He gains the respect of rider Chip Miller as he wins in Georgia.
When jockey Chip Miller picked up the ride on Fox Ridge Farm’s Planets Aligned last May, he certainly didn’t think he would end the year winning a Grade I race with him.
But Planets Aligned proved himself in every race he entered, so when the 6-year-old headed for the $100,000 AFLAC U.S. Championship Supreme Hurdle Grade I Novice Stakes at the Steeplechase at Callaway, Nov. 3 in Pine Mountain, Ga., Miller was quite happy to be aboard.
Chock full of good novices, the race had many familiar faces from the summer. But in the end it was all Planets Aligned by more than a length over Lead Us Not (James Slater).
The win marked the third out of eight starts for Planets Aligned. Miller first sat on the grandson of Deputy Minister when he won a $25,000 maiden hurdle at the Iroquois Steeplechase (Tenn.) in May. After that he was never worse than third.
He won the $70,000 novice stakes at Saratoga (N.Y.) and was a good second at the Meadowlands (N.J.).
At Far Hills (N.J.), Miller said they were a little too out of it in the $100,000 race, and he blamed himself for the third-placed finish. But at Callaway, he let Planets Aligned make all the decisions.
“This was definitely his best race of the year,” Miller said. “He has improved mentally and physically so much since Nashville and even Saratoga. We didn’t get along so well at Far Hills. I wasted so much time standing back at the fences there. I needed to ride him like he was the best horse in that race and leave him alone.”
Miller added, “He’s not a novice anymore. He knows what his job is, and he likes it. I don’t need to help him anymore or tell him what to do. I can just sit and enjoy the ride. It’s such a pleasure to ride a horse for an entire year and see them improve like that.”
Despite their first win in May, the little chestnut did not capture his heart right away.
“I wasn’t that high on him after Iroquois,” Miller admitted. “Planets Aligned just reminds me that horses have every right to change. Sometimes they take to hurdles right away, sometimes they never do, and sometimes it just takes a little more time like it did with him.”
Trained by Tom Voss, Planets Aligned has made $142,600 this year. He is fifth in the National Steeplechase Association leading horse category.
Voss has pulled off his shoes and turned him out for the rest of the year. “He’s done,” Voss said. “We’ll bring him back in the spring. He really tried hard for us.”
Slater may have finished second in the feature, but he won three races at Callaway, his first coming for trainer Jonathan Sheppard in the $20,000 amateur highweight hurdle with Timber Bay Farm’s Underbidder.
The race is considered one of the most difficult for hurdle contests. Not only do the horses have to go 3 miles and a furlong, they also have to carry a minimum of 162 pounds. In Underbidder’s case, he was saddled with the high weight of 180 pounds, and to make it even more interesting, nothing at the Georgia course is level going.
Slater said the horse stalked the pace, and just when he thought he might be done Underbidder found a little more. At the wire he still had plenty and won over Anne Haynes’ Summersville (Russell Haynes) by more than 6 lengths.
“He likes all the hills and the change of scenery,” Slater said. “He’s a cool horse. He can be quick when you want him to be, and he’s a very clever jumper. There was a point halfway up the last hill that I thought he
was getting tired. I knew Chris Read was right behind me on Capital Peak, who won it last year, so I just squeezed and he took it up a notch.”
Born in England, the 29-year-old Slater lives in Pennsylvania and is one of the leading amateur jockeys. He rode Underbidder to a three-mile hurdle win at Willowdale (Pa.) in 2006, and the horse was second at Saratoga in the $150,000 Turf Writers in August with Jody Petty up.
Worth The Work
Slater also won a training flat race with Sheppard’s Three Carat, but the win in the $50,000 filly & mare hurdle stakes was one of the toughest for him physically, although worth the hardship.
Earlier in the week, he had noticed an open ride on Lair, a horse trained by Voss and owned by his wife Mimi. Slater then took note of the reduced weights. Thinking he could not possibly make such a low weight of 136 he didn’t bother to call, but Voss named him on the horse anyway.
“I was so upset. I had to call up and tell him I can’t make the weight,” Slater said. “At the time I found out he had put my name down, I weighed about 146 pounds stripped. Voss still wanted me so I pretty much stopped eating after that. On the day, I weighed out at 138 with tack.”
The 5-year-old homebred by Lion Cavern had shown some talent at the maiden hurdle at Shawan Downs (Md.) when she won with Xavier Aizpuru and went on to place third in the Far Hills $50,000 stakes with William Dowling, so Slater knew she was tough.
Lair did not disappoint, winning the stakes race over veteran Augustin Stable’s Imagina (Petty) by more than a length.
“She has lot of heart,” Slater said. “She’s a gutsy little filly with a ton of class and has a great turn of foot. But there’s always a worry you may not have enough horse on these hills.”
Just to add to his pressure, owner Mimi Voss, who never misses a trick, lightly scolded Slater for his second-placed ride in the feature.
“Mrs. Voss had said to me, ‘You lost a lot of ground by going wide at that turn,’ ” Slater recalled. “I told her ‘I will try not to do that with your filly,’ but here I did it anyway. I went way out in the turn; luckily, it turned out OK.”
Voss was impressed with Lair’s three starts this fall: “I think down the line she would make a good timber horse. She’s built for it. We will have to see.”
Although trainer Paul Rowland’s mare ran seventh to Lair, Rowland didn’t go home empty handed. The Pennsylvania trainer got a win earlier in the day in the $20,000 maiden timber with Jimmy Lockhart’s Across The Sky (Robert Walsh).
The horse was originally slated to be an eventer, but he seemed to have some medical issues they just could not figure out.
“When he ran he seemed to want to tie up afterwards,” Rowland said. “They were all over body issues, not soundness. Also when he jumped the hurdles he jumped them too well. He didn’t really hurdle them so we switched him to timber.”
Rowland said he will probably put him away for the winter and start him back next spring.
Sarah L. Greenhalgh