He uses the deep footing to his advantage as he takes down one of the titans of the sport.
Hardly a soul, least of all his jockey, knew anything about Pierrot Lunaire. But he ended one of the biggest Grade I winning streaks steeplechasing has ever seen.
“I had never ridden the horse in a race, which is nothing new, he just shipped over,” said rider Chip Miller. “Everyone knew about as much about the horse as I did—zero.”
Now, the English import will forever be known as the horse that bested Sonny Via’s Good Night Shirt at 3 miles in deep going at the $150,000 Iroquois stakes and denied the two-time Eclipse Award winner a third and historic win there, May 9.
Entered against some good stakes horses, including recent winner Magalen Bryant’s Isti Bee (Paddy Young) and long-time veteran Calvin Houghland’s Chivite (Xavier Aizpuru), Pierrot Lunaire’s name on the overnights raised more questions than answers. He had not run in two months, and his last showing was 24th out of 27 starters in the Coral Cup Hurdle at Cheltenham Festival (England) on March 11.
Trainer Bruce Miller, of Cochranville, Pa., only had the horse at his farm for less than a week. He put his son and eventual jockey Chip Miller in the irons for a school the Wednesday before the race. He said Chip was not impressed with the outing but agreed to the ride, and Pierrot Lunaire became owner Houghland’s “other” entry in the six-horse field.
For the past three weeks, Tennessee has been inundated with 12 inches of rain, and even with an old, established course like Nashville’s Percy Warner Park it was soft. The combination of the heat and the muddy conditions sucked the life out of most of the horses all day, and the feature was no different.
From the start, Isti Bee shot to the lead and hung on for about four fences until Good Night Shirt (William Dowling) took over. Miller, not wanting to run his father’s newest charge in the chewed-up turf, took the horse well to the outside and back behind the others.
With about half a mile to go, Isti Bee pulled up. Gil Johnston’s gray Swagger Stick (Jody Petty) also lost heart and was pulled up. Only Chivite, Cradle Will Rock (Danielle Hodsdon) and Pierrot Lunaire hung on, following Good Night Shirt.
As they entered the steep incline to the turn for home, Pierrot Lunaire quickened. By the last fence, Pierrot Lunaire and Good Night Shirt were jumping abreast, albeit with much daylight separating them.
Pierrot Lunaire landed well and hugged the outside hedge, eventually passing Good Night Shirt in the long stretch to win by 3 lengths. Chivite placed third while Cradle Will Rock was fourth.
Chip, 39, was astounded by the unexpected victory. Although he has 209 wins to his name, he had never won the Iroquois. He was equally proud to win on a horse for Houghland, who hails from Tennessee.
“This is definitely one that has been on my list,” Chip said. “I have been second here and felt that this was a race I never was going to win. Everyone trains horses for Mr. Houghland. All he wants is to win the Iroquois, and he’s the most gracious owner. He’s a very personable man, and I know it was worth a lot to him.”
Houghland, 92, rode in his first Iroquois in 1941. Pierrot Lunaire gave him his fifth victory as an owner.
The 5-year-old son of War Chant was bred in Kentucky but shipped to Europe in 2006. He entered the Iroquois with $90,000 in career earnings from three wins and five second-placed finishes out of 15 starts.
The bay has had an eventful month. On May 1, Pierrot Lunaire flew to Amsterdam, then to New York, and arrived at Miller’s barn four days before the race. A couple of light schools later, he was shipped to Tennessee and made his way 3 miles later to the winner’s circle.
“He never missed an oat,” Bruce said. “He will eat anything you put in front of him and has a great temperament. In fact, he’s a little too quiet for me.”
Slaying The Dragon
Not so long ago, Good Night Shirt showed his Achilles heel in the 2007 Breeders’ Cup at Far Hills (N.J.), when he was fourth in deep going to winner Michael Moran’s McDynamo. Even his jockey was not sure about his horse just before the Iroquois.
“Ground is against The Shirt today, but we will see,” Dowling said apprehensively.
Chip wanted to give his horse the easiest trip possible: “I wanted to stay wide. I know it helped,” he said. “This was the seventh race, and the ground was so chewed up. I wanted to go where no one had gone. “Just when I thought he was at the end of his rope, that he was almost done, we turned for home and he got just on Good Night Shirt’s quarter and got another breath. We just took off. I kept him wide, and he was kind of looking at everyone as if to say, ‘Why am I out here?’ But he was all business at the end.”
His father was beaming. “When Chip rides there’s no better,” Bruce said. “He did all that by himself. I gave him no instructions.”
Pierrot Lunaire’s win shattered Good Night Shirt’s six Grade I wins in a row streak and places him in unfamiliar territory as second with $72,000 to Pierrot Lunaire’s $90,000 on the National Steeplechase Association list of money won going into the summer.
Trained by Jack Fisher of Monkton, Md., Good Night Shirt traditionally does not run after the Iroquois. Most likely he will come back to start his third bid for horse of the year in September at the $150,000 Belmont (N.Y.) and the Grand National at Far Hills in October.
The day was not a bust for Via. Dowling won one for the owner with Tricky Me in the $25,000 Sport of Kings maiden hurdle over Mede Cahaba Stable’s Class Deputy (Richard Boucher).
“He was keen early on,” Dowling said. “It takes a good horse to win here first time out, and he was a brave little horse, especially in this going.”
Bridesmaid No More
Miller picked up another unexpected win with his mare Octoraro Stable’s Dynaskill in the $50,000 Henley Sport of Queens Stakes. He said the mare has had a history of unpredictable behavior and was hard to teach to jump.
Ridden by Jody Petty, the 7-year-old daughter of Dynaformer had yet to break her maiden. Miller decided to put blinkers on her for the first time. She stepped up, beating her only challenger, Mark Dodson’s Moon Dolly (Aizpuru), by more than 12 lengths.
“We have been trying for a long time,” Miller said. “It was one thing or another, maybe it was me. I hate to run horses in blinkers, but it seemed right. It was the blinkers, the going or Jody or all three.”
Petty said she has a great deal of heart: “I can’t take any credit for that horse—she was amazing today. She botched an important one on the backside, but she ran right back up there. And coming up that hill, it was so soft I asked myself, ‘Why am I making a move up the hill?’ But she didn’t slow down, and the other ones did. How can you take a horse back when they are going that good?”
One of the most dramatic finishes of the day came when William Santoro won with Cherry Knoll Farm’s Dalucci for trainer Janet Elliot of Kirkwood, Pa., in the $35,000 three-mile amateur hurdle.
Somewhere on course Santoro’s saddle started to slip forward, putting the jockey up on the horse’s neck for most of the running. Santoro said it was lucky the horse likes to hold his head high.
“Once the saddle slipped I had very little choice but to let him out another notch, and he just is a courageous beast that went ahead and did it anyway,” Santoro said. “If I had chosen to sit down it acted like a rocking thing.”
Elliot watched the race in horror. “William did a masterful job staying on. I do not know how he did it,” she said.
Dalucci is a scrappy little gray Irish-bred who was imported last year to run in the $250,000 Grand National at Far Hills but placed a disappointing fifth. His owners eventually sold him to Cherry Knoll Farm.
“You would have never known today that he came to the United States because he does not like it soft,” Elliot said.