11/21/2013 3:13PM

Jay Hovdey: Steeplechase title comes down to last fence at Colonial Cup


Having written recently that all the Eclipse Awards for 2013 were decided one way or another by the results of the Breeders’ Cup, and that nothing happening during these final weeks of the year would make a bit of difference in the various championships, your correspondent left no room for equivocation. Turns out, though, that there is a division very much up in the air, and all the pieces should fall into place on Saturday when the $100,000 Marion duPont Scott Colonial Cup is offered once again at Springdale Course in Camden, South Carolina.

Yes, it’s a steeplechase event, or more accurately a hurdle race over 17 National fences that takes more than five minutes to complete around the 2 3/4-mile course. But with all the hand-wringing over the apparent lack of stamina in the breed, it’s hard to believe there are still Thoroughbreds able to stand the gaff of a race like the Cup at all.

Those who follow know, however, that nearly all of the best ’chasers and especially American hurdlers have early career experience in flat racing, to the point where, a few years ago, champion steeplechase trainer Jack Fisher said he probably wouldn’t consider turning a flat horse into a jumper unless he sported a Beyer figure of at least 80. After all, it’s still a horse race.

The 2013 season of the National Steeplechase Association has been rife with equal opportunity. Five different horses have won the five major races of the campaign (designated with the magical Grade 1), and four of them will be at Springdale on Saturday: Demonstrative (by Elusive Quality), Divine Fortune (by Royal Anthem), Gustavian (by Giant’s Causeway), and Italian Wedding (by Alphabet Soup).

“It’s a very good race, and could be very conclusive,” said Jonathan Sheppard, who trains Divine Fortune and Italian Wedding. “Should one of those four win it, I would think that’s the Eclipse Award right there. But you can’t lose sight of the fact that the champion is in there, too, and deserves plenty of respect.”

Sheppard was referring to Pierrot Lunaire, winner of the 2012 Eclipse Award as America’s top ’chaser. Called simply “Pierre” around the barn, Pierrot Lunaire is a 9-year-old Kentucky-bred son of Breeders’ Cup Mile winner War Chant out of the Irish mare Playact, by French Derby winner Hernando. He is named for the comical main character from a cycle of poems written by 19th century Belgian poet Albert Giraud, but more importantly Pierrot Lunaire has the great advantage of being trained in Maryland by Blythe Miller Davies, with considerable input from her father, the champion steeplechase trainer Bruce Miller.

While doing business as Blythe Miller, Davies rode more than 200 winners and took two NSA titles. She is also the answer to the trick trivia question, “Who was the first woman rider to win a Breeders’ Cup race?” which she did at Far Hills in 2000 aboard All Gong in the Breeders’ Cup Steeplechase.

The Breeders’ Cup is no longer in the steeplechase business, which has left the Grand National and the Colonial Cup as the major late-season events. When reached earlier on Wednesday afternoon Davies was busy at after-school activities with her son and daughter, ages nine and eight, while mulling any last-minute travel details for Pierrot Lunaire. He would be leaving that night for Camden.

“We’re excited,” Davies said. “He came out of his last race well and had a good work last week. It’s a tough field, though, with 13 in there, and they all belong.”

Pierrot Lunaire ran fourth to Divine Fortune, Gustavian, and Demonstrative in the Grand National Steeplechase at Far Hills on Oct. 19. It was his first official start since he won the same event in 2012 to clinch his Eclipse Award.

“We were getting him ready last spring to run in Nashville,” Davies said, referring to the Iroquois Steeplechase, the first major event of the season. “He ran in a point-to-point flat race, and he came back with a bit of a leg. We didn’t want to take a chance on it, so we put him away. Fortunately, it was just time that he needed.”

Davies, 44, won the Colonial Cup three times aboard Hall of Famer Lonesome Glory, so she knows better than most what Pierrot Lunaire and the others are up against over the Springdale layout.

“Even though they’ve taken out the great old huge fences they used to have, the course is still very much about jumping,” Davies said. “It’s one of the few courses that has many jumps per mile, and you need to be very patient. The winner of last year’s Colonial Cup was second to last at the last fence. They can come running so fast that a lot of times everyone seems to get in the thick of things too soon.”

Davies hit the deck hard twice in 2002, sustaining concussions that prompted her retirement as a professional. Since then she has competed in a few events under amateur status, but nowadays she must be content to do her riding while training a horse like Pierrot Lunaire, then watch someone else finish the job in the afternoon.

“Children, carpools – life is a little different now,” Davies said. “But believe me, every spring when they start running again I get tempted.”