01/05/2017 1:40PM

2016 Eclipse Awards: Top Striker

Tod Marks
Top Striker wins the Marion duPont Scott Colonial Cup on Nov. 19 at Camden, S.C.

When the National Steeplechase Association released its pre-season rankings of horses in training for 2016 last February, Top Striker wasn’t among the top half-dozen prospects. That’s understandable, considering Top Striker missed the entire 2015 season and hadn’t won a jump race since taking a stakes for novices in November 2014.

By late fall, however, Top Striker had moved way up in the pecking order. After two strong runner-up performances in $70,000 ratings handicaps going 2 1/16 miles during August at Saratoga, including a loss by a nose, Top Striker won the Grade 2 Zeke Ferguson Memorial at 2 1/8 miles at Great Meadow in October by 2 1/2 lengths. He then delivered the biggest surprise of the steeplechase season when he trounced the year’s most dominant horse, Rawnaq, by 10 1/2 lengths in the Grade 1 Colonial Cup in Camden, S.C. It was the only time Rawnaq was beaten in four starts this year.

The first time Top Striker faced Rawnaq, in the Grade 3 Temple Gwathmey in April, he finished 34 lengths behind him. The rematch, however, was quite different.

Racing at the demanding distance of 2 3/4 miles, beyond his usual comfort zone, Top Striker, ridden for the first time by Ross Geraghty, took dead aim at Rawnaq approaching the 17th and final fence, and after clearing the last obstacle cleanly, drew away.

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The victory in the $150,000 Colonial Cup was special for owners Sue and George Sensor and trainer Arch Kingsley Jr. The Sensors, as well as Kingsley, live in Camden, and Top Strike is stabled across the street from Springdale Race Course, where the Colonial Cup is contested. Kingsley won back-to-back runnings of the Colonial Cup as a jockey aboard Ninepins in 1999 and Romantic in 2000, but it was his first win in the Grade 1 event as a trainer.

A Maryland-bred son of Van Nistelrooy who turned 7 in 2017, Top Striker began his career racing on the flat for owner-breeder Richard Golden and trainer Rodney Jenkins. He won his debut at Colonial Downs in June 2012 and an allowance at Delaware Park two months later. Transferred that fall to trainer Michael Matz, Top Striker failed to clear his second allowance in three tries at Keeneland and Gulfstream Park. In his final start for Matz, Top Striker won for a $30,000 claiming tag on turf at Gulfstream Park in early 2013.

Upon the recommendation of steeplechase jockey Willie McCarthy, who had exercised Top Striker and thought he was a good candidate to become a jumper, Kingsley privately purchased the horse on behalf of the Sensors, longtime clients who had enjoyed modest success with Sunshine Numbers, winner of the Carolina Cup for novices in 2011.

Top Striker won his maiden over hurdles by five lengths in November 2013 at Camden and came back to his home course the following spring to dominate the Carolina Cup by 11 1/2 lengths. His only loss over the Springdale course came when he was a distant fourth in the 2014 running of the Colonial Cup, his first try at 2 3/4 miles.

Kingsley said after the race that he was confident Top Striker could handle the longer distance against top-caliber competition.

“He’s run some good races at shorter distance, but he’s a versatile horse,” Kingsley said. “How we ride him has something to do with what he can get distance-wise. I think we’re figuring out how to ride him better.”

Top Striker is expected to remain in training for the 2017 season. He will race sparingly in the top stakes offered for jumpers during the spring, summer, and fall.

“You have to pick your spots carefully because you know that you are going up against the best every time,” Kingsley said. “He’ll probably be running less as time goes on, but the races will be harder.”