01/08/2013 7:45PM

2012 Eclipse Awards: Divine Fortune

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photo by: Barbara D. Livingston

How many 2012 Eclipse Award finalists didn’t win a stakes? Don’t look, there’s only one.

Steeplechaser Divine Fortune put together one of the best, if most confounding, campaigns in recent memory – without winning a single stakes.

The multiple graded stakes winner opened 2012 with an easy triumph in an allowance hurdle at Block House in Tryon, N.C. Divine Fortune snuck into the conditions, because he won just once in 2011 (albeit a major stakes), and scared away all but two overmatched rivals. He won by 5 3/4 lengths. It could have been 25 3/4.

The competition got decidedly tougher from there.

American steeplechasing cards just six Grade 1 races a year, and Divine Fortune was the only horse to tackle all six – finishing second three times, to fellow finalists Pierrot Lunaire and Demonstrative in the autumn and to Arcadius in the spring. Those runner-up efforts came by less than three lengths combined for owner Bill Pape and trainer Jonathan Sheppard.

Fresh off the allowance confidence-booster, Divine Fortune went to the $150,000 Iroquois in May as a major player. On the course, he matched the winning move of Arcadius leaving the backside and pushed him through the final half-mile. Also trained by Sheppard, Arcadius kicked away at the top of the stretch, but Divine Fortune was rallying at the end and lost by a length while more than a dozen lengths clear of Nationbuilder in third. Arcadius died of an aneurysm shortly after the race, casting a long shadow on all involved.

Sheppard aimed for Saratoga, where Divine Fortune won the 2010 and 2011 A.P. Smithwick Memorial. A three-peat was not to be as the son of Royal Anthem finished fifth while encountering traffic. The race looked like a perfect prep for the New York Turf Writers Cup three weeks later, and Divine Fortune powered off the turn and into the last fence – literally. Emerging from a crowd as the leader, he fell heavily, brought down Left Unsaid, and bothered Spy in the Sky and Demonstrative. Sheppard regrouped again and sent Divine Fortune to Belmont for the Lonesome Glory. The $150,000 stakes drew all the big names and went to Pierrot Lunaire in an upset over Spy in the Sky. Divine Fortune finished sixth, beaten about six lengths while rebuilding his confidence from the Saratoga fall.

It worked. The chestnut nearly stole the $250,000 Grand National at Far Hills, N.J., in October – taking the lead at the start and making it last until the final grueling yards of the 2 5/8-mile race on soft turf. Jockey Darren Nagle coaxed every ounce out of his horse, but couldn’t hold off Pierrot Lunaire’s final bid and settled for second in the year’s richest race.

Four weeks later, the stakes horses went to the Colonial Cup. Divine Fortune and Nagle stalked the pace in a 10-horse field, waited, waited, and waited some more. Seizing the moment, Divine Fortune took the lead at the last fence and dug for the wire. He did everything right, but was the final horse passed by Demonstrative within yards of the finish line – brave, strong, skilled, but second again.

Bred in Pennsylvania, Divine Fortune continues a long run of success for co-breeders Pape and Sheppard. They have campaigned steeplechase champions Athenian Idol, Martie’s Anger, Flatterer, and Mixed Up in a partnership dating back to the 1960s. Divine Fortune is the best foal from Sheppard homebred My Tombola, a daughter of Sheppard trainee Northern Fling. Now pensioned, My Tombola shares a field with 34-year-old Hall of Famer Flatterer on Pape’s farm.

Divine Fortune? Now 10, he’s a few miles away at Sheppard’s farm, starting back on the road to go one better in 2013.