In this two-part series, Denise Steffanus explores the factors that enable flat-racing Thoroughbreds to excel in second careers as steeplechasers, competing over jumps at distances up to three miles while carrying 140 to 158 pounds every few weeks. How does a trainer discover their flat racer may be good at steeplechasing? How can steeplechasers stay safe as they face higher weights, longer distances, and large obstacles? And how is their training different from that of a flat horse?
In Part 1, we follow the journey of former flat runner Mr. Hot Stuff from his first career (flat racing) to his second (steeplechasing). Mr. Hot Stuff has since begun training for his third career (show jumping) and is competing at this week's Thoroughbred Makeover.
The top money-earning steeplechaser in 2017 is a familiar name to flat racing fans. Mr. Hot Stuff, a son of Tiznow and full brother to 2008 Travers Stakes winner Colonel John, was third in the 2009 Santa Anita Derby, and he ran in that year's Kentucky Derby and Belmont Stakes.
On the books as a WinStar Farm-bred, Mr. Hot Stuff is out of Susan Casner's mare Sweet Damsel. (Susan is the wife of former WinStar co-owner Bill Casner.)
Bill Casner described Mr. Hot Stuff's career on the flat as the “perennial bridesmaid.” The horse was second or third for seven of his first 19 races, but with only one win—when he broke his maiden on his fifth attempt.
“He was a horse that was always running at the end of a race,” Casner said. “But the races always seemed to be too short for him. He was very athletic, and he was a brave, strong horse.”
The stunning, 17-hand, jet-black stallion moved like a dressage horse, well-balanced with a fluid stride. He lived up to his name, drawing every eye whenever he pranced into the saddling paddock with ears pricked and neck arched, a scene right out of a Walter Farley novel.
“Every time we'd run him in a race, people in the paddock would 'ooh' and 'ah' about 'Mr. Hot Stuff, he's such a gorgeous horse,' and he was,” Casner said.
Eoin Harty, Mr. Hot Stuff's trainer on the flat, tried everything he could think of to help the horse succeed—blinkers on, blinkers off, tongue tie, shadow roll—but nothing seemed to work. Management changes weren't the answer either, because the horse was always upbeat. The well-mannered peppermint junkie enjoyed his job as a racehorse.
“He always looked fantastic, and his workouts were always good, and he never hesitated to go to the track and train,” Harty said. “So I can't say he was depressed or unhappy.”
Casner concluded Mr. Hot Stuff was missing one key talent—speed.
“Mr. Hot Stuff could go and go and go and go,” Casner said. “He had that stamina, he just didn't have the speed, and both are what's essential for flat racing, especially at the high level.”
Enter publisher and bloodstock agent Sean Clancy, a former champion steeplechase jockey with a keen eye for a potential hurdler. Clancy had plucked Good Night Shirt out of obscurity on the flat and recommended him to top steeplechase trainer Jack Fisher in Maryland. Over fences, Good Night Shirt earned two Eclipse Awards as champion steeplechaser, more than a million dollars in earnings, and a spot in the Racing Hall of Fame.
Mr. Hot Stuff caught Clancy's eye. He told Fisher he was the most beautiful horse he'd ever seen. So Fisher left Maryland for the West Coast to take a look at Mr. Hot Stuff, and he agreed with Clancy. But they had to convince the Casners to sell their favorite horse.
“The horse was going to good people for a second career who would take care of him, and he would have an opportunity to really fulfill his genetic destiny, so to speak. We were thrilled,” Bill Casner said.
Fisher recommended Mr. Hot Stuff to longtime client Mrs. Gillian Johnston, and she bought the horse sight unseen. It was time to see if Mr. Hot Stuff had the right stuff.
Steeplechasing takes a special kind of horse. Steeplechase horses compete over jumps on the turf, carrying 140 to 158 pounds for distances of two to three miles. Fences are at least 4 1/2 feet high, and manmade hurdles are at least 3 1/2 feet high. The horses don't break from a gate, but rather from the drop of a flag.
Mr. Hot Stuff's longest distance on the flat was the 1 ½ mile Belmont Stakes, in which he carried 126 pounds, the most weight of his flat career. He finished eighth, 18 1/4 lengths behind the winner, Summer Bird.
In Maryland, Mr. Hot Stuff could not be in better hands for steeplechase training than Fisher's. He was champion trainer 12 times, including his current seven-year domination since 2012. Fisher is steeplechasing's second all-time leading trainer with career earnings of $15,792,079. He learned his craft from his father, Dr. John Fisher, the trainer/veterinarian who collaborated with University of Pennsylvania's Dr. David Nunamaker to develop the Maryland Shin Project, a training program to prevent bucked shins.
Fisher explained that steeplechase training is similar to European-style race training. Horses are kept at farm training centers where they have generous turnout time, and daily exercise training is cross country over hill and dale.
“Steeplechasers are schooled over small logs first and then they're schooled over hurdles,” he said. “Once they get good at that, they're galloping most of the time, like a flat horse would … It's more of the European style of getting these horses to relax and enjoy themselves.”
Fisher's training track has three furlongs along a flat bottom, then a long, gradual, half-mile climb up a hill. Daily gallops are about two miles. Fisher said gallops longer than that create soundness problems. Workouts look for improvement in the horse's way of going rather than speed. Horses usually workout twice a week, with maintenance gallops in between.
In Part 2 of our steeplechase series, owner Gill Johnston and racehorse safety expert Dr. Reynolds Cowles Jr. will talk about the factors that can make an average flat runner an outstanding steeplechase horse. Look for Part 2 in our Horse Care section tomorrow.
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