01/06/2015 1:07PM

2014 Eclipse Awards: Divine Fortune

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Barbara D. Livingston

Champions, Hall of Famers, all-time greats. Jonathan Sheppard has trained all kinds of steeplechasers during a career now in its sixth decade. But he’s never had a horse like Divine Fortune, who proved his talent and resiliency with another championship-level campaign at age 11.

The gelded son of Royal Anthem opened 2014 with a Grade 1 clinic in the $150,000 Iroquois in Nashville, Tenn., and closed the year with another in the $100,000 Colonial Cup in Camden, S.C. In between, he lost all three starts, including a pull-up in the Grade 1 A.P. Smithwick at Saratoga and a hard fall late in the Grade 1 Lonesome Glory at Belmont Park.

“He doesn’t seem to get depressed or down on himself or anything when he falls or has a bad race,” Sheppard said in November. “If he was like me, he’d have been retired years ago. He’s a remarkable horse. He really is.”

Back in May, Divine Fortune headed to the Iroquois as the division leader and left Music City with a gold record for Sheppard and co-owner-breeder Bill Pape. Divine Fortune set up shop on the lead for new jockey Willie McCarthy and galloped – flying every fence and dismissing eight other horses while winning by 3 1/4 lengths.

Once fast enough to win going 2 1/16 miles, the Pennsylvania-bred completed his career transition to stayer as he handled 3 miles and a classy field.

Saratoga’s two Grade 1 stakes beckoned, and Divine Fortune entered the Smithwick as the favorite and flopped – pulled up when well back in the field. Sheppard bypassed the New York Turf Writers Cup three weeks later but went back to the racetrack for the Lonesome Glory on Sept. 18. Again favored as part of an entry while also being reunited with regular jockey Darren Nagle, Divine Fortune never found his jumping rhythm and fell hard when under pressure to keep pace at the last fence.

Two poor starts for an 11-year-old horse, even a steeplechaser, will often signal the end of a career. But Divine Fortune is not most 11-year-old horses. Falls don’t faze him. Pull-ups don’t matter. He recovers, goes back to work on the farm, and comes out fighting.

A month after the Lonesome Glory, he faced championship rival Demonstrative in the $250,000 Grand National at Far Hills. Younger by four years and back to his best form, Demonstrative shadowed Divine Fortune up front early and took over late to collect a third Grade 1 win on the season.

But Divine Fortune finished second after jumping well and fighting on in the stretch.

Then came the Colonial Cup, where Divine Fortune truly returned to form. He duplicated the Iroquois effort and won the race for the first time in his fourth try. Nagle gunned him at the start, taking an immediate lead on five foes, and let Divine Fortune go to work. The horse flowed through the 2 3/4 miles and 17 fences, applying pressure when he wanted and taking breathers when he needed. The others, including Demonstrative, closed in coming into the stretch, but Divine Fortune kicked away again and won by nine lengths.

“He’s unreal, special, real special to me,” said Nagle. “He’s a very professional horse, a smart horse. He just lives life every day like it’s normal. If he was a human, he’d probably be a World War veteran with a couple of bullet holes or something – but happy with life. He’s amazing. He’s young at heart, I suppose. He still has enthusiasm.”

With two wins and a second in five starts in 2014, Divine Fortune earned $195,000 to finish second to Demonstrative’s $362,500 on the leaderboard. Both horses finished the year with more than $800,000 in career steeplechase earnings, a mark just three other American Thoroughbreds have reached.