in the 2011 and 2014 Carolina Cup, respectively. The Colonial Cup is a different beast altogether. Not only is the Grade I chase a crown jewel of American jumping but the longer 2 ¾-mile distance is that of a champion.
Top Striker, a 7-year-old Van Nistelrooy gelding, had won at the 2 1/8-mile distance in both the Carolina Cup and last month’s Zeke Ferguson Stakes. Being stretched to the 2 ¾ miles was not thought to be in his comfort zone and Sensor said her horse needed some racing luck to have a chance to pull off the upset of Rawnaq.
Enter Days of Heaven, which did some of the heavy lifting for a rapidly improving Top Striker in the early to middle stages of the race.
“Everything just set up for us,” Sensor said as she made her way back to the paddock for the sixth race in which she had another starter, Cash Crop, going. “Thank heaven (Days of Heaven) went out of got Rawnaq and kind of pushed him along a little bit. I think that helped us a little bit.
“(Top Striker) is a bigger, stronger horse, now,” she added. “He’s got so much more confidence and you can place him wherever you want to in a race now and he doesn’t try to right you; he will just do his thing. He’s just been a monster since Great Meadow … just training unbelievably.”
Sean McDermott took Rawnaq to the early lead where he was pressed by Days of Heaven, who had Kieran Norris aboard. That allowed Top Striker to settle into a nice galloping pace behind the two leaders after the first mile. The running order remained the same through 2 ¼ miles.
As the field entered Springdale’s long and grueling home stretch, Geraghty decided to take his foot off the brake. Steering Top Striker to the middle of the track, they jumped the 16th fence with the lead. When they met the 17th flight of fences, they were unbothered and after having easily cleared the final obstacle, they were home free.
With Rawnaq trying to fend off Days of Heaven when the group went down the backside for the second time, Geraghty held his place in line before asking his horse for a little more speed as the field headed to the penultimate fence.
“I pulled him out one side of Rawnaq coming off the bend and he just jumped onto the bit and flew the second-to-last fence,” Geraghty said. “It set him up and we just popped the last.
“I was very, very confident in the horse before the race and I was really excited about him. It worked out according to plan.”
The lone blip on the feature was a fall by Flying Elvis Stable’s Diplomat, trained by Camden’s Kate Dalton and ridden by her husband Bernie. Diplomat came back in good shape following the spill on the turn for home while Bernie Dalton was forced to opt out of his final two rides of the afternoon due to the incident.
As for Kingsley, this was the first time the 1997 NSA champion rider had sent out a Colonial Cup winner, a race he won as a jockey in 1999 and 2000 riding Ninepins and Romantic, respectively. He has saddled a pair of Carolina Cup winners. Kingsley had said Top Striker belonged with the best jumpers in America and Saturday’s victory proved him correct.
“I couldn’t have been any more confident, really,” he said. “Honestly, I’ve loved this horse and the way he’s been training. He’s a very nice horse and running at home ... what’s not to like about all those things.”
The trip to the Springdale Race Course was a walk of a few hundred yards for Top Striker, who is stabled in Kingsley’s barn located across the street on the grounds of the adjoining Springdale schooling course. Saturday, for the third time in his 19 starts over fences, Top Striker used the home course to his advantage.
Even Sensor herself was not expecting to be holding the silver Colonial Cup at the end of the race. In fact, when the horses headed toward 17th fence and while trying to hold her binoculars still to her eyes, she thought Rawnaq, donned in the green and gold silks of NSA champion owner Irv Naylor, was going to complete a perfect 2016 campaign. Sensor’s horses also run in green and gold colors.
“With Irv’s colors being green and yellow, I thought, ‘Well, Rawnaq’s going to win. If we’re second or third, I’ll be tickled to death,’” Sensor said. “After the last fence, I said, ‘That face … I know that face and those are our colors.”
Before Top Striker won the Carolina Cup in 2014, he broke his maiden at third asking with a win in a maiden chase at the 2013 Colonial Cup. That stage was far less grand than it was on Saturday.
“It’s always special winning here,” said Sensor, who along with her husband George are involved in racing as well as charitable endeavors in and around the Camden community, as she turned serious after having been congratulated by friends. “But the Colonial Cup is the one race out of the whole year where I thought that if we could win a race here and, win the big race here …
“I’m just tickled to death that he won this race. It’s great when it works, isn’t it?”
Colonial Cup Notebook: Rawnaq came up short in its bid to complete an unbeaten 2016 campaign over fences. The winner of last month’s $300,000 Grand National in Far Hills, N.J., had already earned $360,000 from three starts coming into Saturday’s feature. The 9-year-old Azamour gelding had sewn up the NSA’s Lonesome Glory Champions Award before stepping foot on the course Saturday ... The Colonial Cup meet brought the curtain down on the 2016 NSA season and with Naylor coming into the day having wrapped up the leading owner title, Jack Fisher his 10th title as leading trainer in terms of wins in a season and Rawnaq, the circuit’s leading earner, the only question left to be decided was the NSA’s leading rider. Kieran Norris came into the Colonial Cup with 13 victories while defending champion Paddy Young had 12. Young moved into a tie by riding Invocation to victory in the day’s third race, the $25,000 Raymond G. Woolfe Memorial. Norris then broke the deadlock race later, piloting Willow U to a win in the $30,000 Springdale Cup for his NSA-best 14th win of the season ... In the other races on the seven-chase card, Alcazar de Maram wired the 10-horse field in the opening $30,000 Sport of Kings Maiden Hurdle. Ridden by Darren Nagle for Hall of Game trainer Jonathen Sheppard, the 4-year-old Giants Causeway gelding won by a whopping 39 3/4 lengths while traveling 2 1/8 miles in a time of 3:39 ... Camden’s Bernie Dalton and his wife/trainer Kate Dalton scored in the second division of the $30,000 Sport of Kings Maiden Hurdle with Stephen E. Johnson’s Strongbox. The 3-year-old grandson of Dynaformer won by three lengths in a time of 3:58.20 ... Paddy Young piloted Straylight Racing, LLC’s Invocation to an 18-length victory in the $25,000 Raymond G. Woolfe Memorial for 3-year-olds. The winning time for the Joseph Davies-trained Intense Focue gelding for the two-mile trak was 3:37.60 ... Kieran Norris rode Willow U to victory in the Springdale Cup for Camden-based trainer Richard Valentine. The 5-year-old Utopia mare made the 2 1/8-mile trip in a time of 4:05 while winning by a length and a half ... Irv Naylor’s Lake Champlain won the first division of the $25,000 Dale K. Thiel Ratings Handicap Hurdle by a quarter of a length with Sean McDermott in the irons for trainer Cyril Murphy. The winning time for the 2 5/16-mile run was 4:22 ... The afternoon of chasing was capped by the second division of the $25,000 Dale K. Thiel Ratings Handicap Hurdle which was won by Canadian Gold, trained by Doug Fout and ridden by Brendan Crowley. The final clocking for the half-length win was 4:29.