Nine years ago, jockey Robert Walsh saddled up with the belief he could win the Iroquois Steeplechase for the first time.
Instead, he finished second-to-last.
“In hindsight, the horse that won it was probably going to beat me,” Walsh said. “I haven’t gotten close since.”
Until Saturday, that is.
The 37-year-old Irishman rode Demonstrative from second-to-last to the front of the pack and across the finish line first in the 72nd running of the Iroquois Steeplechase at Percy Warner Park.
“He’s a come-from-behind horse,” owner Jacqueline Ohrstrom said. “He likes to come from behind. It always makes it thrilling and I think it’s absolutely phenomenal.”
The margin of victory was about as close as it gets.
Pegged as the heavy favorite, Demonstrative's victory wasn’t a shock to the steeplechase community. However, the great-great-grandson of Triple Crown winner Secretariat, made his owner and trainer sweat a little.
With Demonstrative running in his first jumps race of the year, Walsh wanted to ease up on the reins — at least at the start.
“He has been winning shorter distances on flatter tracks,” he said. “So we thought we needed to get him switched off and relaxed early.”
Still, when Walsh and the six-year-old bay gelding fell back to sixth out of seven horses on the first lap, trainer Richard Valentine had some quiet concerns.
“He was a little bit further back than I would have liked to have seen,” Valentine said. “… There is always doubt. I just hope I don’t get sick to my stomach. I get so nervous. I was happy but more importantly I wanted him to come home safe.”
Demonstrative and the rest of the field finished without a scratch. Last year’s champion Arcadius died of a pulmonary aneurysm moments after the race. Two horses tumbled in the earlier races Saturday but both, along with the jockeys, walked away unscathed.
Demonstrative galloped to the winner’s circle thanks to a big final turn. In the home stretch of the three-mile Grade I Stakes race, he took the lead on the final jump and edged Divine Fortune by a nose. Divine Fortune finished second for second straight year. Jockey Darren Nagle, who won in 2010 and 2011 atop Tax Ruling, sat bewildered in the jockeys tent afterwards and declined comment.
“His last two fences were spectacular,” Valentine said of Demonstrative. “But Divine Fortune, what a nice horse. He shows up every time. I don’t want to say I didn’t want to win it. But, Divine Fortune, he deserves to win a big one.”
The win was Demonstrative's third in Grade I stakes since 2012. He is off to a good start this year after finishing second last year for steeplechaser of the year.
Saturday’s win, though, was arguably the biggest of his young career. He provided Ohrstrom with a $90,000 payday — the largest on the spring circuit. And he gave Walsh a win nine years in the making.
“It is huge to win the Iroquois,” Walsh said. “It was great to come here with a horse and opportunity to win it. [Saturday] was another chance I got back to win it and he proved right.”