Trainer Neil Morris was concerned about two things when he entered Sur La Tete in the $100,000 Atlanta Cup novice hurdle stakes, April 10, Kingston, Ga.: the quality of his competitors and the race`s distance, a short and speedy 2 miles.
But any worries Morris had evaporated as he watched the Kinross Farm-owned gelding, whose name means “on the head” in French, demolish the field, crossing the finish line almost 11 lengths ahead of Cherokeeinthehills (Danielle Hodsdon).
“I was gobsmacked he won like that,” said Morris. “I knew we had a good chance, but he won so easily.” Easily enough to finish 10 seconds faster than the maiden hurdle, run at the same distance.
As the winner of the novice stakes at Far Hills (N.J.) last October, Sur La Tete (Matt McCarron) had a good chance at the winner`s circle of the inaugural running of the Georgia Cup, the first leg of the Steeplechase Triple Crown. But his competitors, at least on paper, were never going to give it away.
With two speedy and successful frontrunners–Mauritania (Calvin McCormack), winner of four hurdle races last year, and Cardiff Arms (Tom Foley), winner of two from three starts–in the fray, Morris had every right to worry about the short distance. Plus, trainer Tom Voss had entered impressive allowance winners Serrazzo (Cyril Murphy) and Pressure King (Chip Miller), joining the consistently well-placed Cherokeeinthehills and Raise A Storm (Robert Massey).
As expected, Cardiff Arms set a torrid pace and suckered the others into trying to stay with him. When Cardiff Arms pulled up after nine of the 11 fences, Mauritania took over, but Sur La Tete, who had run well off the pace, started galloping for home.
Morris said all that early speed “just
ended up feeding” Sur La Tete. “He poked his nose out front a little too early at the third-last, and the rest of the field bunched up behind him,” said Morris. “I was a little worried at that point because this horse has only had seven starts over fences–he`s a true novice in that sense–and he gets a little
lonely in front, but he just kept galloping on. I could see Matt looking around, like he was wondering if he`d gone around the course enough times.”
The Georgia Cup was the first Grade I victory for McCarron, who was co-champion steeplechase jockey in 2003, and Morris` first Grade I win as a trainer.
“The winner was just very impressive,” said Hodsdon, “I was never going to get him, and I just rode for second place after we jumped the second-last fence. He just galloped away like we weren`t even there.”
From Rogue To Roses
Sur La Tete`s journey to the status of a graded stakes winner has been a rocky one. Royally bred, by the well-regarded turf sire Sky Classic (by Nijinsky II) and out of a Caro mare, the 6-year-old gelding had every reason to be successful at the flat track. But some dangerous behavior garnered him a label as a rouge, and he never made it to the track. Morris literally bought him out of a field two years ago.
Owner Zohar Ben-Dov said when the horse`s breeders found out that he had purchased the horse, they called him up and warned him that the horse was dangerous. “The first thing they asked when I spoke to them was, `Has he killed or hurt anyone yet?` ” said Ben-Dov.
But all Sur La Tete wanted was a break, said Morris. After turning him out at Ben-Dov`s Middleburg, Va., farm, Morris, with the help of his assistant, Chris Read, re-broke the rogue. And now he`s a “push-button ride,” said Morris.
Read had ridden Sur La Tete in all his starts before Atlanta, but the jockey`s amateur status makes him a timber specialist, so he rode at the My Lady`s Manor meet (Md.), the same day as Atlanta, instead.
McCarron was only too happy to pick up the reins. Read gave him all the information he needed, and Sur La Tete did the rest. Morris confirmed that he`s pointing Sur La Tete toward the second leg of the novice Triple Crown, the National Hunt Cup at Radnor (Pa.), May 15.
McCarron jokingly said between now and then, he`s going to try and create a May 15th meet with three timber stakes races in it, so Read will be otherwise occupied.
The leggy bay gelding`s worst finish to date was a fifth in Callaway Gardens` (Ga.) novice stakes last November. But that trip was an important learning experience for the Kinross team.
“This horse is a bad shipper. He needs time to settle into a new place, and we`ve learned that he ships much better at night,” said Read. So Morris answered his horse`s needs by shipping the gelding down to a Kingston-area farm on the Monday before the race.
“Hey, whatever it takes, as long as it works,” said the trainer, with a smile.
Morris had more to celebrate and likely more to worry about, after his wife, eventer Beale Morris, gave birth to their first child, a son, Wright Anthony Morris, April 8.
Hodsdon was delighted to be second on Cherokeeinthehills. She said that the 2 miles “was not really that horse`s distance,” but that he finished the race well, galloping strongly from the back of the pack to second.
Hodsdon`s day got off to an even better start when she won the $15,000 Sport of Queens maiden hurdle for fillies and mares, on Classic Gale, for trainer Jonathan Sheppard.
Hodsdon, on a first-time starter, said her plan was to break lazily so she could take advantage of a lead to the jumps. But Classic Gale “was a little bit sharp” and took the lead after the third fence.
“She`s a big galloper, and after we were in front, anytime someone came to her, she`d just open up and then ease off,” Hodsdon said. “She won easily, like she`d done it before.”
Last season, Foley primarily rode first-call for Sheppard, but the Irish jockey spent the winter and early spring in Japan riding over hurdles, so Hodsdon took advantage of his absence.
She galloped out for Sheppard all winter at Gulfstream Park (Fla.) where the Hall of Fame trainer based his flat-horse operation. Then she transferred to his jumping operation in February, based in Camden, S.C. She said so far, working for Sheppard has been a wonderful experience, which extends beyond winning three races for him.
“He`s a very approachable trainer,” she said. “I ride out for him every day, so I know his horses. He asks me my opinion on how they`re going, and I can tell him what I think. That`s very different from some of the other trainers I`ve worked for.”
Jockey Gus Brown “got the monkey off his back” when he guided Augustin Stables` Snuggle home a winner in the Sport of Kings unlimited claiming hurdle. The $25,000 race was the former champion jockey`s first win of the year and his first win after severely breaking his wrist last October at the Middleburg Fall races (Va.).
Brown said the race set up perfectly for “Snug” as the New Zealand-bred sat off the “wicked pace, and just maintained his mad gallop, which he can sustain forever.”
Riding a horse like Snug brings “everything into perspective,” said Brown, who`s been riding races for more than a decade. “At this point in my career, it`s not about sitting on the next winner or chasing the champion jockey title. Instead, when you get to ride a horse like Snug, who`s such a little trouper, who loves his job and charges around the course with a grin on his face, you realize why you love your job,” said Brown. “You find enjoyment in the horses, and it makes things so much more fun.”