11/23/2007 12:00AM

Jumper's rise to top a pleasant surprise to breeders

EmailTom and Chris Bowman have reached one high point after another over the past several years with their Maryland-based breeding operation. So it's no surprise that the Bowmans are likely to be listed among the breeders of 2007 Eclipse Award winners.

But hardly anyone would have predicted that it would happen with a steeplechaser.

Good Night Shirt, bred by the Bowmans and culled from their operation as an unraced 3-year-old, all but officially clinched the steeplechase title with his decisive victory in the Grade 1 Colonial Cup Steeplechase last weekend at Springdale Race Course in Camden, S.C.

A 6-year-old gelded son of former Maryland stallion Concern, Good Night Shirt won 3 of his 5 starts this season - all in Grade 1 competition over jumps. His 2007 earnings, totaling $314,163, are a single-season record for a steeplechaser.

The other major Eclipse Award contender this year, McDynamo, was going for his fourth champion title since 2003. But he lost to Good Night Shirt two of the three times they met.

Good Night Shirt races for Sonny and Ann Via, of Free Union, Va. The Vias have owned him throughout his steeplechase career, which began in the spring of 2005 under the guidance of Maryland-based steeplechase trainer Jack Fisher.

Before that, Good Night Shirt revved up with a modestly successful stint on the flat for Sean Clancy (a one-time champion steeplechase jockey and now a racing journalist) and Lizzie Merryman.

It was Clancy who spotted Good Night Shirt's potential as a jumper.

"Man, I've got to buy that horse!" Clancy recalls saying when he first laid eyes on the rangy, big-boned, blaze-faced chestnut at Fair Hill Training Center in early 2004.

Good Night Shirt was then in training with Vince Moscarelli. The Bowmans had given Moscarelli a half-interest in Good Night Shirt in return for his training services.

But where Clancy saw the mold of a jumper, the Bowmans and Moscarelli - focused on the flat - were less than inspired by the gelding's looks. The Bowmans had held off selling him at auction as a yearling, thinking he wouldn't bring enough to make his trip to the sale worthwhile.

Good Night Shirt made eight starts, all on the flat, for Clancy and Merryman, winning twice at 1 1/16 miles on the turf at Pimlico.

When it was time for him to move into gear over jumps, Clancy and Merryman sold Good Night Shirt to the Vias for an undisclosed amount.

"It was a business decision," Clancy said. "We had made $46,000 on him, including Maryland-bred Fund owner bonuses. And I knew he would be in good hands with Jack [Fisher]."

Good Night Shirt won his second start over jumps in May 2005 and didn't look back. Grade 1-placed at 4, he earned honors as the champion Maryland-bred steeplechaser last season at 5, when he won or placed in 4 of 6 starts, including a victory in the David L. "Zeke" Ferguson Memorial.

Tom Bowman, who also is the breeder of two-time Maryland Hunt Cup winner Bug River, shakes his head in amazement.

"This is something no one in our position could ever have dreamed of," Bowman said.

Because none of her foals "fit the bill as racehorses," Bowman had given away Good Night Shirt's dam, Hot Story (by Two Punch). But now, fortunately, he has her back.

Bowman bought the mare privately seven or eight years ago from Suzanne Moscarelli, in a package with two other mares, one of whom - Substitute Teacher, by Shelter Half - promptly produced multiple stakes winner Smart and Fancy.

After Hot Story gave birth to a Polish Miner colt at the Bowmans' Dance Forth Farm in Chestertown, Md., in 2006, he gave her to "a lady who breeds Warmbloods."

Hot Story, now 18, failed to conceive for the new owner, however. Bowman, a veterinarian renowned for his work in equine reproduction, got her back just in time for a late breeding to Waquoit last spring. She is carrying one of the final foals by that stallion, who holds a special place in Bowman's heart.

Waquoit was the first stallion syndicated to stand at Northview Stallion Station after the farm was established in 1989 by Bowman and partners Richard Golden and Allaire duPont. He was euthanized this past June because of infirmities of old age.