Hudson River Farms’ Winston C, a newcomer to American racing who easily won Saratoga Race Course’s two Grade 1 jump races, was honored Thursday evening with the Eclipse Award as North America’s champion steeplechase horse in 2019.
An Irish-bred gelding by Galileo’s son Rip Van Winkle, Winston C prevailed in the Eclipse voting over two other Grade 1 winners: Michael Buckley’s Brain Power, who invaded from England to win Far Hills’ Grand National, and Bruton Street-US’s Scorpiancer, the 2017 Eclipse Award champion who won the Calvin Houghland Iroquois for a second time.
Winston C and other Thoroughbred champions were honored at the 49th annual Eclipse Awards dinner at Gulfstream Park in Hallandale Beach, Fla. This year’s Eclipse Awards presentations were sponsored by Claiborne Farm stallion Runhappy.
Among the Eclipse winners was George Strawbridge Jr., the all-time leading steeplechase owner who was honored as outstanding breeder.
Accepting the Eclipse Award was Hudson River Farms owner Edward P. Swyer, who was accompanied by trainer Jonathan Sheppard’s assistant, Keri Brion, jockey Thomas Garner, and National Steeplechase Association director Eve Ledyard.
While Scorpiancer and Brain Power had established race records at the beginning of 2019, Winston C had shown promise without going to the winner’s enclosure. An indifferent runner on the flat, he began the year as a maiden over hurdles.
He won his first start of the year, a minor maiden hurdle at Wincanton in England, with veteran jockey Noel Fehily in the saddle. Trained by Harry T. B. Fry in Dorset, Winston C won his next two starts under Sean Bowen.
Fehily retired from race riding in March to establish businesses specializing in bloodstock and ownership syndicates, and he partnered with Garner to market Winston C to the American market. Garner approached Sheppard, and the Hall of Fame trainer’s team suggested the then five-year-old to Swyer.
A Saratoga Springs, N.Y., resident who has been a Sheppard client for more than 30 years, Swyer is always on the lookout for a horse capable of competing in Saratoga’s Grade 1 races, and he agreed to purchase Winston C.
The newcomer arrived in the spring and made his first American start in the Iroquois Steeplechase’s Marcellus Frost Champion Hurdle. Well back early, he finished a closing third, beaten three-quarters of a length, to City Dreamer.
In the hands of Brion at the trainer’s Pennsylvania farm, Winston C grew and matured over the next 2½ months. Sheppard skipped the Jonathan Kiser Novice Stakes for which Winston C was eligible on July 24 and went straight into top-level competition in Saratoga’s A. P. Smithwick Memorial (Gr. 1) the following day.
He made a striking appearance in Saratoga’s paddock before the Smithwick and ran to his looks. He was at the back of a packed, experienced 12-horse field for more than 1½ miles of the Smithwick’s 2 1/16-mile distance, made a sweeping move on the final turn, burst to the front before the furlong pole, and won by 3½ lengths under Garner.
The next hurdle was Saratoga’s New York Turf Writers Cup (Gr. 1) on Aug. 22. Garner suffered a scare when his mount fell the previous Saturday at Colonial Downs, but he was cleared to ride in the New York Turf Writers. Swyer, confident of Winston C’s abilities, was host to a large group of friends at the races that day. Also confident were Saratoga bettors, who knocked him down to 0.55-to-1.
If anything, Winston C was even better at the New York Turf Writers’ 2 3/8 miles. Garner followed the same pattern, placing his mount toward the back of the field early before asking him to run on the final turn. He put away his competition at the top of the stretch, opened six lengths at the furlong pole, and won by 8¾ lengths under light urging.
Sheppard sent him next into Belmont Park’s Lonesome Glory Handicap (Gr. 1) on Sept. 19. Winston C lacked his usual kick after encountering some traffic problems and finished fourth, 7½ lengths behind free-running Surprising Soul.
Winston C then was put away for the remainder of the year to await the results of the Eclipse voting. The vote was overwhelmingly for Winston C, who received 158 first-place votes to 44 for Brain Power and three for Scorpiancer. The voting groups were National Thoroughbred Racing Association racing secretaries, Daily Racing Form editorial employees, and members of the National Turf Writers and Broadcasters.