How many other Kentucky Derby starters out there could be Grade 1 steeplechase horses?
Standing at the edge of the horsemen's parking lot, Jack Fisher laughed, took a final drink from a glass of NYRA's champagne and said the first thing that came to mind.
"I don't know, but they need to call me."
Fifteen minutes earlier, Fisher's 7-year-old Tiznow gelding Mr. Hot Stuff - 15th in the 2009 Derby - throttled six rivals in the $100,000 A.P. Smithwick Memorial Stakes for owner Gillian Johnston. Mr. Hot Stuff and jockey Paddy Young found a covered stalking spot behind early leader Brave Prospect, assumed the lead leaving the backside and galloped the rest into submission while winning by 2 ½ lengths over Italian Wedding and Divine Fortune. After the scratch of likely favorite Demonstrative, the winner paid $12 as the third choice.
Young, aboard for the first time, and Mr. Hot Stuff proved to be a winning combination as the three-time champion jockey got the long-striding horse to rate, then produced plenty of run when it mattered. Mr. Hot Stuff flew the second-last fence and built a quick lead. He maintained his advantage around the turn, straightened toward the last with energy, switched to his right lead approaching the final fence and had plenty left for the late challengers.
"He felt like a big, strong, galloping horse," said Young. "My main thinking was 'what's the point of waiting and getting kicked away from by some of the more experienced horses at the end.' He was traveling, he winged the second-to-last. I've always thought if you make up two lengths at a fence, there's no point in giving it back and waiting for the others."
Mr. Hot Stuff had favorite Divine Fortune reaching for rope leaving the back, and used the lead to get a breather.
"Even though I'm in front, I'm still waiting in front all the way around the bend," said Young. "I was able to give him a breather. He got a big old blow and filled his lungs back up and he was able to go again after he jumped the last and away he went."
The Grade 1 lured its previous three winners in Divine Fortune (2010 and 2011) and Spy in the Sky (2012), but only one Derby horse. In his eighth jump start, the nearly black Kentucky-bred finally lived up to the promise his breeders WinStar Farm had for him - sort of - with a major win at Saratoga. On the flat with Eoin Harty, Mr. Hot Stuff won once in 18 starts. He also placed in the Santa Anita Derby behind Pioneerof The Nile and is a full-brother to 2008 Travers winner Colonel John.
Pedigree and performance aside, Mr. Hot Stuff wasn't going to make it as a flat horse and wound up on the market as a steeplechase prospect. Fisher heard the "big, beautiful horse" description and, despite not quite believing it, jumped at the chance to add some potential to the barn. Gelded and taught to jump, Mr. Hot Stuff needed a few tries to figure out the new game, but won twice in 2011. He was prepping for a Saratoga start then, but bowed a tendon and missed 2012. This year, he finished third in his comeback race, won a novice stakes at Nashville in May and was fourth in his first try against open company at Colonial Downs in June.
From the beginning, Fisher praised the horse for his sheer ability if not his guts.
"I thought he had a race like that in him," said the trainer. "He's that talented. He is that talented. He can still throw a clunker in though. His work on Monday before we came up here, it was awful."
Fisher's "work" is on a Polytrack gallop in Maryland, uphill, and Mr. Hot Stuff doesn't necessarily attack it every time. He's not the first to loaf on it, but he might be the most accomplished. Fisher puts part of the blame on that Derby start and the chaos of 20 horses, massive crowd, more massive buzz.
"You take a horse like that, he gets his head caved in in the Derby, I don't think he tried after that," Fisher said. "People ask me how many Grade 1 horses run over jumps. None of them, because they're too good on the flat. But there are a lot of horses who run in Grade 1 races as 2-year-olds and 3-year-olds who get their heads caved in and they're done. They don't want to try anymore."
Enter jump racing. It's not for every horse, but the longer distance, slower pace and jumps can make a necessary change of pace - literally and figuratively.
"For some horses to run over jumps, it's a great avenue," Fisher said. "It looks easy for him. He doesn't even exert himself. He can do that. He doesn't have to exert himself, he's having a good time out there, he doesn't have to run that fast."
Fisher originally bought Mr. Hot Stuff for longtime client Nick Arundel, who died before seeing the horse in his silks. Johnston added Mr. Hot Stuff to her stable at a dispersal sale, spending more than she wanted to and hoping for the best. Thursday, she won her first Grade 1 jump race as an owner.
"It doesn't always happen, we know that," she said of Mr. Hot Stuff's career reclamation. "He's just a class act. He gets into his stride, never really takes a deep breath. He's a lot better at that than he was running on the flat. He just looks like he enjoys it. He's a happy horse."
And a Grade 1 winner.