01/08/2014 1:26PM

2013 Eclipse Awards: Divine Fortune

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photo by: Tod Marks

Imagine riding a horse who finished second in five Grade 1 stakes without winning one. Then imagine winning one. “Finishing second in five Grade 1’s, it’s an unbelievable achievement, but after the fourth, the fifth, it sickens you,” said steeplechase jockey Darren Nagle, who rode Divine Fortune to runner-up efforts in the 2011 Colonial Cup, the 2012 Iroquois, the 2012 Grand National, the 2012 Colonial Cup, and the 2013 Iroquois.

The Pennsylvania-bred won other major races and put together a solid career, but he found a way to come up short – just short – on the biggest stages. Then it all changed. At age 10, he was part of an 11-horse field in the $250,000 American Grand National at Far Hills in New Jersey on Oct. 19.

In the richest race of the season, Divine Fortune ran like he knew his reputation depended on it, leading at every step to win the 2 5/8-mile test by 5 1/2 lengths. The Bill Pape-Jonathan Sheppard homebred finally won a big one, and with it wound up leading all American steeplechasers in 2013 earnings with $207,000. He’s an Eclipse Award finalist for the second consecutive season. The top steeplechasers traded punches all year, with no horse winning more than three stakes and no horse claiming more than one of the six Grade 1 races on the calendar.

Divine Fortune arguably put together the best season, winning twice in seven starts and placing second (by a neck) in the Grade 1 Iroquois. The Grand National victory was his moment. “If he didn’t run great today, he’s had a bad summer, you would have thought about retiring him, and he would have gone down as a maybe horse,” Nagle said shortly afterward. “But he showed he does actually have his place.” Divine Fortune’s campaign started with a classy allowance win over 2010 steeplechase champion Slip Away and tough stakes horse Decoy Daddy at Stoneybrook in April.

Five weeks later, Demonstrative rallied in the final yards to defeat Divine Fortune by a neck in the Iroquois. At Saratoga, Divine Fortune finished third behind Mr. Hot Stuff and Italian Wedding in the A.P. Smithwick. His two worst races came next when seventh (without Nagle) in the New York Turf Writers Cup at Saratoga and seventh again (when losing a shoe) in the Lonesome Glory at Belmont Park. Then came the Grand National win. He completed the season by finishing fourth, after dueling Gustavian into submission, in the Colonial Cup. Trained throughout his career by Sheppard, Divine Fortune is a tribute to the Hall of Fame trainer’s operation.

The son of Royal Anthem was raised and broken on his Pennsylvania farm. He raced on the flat in the Mid-Atlantic. As a 4-year-old in 2007, he won maiden races over jumps (first) and on the flat. Then he went up the steeplechase staircase to Saratoga allowance winner, novice stakes winner, and graded stakes regular.

He ended 2013 with nine jump wins and $606,390 earned, the eighth-highest total in history. “It is fun,” Sheppard said. “You get a horse who’s like part of the family after a while. His mother [retired broodmare My Tombola] is turned out in the field with [35-year-old steeplechase legend] Flatterer. They really are like part of the family. My whole program is sort of geared to horses doing well as they get older, and every so often, one of them manages to do what he’s done.”