01/05/2012 2:28PM

2011 Eclipse Awards: Black Jack Blues

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In three weeks, Black Jack Blues did more than any other 2011 American steeplechase starter. He won his only two starts, both stakes, earned $171,000, and laid waste to the best field of the season.

And he wound up an Eclipse Award finalist by leading the division in earnings. His chief competition comes from a another runner owned by Irv Naylor, Tax Ruling, who extended his quality over a longer period by winning Grade 1 stakes in May and November.

Bred in Ireland by B.J. Griffiths and trained in Britain, Black Jack Blues won three races early in the year before being imported by Naylor, a leading United States steeplechase owner. The 8-year-old arrived in time – barely – to run in the $35,000 Dot Smithwick Memorial Stakes at Middleburg, Va. on Oct. 1. Fresh off the plane, the son of Definite Article led every step of the restricted stakes to win by 4 1/4 lengths. Like everyone else, trainer J.W. Delozier was impressed by his new horse – especially since they had only met the night before.

[MORE: Complete list of 2011 Eclipse Awards finalists | Vote for Horse of the Year and win]

“I was expecting to get him Wednesday, we got him last night [Friday], and I schooled him over two hurdles this morning,” the trainer said after the win. “He wasn’t bothered a little bit. He’s a very relaxed, quiet type of horse.” Three weeks later, Black Jack Blues lined up again – one of 14 in the $250,000 Grand National at Far Hills, N.J. The year’s richest race attracted talent, depth, quality in the likes of Grade 1 winners Tax Ruling, Mabou, Arcadius, Your Sum Man, and Pierrot Lunaire and Grade 2 winner Divine Fortune. American steeplechasing’s championship day also brought rain, swinging the advantage decidedly to the soft-turf savvy Europeans.

Black Jack Blues once again made all the running, shrugging off challenges and making the others look ordinary in a seven-length romp. Irish-breds finished first, second, fourth, and fifth as only half the field finished. Due to the soft turf or not, Black Jack Blues dominated.

“Winning right off the plane was a pretty big effort, but it’s supposed to be harder the second time, against a different group of horses, in a better race, going farther than he’d ever run,” Delozier said of the 2 5/8-mile Grand National. “I was worried whether Ross [Geraghty] was going to get him to switch off and relax because he was going to have to do that against this group. Last time he was running, this time he was more manageable.” And then he was gone.

Set to run in the season’s final Grade 1, the $100,000 Colonial Cup Nov. 19, Black Jack Blues was scratched with an illness three days before the race. Delozier reported a cough, mucus, a sick horse – crushing the chance to end all doubt with another Grade I win.

Tax Ruling won the Colonial Cup, staking his claim to the championship but doing little to diminish Black Jack Blues.

“Just bad timing,” said Delozier. “I was more disappointed than anyone that he didn’t get a chance to run. He still had a great year.”