10/13/2016 2:16PM

Hovdey: Doyle rooting on Rawnaq from the sidelines


Among the upscale, tailgating throng gathering at the Far Hills steeplechase meeting Saturday in central New Jersey will be Jack Doyle, the leading jump jock in the country this year and last and the winner of a healthy half-million dollars by his mounts in 2016.

Doyle, 27, should be out there adding to his numbers aboard heavily favored Rawnaq in the $350,000 Grand National Steeplechase while trying to improve on their third-place finish from 2015. Instead, Doyle must watch from the sidelines, along with upward of 30,000 fans, as Irish champion Ruby Walsh does the honors aboard Rawnaq for owner Irvin Naylor and trainer Cyril Murphy.

A tough game got tougher for Doyle on Sept. 22 at Belmont Park, where his mount, Rudyard K, botched the final fence of the Lonesome Glory Handicap and went tail over tea kettle. For a sweet split second as he rolled to the ground, Doyle thought he might have gotten away clean. Then he looked up to see more than a half ton of flailing Rudyard K tumbling toward him.

“This was never going to end well #I’lljustsithere” was the way Doyle posted a gruesome Instagram screen grab from the video of the fall on the day after it happened. He was in North Shore University Hospital on Long Island, fresh from surgery to repair a fractured pelvis and a broken coccyx bone at the base of his spine. Fortunately, the damage was a long way from his Irish soul, and Rudyard K loped away to fight again later.

“This is part of the job,” Doyle said. “If you have trouble accepting this, you shouldn’t be doing it. I’ve been very lucky the last couple of years to not be injured.”

Doyle has nothing but praise for Rawnaq, a formidable beast who competed in his native Ireland before hitting these shores last year.

“He’s a pretty straightforward horse who loves to jump and gallop,” Doyle said. “I think if I’d known him a bit better, he would have won because I got stuck in a bit of traffic. He’s got a huge, big, galloping stride. I decided this year we should just make more use of him, ride him a bit more positively and use his gallop a bit more. He seems to just kill horses off with that gallop. They just can’t go with him.”

They certainly could not go with Rawnaq and Doyle in either the Temple Gwathmey at Middleburg or the Iroquois in Nashville earlier this year. The 8-year-old son of Azamour won them both.

To describe Rawnaq as heavily favored in the Grand National is not quite right. There is no parimutuel betting offered on the race, although it’s not for lack of trying. A bill to allow wagering on the Far Hills meet was cleared by the New Jersey legislature at the end of July, but because Gov. Chris Christie waited six weeks to sign the bill, there was not enough time to put the plan into action.

The Far Hills organizers are making the best of the situation with a live-streaming broadcast of the entire Saturday program while seeking feedback from a delegation from the state’s racing commission on the pari-mutuel launch next year.

The Grand National, which once enjoyed a Breeders’ Cup label, is run over 2 5/8 miles of National hurdles, requiring speed, stamina, and agility. Among the champion steeplechasers who have won the Far Hills event are Jimmy Lorenzo, Highland Bud, Morley Street, Lonesome Glory, All Gong, Flat Top, McDynamo, Good Night Shirt, Black Jack Blues, Pierre Lunaire, Divine Fortune, Demonstrative, and Dawalan.

Doyle was riding the race for the first time last year when he and Rawnaq were beaten only a length by Dawalan.

“The jumps come up pretty quick,” Doyle said, “and then there’s quite a long run from the second-last jump to the last where you’re turning the whole way, so you want to be there or thereabouts jumping that second-last. As I said, if I’d known Rawnaq a little better last year, I would have ridden him different. He was only getting going after he jumped the last.”

Doyle was asked if he’d confer with Walsh prior to Walsh’s getting aboard Rawnaq.

“Ruby rode against him down in Nashville, so he knows him pretty well,” Doyle said. “He’s a pretty straightforward horse, you just let him get on with it. But you don’t need to tell Ruby too much anyway. I think he’s the best jump jockey in the world.”

Subsequent to his surgery, Doyle was fitted with an external fixation device to help heal his damaged coccyx. If you don’t know what that is, picture a brace screwed through the skin into the bone. He must wear it for three months.

“It was pretty painful before, but once they put on the external fixation, it stabilized everything and relieved a lot of the pain,” Doyle said. “It’s just awkward.

“So, I’m not feeling too bad,” Doyle added. “It’s just going to take a bit of time. I can get around, I just can’t really bend over, but I can do a lot of stuff, within reason. I’m just happy to be going racing on Saturday.”

The crowd should be proud to have him in their midst. And for goodness sakes, if he happens to drop his program, will someone please pick it up?