Updated on 09/17/2011 10:35PM

Luke gets jump start

Email
Bill Straus
Hirapour, Matt McCarron riding, wins the Royal Chase at Keeneland.

Hirapour will try to lock up a second straight Eclipse Award in Saturday afternoon's Grade 1, $200,000 Breeders' Cup Steeplechase at Far Hills, N.J.

, a 9-year-old gelding, faces five rivals in steeplechase racing's richest event. Having already won two Grade 1 stakes this year, Hirapour can clinch the title with a victory in the 2 5/8-mile race over 14 fences.

For Hirapour's owner, Eldon Farm, owned by Atlanta business executive Ken Luke, a second straight championship would be a remarkable accomplishment for a relative newcomer to the sport.

Having conquered the jumping world, Eldon Farm is setting sights on Thoroughbred racing as well.

Eldon Farm sold a yearling for $950,000 at Saratoga this summer while also building a stable of nine young, well-bred racehorses spread among trainers Todd Pletcher, Bill Mott, and Kiaran McLaughlin. Eldon Farm is also developing a broodmare band and purchasing stallion shares.

The farm began as a bucolic 400-acre getaway for Luke in the heart of Virginia horse country.

Rob Nelson, the real estate agent who found the property in Keswick for Luke in 1999, had been involved with jumpers in the past, and was later hired to manage the farm.

Nelson took Luke to the Virginia hunt meets to meet the neighbors, and that exposure sparked Luke's interest in steeplechasing.

"We went to meet folks and socialize and enjoy the countryside," Nelson said of Luke, who was in Europe this week but was scheduled to fly back Friday night for the race. "Ken really fit into it. He got excited about steeplechasing."

Success came quickly. Imperial Gold, an import from New Zealand, was Luke's first purchase. The gelding won his second U.S. start in the fall of 2002 and captured the Grade 3 Temple Gwathmey at Middleburg, Va., the following spring.

"We had a little bit of luck with Imperial Gold," said trainer Doug Fout. "Ken just stepped into the game and he wanted to play at the top level.

"He's come a long way in his understanding of the game," Fout said. "He used to just show up for race day but now he's become a more active owner."

Luke sent Nelson and Fout around the world in search of more jumpers and they discovered Hirapour in England in 2003.

"He was covered in mud when we first saw him," Nelson said. "Doug knew right then and there that this was the horse he wanted out of all the horses we had seen that trip. He has an eye for the conformation that works best for steeplechase."

Hirapour, a modestly successful horse in England and Ireland on the flat and over jumps, rapidly moved to the head of the U.S. steeplechasing class. He won 6 of 10 starts here, including the Grade 1 Colonial Cup last fall that clinched the Eclipse Award.

Matt McCarron, the son of former jockey Gregg McCarron and nephew of Hall of Famer Chris McCarron, rides Hirapour.

This has been a difficult season for Matt McCarron, who suffered three major spills this year. The latest was on Sept. 9, when he broke his collarbone and separated his shoulder in a training accident. With all the spills, jump riders don't last as long as their Thoroughbred counterparts and, at 34, McCarron is nearing the end of career.

McCarron plans to ride at least one more year and would love to close out this injury-filled campaign atop another Eclipse winner.

"I don't know if I've ever been on a horse that wants to win as much as he does," McCarron said. "He's not the greatest physical specimen. He's kind of short and stocky, but he's an unbelievable competitor. He always seems to find a way to win."

The main competition will come from McDynamo, who bids for an unprecedented third straight Breeders' Cup victory, and Preemptive Strike, who figures to set the pace.

McDynamo, the 2003 Eclipse winner, has never lost at Far Hills in four races over the course. There is no parimutuel wagering.

The field

Breeders' Cup Steeplechase
Purse: $200,000; 2 5/8 miles, turf; Grade 1

PPHORSEJOCKEYODDS
1Mon Villez C. Miller20-1
2Three CaratD. Hodsdon10-1
3Preemptive StrikeR. Walsh4-1
4UnderstoodX. Aizpuru15-1
5McDynamoJ. Petty8-5
6HirapourM. McCarron6-5

* All starters carry 156 pounds
* Odds by National Steeplechase Association