It was, in a phrase, a race for the ages, an international classic in an American spring classic.
The Irish invaded Tennessee in force on Saturday with two world-class competitors, but they could not get past a dead-game Rawnaq (Ire), who led for most of the $200,000 Calvin Houghland Iroquois (Gr. 1), the signature race of the 75th annual Iroquois Steeplechase in Nashville.
Nichols Canyon (GB) went with Rawnaq for much of the three-mile race over 18 National Fences, and his stablemate Shaneshill (Ire) sat in the sweet spot right behind them heading into the final turn. Both top hurdlers from the stable of champion jumps trainer Willie Mullins took their shots, but neither could get the job done against the resolute Irish-bred.
Rawnaq and jockey Jack Doyle simply refused to lose in a steeplechase race that was as good as it gets at the top level of jump racing. Irv Naylor’s Rawnaq prevailed by a steady neck over Shaneshill, with Nichols Canyon three lengths farther back.
The victory made Rawnaq eligible for the $500,000 Brown Advisory Cheltenham-Iroquois Challenge, and Naylor picked up the challenge. Now, on to England for the Ryanair World Hurdle (Gr. 1) next March and a shot at a payday approaching $1-million in purse and bonus.
“I think this horse will represent the United States well in England next year,” the owner declared after accepting the historic Iroquois trophy with trainer Cyril Murphy, jockey Doyle, and his wife, Diane. The bonus is awarded to a horse who wins the two three-mile races in a 12-month period.
Rawnaq’s triumph was his second graded victory of the year, after an impressive win in the Temple Gwathmey (Gr. 3) at the Middleburg Spring Races on April 23.
The Irish challenge in the Iroquois was certainly world-class. Mullins arrived with Nichols Canyon, third in the Champion Hurdle at Cheltenham in March, and multiple winner Shaneshill. Both owned by English tech entrepreneur Graham Wylie and his wife, Andrea, they were regarded as the race favorites, with Rawnaq the third choice.
Rawnaq had to run every step of the three miles after keeping pace with Nichols Canyon for much of the race, before Shaneshill took up the running nearing the final fence.
Doyle shook up Rawnaq and urged his mount forward as they neared the last of 18 fences, with Shaneshill closing and Nichols Canyon holding on resolutely. Rawnaq dug in and steadfastly held off Shaneshill, ridden by Danny Mullins, to win by a neck. Nichols Canyon, who made some jumping mistakes in midrace with top Irish jockey Ruby Walsh, held on well for third, three lengths farther back. Bruton Street US’s Scorpiancer, second in the Gwathmey, finished fourth.
Demonstrative, the two-time Iroquois winner and defending victor, faded on the final turn and finished fifth. Rawnaq, an Irish-bred purchased last summer, ran the Calvin Houghland Iroquois’ distance in 5:42.40 on firm turf.
Naylor, whose 2016 purse earnings now exceed $400,000, credited his entire team. “The jockey rode a superb race. He was always in the right place at the right time. The horse jumped superbly. The trainer had him in perfect condition. It all came together,” he said.
To be sure, the competition was formidable, Naylor said, but on race day he realized that Rawnaq had a chance to take down the $120,000 first-place purse. “When we got here, we realized we had him as good as we could have him,” he said.
Murphy said Rawnaq probably will have the summer off before tackling the championship races in the fall, including the Grand National (Gr. 1), in which he finished third last year. “We’d have three months in the winter to prepare for Cheltenham,” he said.