The racing comments next to Sur La Tete’s name on the post-race report of the $150,000 Royal Chase grade I hurdle stakes said, “In command and driving,” but those comments are almost ridiculous in their understatement.
Not only did Chris Read drive Sur La Tete to the Keeneland racecourse finish line 10 lengths ahead of his opponents on April 21, but his effortless and elegant come-from-behind run also reduced his foes to looking like also-rans.
On paper, the Royal Chase, held in Lexington, Ky., wasn’t much of a race. Only two genuine Grade I stakes horses showed up, regular foes McDynamo (Jody Petty) and Sur La Tete. Erin Go Bragh (Matt McCarron) has placed in a Grade I stakes and was worth betting on, but the other five horses were all there to gamble on getting a piece of the $150,000 pie.
Sur La Tete was never far back from the quick pace set alternately by Mauritania (Rob Massey) and Free Admission (Danielle Hodsdon). Read said the pre-race plan was to track McDynamo, and that’s exactly what he did.
The eight-horse field ran closely bunched, and Read set his hands on his horse’s withers, letting him gallop happily along in fifth and fourth just on McDynamo’s tail. He did this for the first 11/2 miles of the 21/2-mile race, avoiding a small traffic pile-up when Erin Go Bragh unseated McCarron at the ninth fence.
With one foe fewer to worry about, in what has now become typical “Chris Read style,” he steadily advanced Sur La Tete up into second place down the backstretch. He nestled his horse’s nose in behind Free Admission, who was loving his time on the lead and toting Hodsdon along. Read just waited patiently there until they ran around the turn for home. At the 11th of 12 fences, he assumed the lead and asked Sur La Tete to make a run for the last.
McDynamo was also making his bid from third, but Petty had been niggling at him all the way down the backside as last year’s Eclipse Award winner clearly wasn’t on his best form. He half-heartedly tried to go with Sur La Tete before Petty eased him up before the finish line. Trainer Sanna Hendriks said he just put in a bad race and is otherwise healthy.
Free Admission, who surprised everyone with the longevity of his quick pace, made a gallant attempt at the last fence but fell. Mauritania, who’s never show Grade I ability, ran one heck of a race and held on to second place.
The mare Feeling So Pretty, under a most patient ride from Richard Boucher, came on like gangbusters to finish third, a sweet place for a female chaser in a major stakes race. The mare did supply spectators with a thrilling moment when she inexplicably swerved left after the last fence and almost cut to the outside of the course beacon. Boucher did an amazing job of alertly angling her back on the course, barely averting disaster.
What made Sur La Tete’s victory more impressive was that the Royal Chase was his first race back since he won the Grade I Iroquois (Tenn.) in May 2005, where he also defeated McDynamo. A foot injury sidelined Sur La Tete after the Iroquois, and the Kinross team couldn’t get him back in time for the fall stakes races.
Neil Morris, who trains for Kinross Farm, performed an exemplary bit of training to get his horse to the races as ready as he was. Based in Middleburg, Va., Morris could not rely on the plethora of Virginia Spring point-to-point races to help prepare his horse for Keeneland, as a dry winter had rendered most turf courses hard as a rock. Also this year, the Carolina Cup (S.C.), usually a Grade II stakes race traditionally used to prep for Keeneland, was changed to a novice race, leaving Morris with few training options.
“We ran him in a two-horse hurdle race at the Old Dominion Hunt Point-to-Point (Va.) and in the training flat race at Camden (S.C.) prior to Keeneland,” said Read, who works for Morris and Kinross Farm. “The two-horse hurdle race wasn’t the ideal situation, but I set a big enough gallop so that he did get something out of it.”
Shipping eight hours south to run the horse in a flat race at the Carolina Cup in Camden, S.C., in early March wasn’t the ideal set-up either. Sur La Tete is a persnickety shipper and is handled with kid gloves whenever he goes on a trip, but Read said there was no ground to race over in Virginia and “you’ve just got to do what you have to do,” he said.
A little extra training made up for the lack of prep races, he continued. “An extra gallop up the hill, an extra run over the practice hurdles, a little more careful training, and we had him ready,” said Read.
Read admitted that he was surprised at how easily his horse won.
“It looked like such a romp when I saw the replay. I thought it would be a lot harder, but Erin Go Bragh lost his rider and McDynamo never fired. We suspected Free Admission could run well, but he was a little free on the front-end and it got to him. The race just fell apart, and we were ready to take advantage of it,” Read said.
But way beyond any racing luck is the meticulous attention to detail that Morris and the Kinross Farm team apply to their equine caretaking. Because Sur La Tete doesn’t appreciate shipping and is a nervous horse in a stall, at home or on race day, taking him to the races with a sound mind involves a tremendous amount of effort.
On the Monday before the Royal Chase, Read shipped the horse himself to Pin Oak Stud, in Lexington, where Sur La Tete’s sire, Sky Classic, stands. Welcomed by the farm’s owner, Josephine Abercrombie, Read and Sur La Tete were able to hack out around the stud farm until race day, which kept the bay gelding relaxed and happy. Since Pin Oak is only 15 minutes from the race course, staying there made shipping to the Royal Chase easy.
Read even went as far as to go to the Keeneland receiving barn manager to enlist his help in picking out the best spot in the receiving barn so Sur La Tete would be as undisturbed as possible.
And it worked. “This was the most relaxed he’s ever been in a race,” said Read. “When he’s on his game, I don’t think there are too many horses that can run with him. He’s not super fast, but when you ask him to make a move, it’s not so much that he gets faster as it is he just lengthens his stride. Also his jumping is outstanding.
“I think there are only two other horses running right now who can jump with him–McDynamo and Preemptive Strike,” added Read.