Steeplechase winner goes the distance to claim the title

Sunday, May 9, 2010 at 1:52pm

Headline writers would have fun with this one.

During the 69th running of the Iroquois Steeplechase on Saturday, in a wide-open field, a horse named Slip Away let it … well, slip away.

But those on hand say that wasn’t the case.

“Tax Ruling was just a better horse at the end of three miles,” Tax Ruling’s owner Irvin Naylor said. “We thought he was and he turned out to be.”

After leading for nearly three miles, Slip Away was caught down the stretch by Tax Ruling, which pulled away before the final fence to win the Calvin Houghland Iroquois by 4 ¾ lengths in front of an estimated 25,000 spectators at Percy Warner Park.

Slip Away’s lead began to dwindle on the final lap as Tax Ruling and jockey Darren Nagle gained ground on the back curve. Slip Away jockey Paddy Young couldn’t hold them off and lost the lead in between the final two hurdles.

Tax Ruling moved to the outside and eased past the finish line for the victory in 5:37 1/5 – a course record.

“I felt I had him all the time,” Nagle, a 22-year-old Irishman, said. “It was just a matter of time when I gained a bit there late in that run. He is easy to ride. It makes my job easy. He is a talented horse.”

Tax Ruling emerged in a race that was considered any horse’s to win. With the champions from the last three years – Pierrot Lunaire (2009) and Good Night Shirt (2007 and 2008) – out due to injuries, several horses were expected to be in the mix. Race Committee Chairman Dwight Hall projected that Spy in the Sky, Mixed Up and Your Sum Man all had legitimate title hopes.

All three horses won big races last year. None made the top four on Saturday, though.

And the local interest was in Chivite. The 11-year-old gelding, which finished sixth, is owned by Mary Ann Houghland. Her husband, Calvin, died in October and he played a big role in the success of the Iroquois Steeplechase. He was the former race chairman and was the only owner in Iroquois history to win the race five times, which included last year with Pierrot Lunaire.

This year the Grade 1 stakes race was renamed in Calvin Houghland’s honor. A video tribute was shown before the final race on Saturday and the steeplechase bell was rung five times for each one of his five victories.

Mary Ann Houghland’s horse, Sweet Shani, won the Margaret Currey Henley race earlier in the day but the final event belonged to Tax Ruling and Naylor. The owner from Pennsylvania had three other horses racing Saturday but the seven-year-old gelding lifted him to his lone victory and first at the Iroquois, which had a purse of $150,000.

“It was very exciting to end the day on such a high note,” Naylor said. “Sure, I was nervous. Slip Away is a marvelous horse. But I didn’t think he’d like three miles and he didn’t.”

It didn’t seem to matter that Slip Away was ridden by Young, who has won a National Steeplechase Association-best nine races, including one earlier on Saturday. In the end, Slip Away trainer Thomas Voss said Tax Ruling was just faster.

“(Slip Away) just wasn’t fast enough. It’s hard to go three miles on a lead like that,” Voss said. “A hundred yards too far.”

Tax Ruling, though, wasn’t used to the longer distances either. This was his first race over three miles.

But Desmond Fogarty has trained Tax Ruling for nearly four years and he saw what he was capable of last year when he won the National Hunt Cup in Radnor, Pa. The trainer from Ireland said Tax Ruling had been working up to the three-mile distance and wasn’t surprised by his performance in a crowded field.

“I thought it was wide open too,” Fogarty said of the Calvin Houghland Iroquois. “But this horse he proves himself every time he goes out. When he runs, he runs, you know? And he demolishes the field.”

Tax Ruling didn’t necessarily demolish anyone on Saturday. He just needed to make sure he could pull away and not let one slip away.