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October 2, 2009

Red Letter Day Lights Up Lonesome Glory Stakes

Trainer Janet Elliot is back with a horse of the year contender.

By early September, Janet Elliot had been inducted as the first female trainer into the National Museum of Racing’s Hall of Fame and won six races. But nothing, she said, could top Red Letter Day’s win in the $150,000 Lonesome Glory Stakes.

With the National Steeplechase Association horse of the year title up for grabs, the Lonesome Glory Steeplechase Stakes Grade I, run Sept. 20 at historic Belmont Park in Elmont, N.Y., proved a pivotal showdown.

The leader in the standings, William Pape’s Mixed Up (Danielle Hodsdon), was one of the favorites going in, but a poor showing in the $100,000 Turf Writers Cup at Saratoga Springs (N.Y.) dropped him second to Armata Stable’s Dynaski (Xavier Aizpuru) as a betting choice.

Two late scratches—horse of the year contender Calvin Houghland’s Pierrot Lunaire (due to a licensing snafu involving trainer Bruce Miller) and Irv Naylor’s speed horse Tax Ruling (out because of a minor ankle injury)—narrowed the field to six.

The New York Racing Association added $10,600, making the purse $160,600 at post time.

But Gregory Hawkins’ Red Letter Day (Bernard Dalton) got no respect from the handicappers and was considered the long shot at 20-1.

With no one looking to lead, Dalton let Red Letter Day surge to the front, forcing a tightly bunched field to stay with him or be left behind on the 21⁄2 miles over hurdles.

Not until a few fences from home did anyone take on the 6-year-old son of Red Ransom. First came Mixed Up, who pinned his ears and challenged the frontrunner, but his bid was short lived. Then it looked like Isti Bee (Paddy Young) was going to make a move, but Dynaski deftly took over for second.

But this was not to be Dynaski’s race, and Red Letter Day out-jumped the field over the last, sealing the win.

Dynaski hung on for second just under a length back, while Arcadius (Robert Walsh) kept Spy In The Sky (Liam McVicar) at bay to place third.

Named for the first letter in important passages of books or calendar dates marked in red in medieval times, Red Letter Day put a few spectators in the black, paying out a sweet $44.60 for the win.

Although Elliot has won dozens of big races before, she admitted she was a little beside herself for this one.

“I was screaming like a banshee,” Elliot said. “I couldn’t believe it. I was saying to myself or maybe out loud, ‘Is this really happening?’ It’s been a very long time. Gone have been the good old days. You really miss it when you’ve not had one in a long time.”

Dalton was equally pleased. This is the Irishman’s second grade I win and his first since turning professional this year.

“I broke Red’s maiden at Queens Cup [N.C.] in 2007 and always thought he was a nice sort of horse,” Dalton said. “I didn’t ride him at Saratoga in August. I was on another of Janet’s horses, and I noticed he looked kind of washed out in the paddock. He was sixth that day, but he felt great at Belmont.”

Dalton added, “Red didn’t miss a hurdle and was absolutely brilliant over the last two fences. That’s what won it for us, because he doesn’t have a kick, he just wears them out and down.”

Road To Hall Of Fame

One doesn’t get chosen for racing’s Hall of Fame randomly. Elliot clinched many championship titles and smashed a few glass ceilings early in her career.

Born in Ireland, the 61-year-old Pennsylvania trainer started her career working for fellow Hall of Fame trainer Jonathan Sheppard before branching out on her own in 1980. She was the first woman to win the NSA trainer championship in 1991, subsequently ending her mentor’s 18-year winning streak.

Until recently, she reigned second on the NSA’s all-time leading trainers list behind Sheppard, who has more than $18 million. After the Lonesome Glory she hovers in third with more than $7.7 million, right behind trainer Jack Fisher, who had exceeded $7.9 million at the start of the season.

Elliot’s career highlights include three Eclipse Awards: Flat Top (1998, 2002) and Correggio (1996). Other leading earners include: hurdlers Census (1984, 1986) and Victorian Hill (1991) and timber champions Ask Don (1992) and Final Final (1997).

Her list of momentous wins and amazing horses made her only the second woman chosen to grace the Hall of Fame; flat track champion jockey Julie Krone was the first.

But the last decade has not been so kind to Elliot. Her once deep stable is now trimmed to a hearty but smaller size, and until this year, her horses were only picking up smaller races.

One of those trainers you can’t discount, Elliot was never truly out of the game, and she’s back on the boards in a big way with seven wins this season.

Red Letter Day ($99,660) is second behind Mixed Up ($124,495) for the horse of the year title going into the fall.

“I can’t even remember the last time I had such a win or a year,” Elliot said. “Maybe Flat Top in 2002? You miss horses like Flat Top, Census, Correggio, Master McGrath and Green Highlander. How can you not? But with Good Night Shirt [2007 and 2008 horse of the year] out, we’re seeing some of the second tier horses rise up to become first tier. This changes everything for the fall.”

Elliot noted that perhaps Red Letter Day is secretly channeling one of her champions, Census.

“I just realized he’s in the stall I used to use for Census,” Elliot said. “They’re about the same height too, an average 16 hands. They are very similar. Red’s not a child’s ride, but he has a lovely disposition and is easy to work with.”

Next on the list for most of the Belmont starters will be the $250,000 Grand National at Far Hills (N.J.), Oct. 17. Traditionally wet, this hasn’t been a good course in the past for Mixed Up, and Elliot said the softer going may not be Red Letter Day’s choice either. But the distance at Far Hills is perfect for Red Letter Day at 2 miles and 5 furlongs. If he doesn’t run there, he’ll head to the Colonial Cup (S.C.) on Nov. 21.

Hat Trick For Young

Paddy Young left no time in the winner’s circle for anyone else at Colonial Downs on Sept. 13, winning all three steeplechase races that day.

Riding for his wife and trainer Leslie Falini Young, he won aboard Silverton Hill’s Torlundy in the $10,000 maiden claiming race by an impressive 27 lengths.

Named for a castle at the base of Ben Nevis in Scotland, Torlundy has been second four times, but this was his first win in 11 starts.

“I don’t really give Paddy any instructions,” Leslie said. “He rides the horse every day and knows the horse better than anyone. I have total faith in his judgment. He gives the horses a lot of confidence. Paddy thought Colonial would be a good spot for him because of the ground. He has an old tendon, and we don’t want to run him on hard ground of a hunt meet.”

Paddy went on to win the jumpers training flat with Isti Bee for trainer Doug Fout and the $15,000 open claiming hurdle with Barracuda Stable’s Eagle Beagle for trainer Ricky Hendricks.

These wins make Paddy the leading NSA jockey going into the fall with 13 wins so far.

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