Trainer Richard Valentine greeted Dakota Slew with a hearty slap on the neck and a winning grin after his feature timber victory at Saturday's Piedmont Foxhounds Point-to-Point.
Forgive Valentine the faraway look as he accepted the Rokeby Bowl trophy.
Valentine clutched the big silver challenge bowl close and gazed southeast, across the rolling Salem Farm course on the outskirts of Upperville.
Maybe the sun was in his eyes.
Maybe his eyes are on a bigger prize.
Valentine was looking towards The Plains, Great Meadow, and the first Saturday in May.
“He's a neat horse,” said the conditioner, delighting in his first win in the 3 1/2-mile marathon, a perfect stepping-stone, Valentine acknowledges, for the four-mile Virginia Gold Cup in six weeks. “I've really liked him since we started with him,” two years ago for owner Maggie Bryant.
Kentucky-bred by Virginian Larry Curtis, Dakota Slew jumped confidently for Irish amateur Mark Beecher, handling the Piedmont hunt country stone walls and line fences with precision, following the steady lead of veteran Hot Rize (Russ Haynes) early.
When Beecher asked the dark bay for a big leap over the third last, a stone wall at the northwest corner of the Salem property, Dakota Slew responded with enthusiasm, jumping to the lead and easing into command.
“That bit of class always gets you where you need to be,” said Beecher.
Dakota Slew extended his lead over the last fence, and drew off by 3 1/2-lengths at the wire. Merriefield Farm's Foyle (Chris Read up) came on for second, with Hot Rize third.
Though he showed his heels to the two rivals Saturday, Dakota Slew is likely to meet Foyle and Hot Rize again in May.
“He was strong. Very strong” in victory, said Beecher of his horse. “He jumped well, too.”
Beecher lamented that he is unlikely to ride the talented gelding in the May Gold Cup. Beecher expects to get the call back on 2012 International Gold Cup winner Grinding Speed. “It'll be a hell of a race,” he said.
A 6-year-old grandson of Seattle Slew, Dakota Slew was modestly successful over hurdles, hitting the board in maiden special company but failing to win in six starts.
He was third first out in the maiden timber at Piedmont last spring and won his next start, a hot maiden at My Lady's Manor. He finished third at Fair Hill to close out last spring.
Dakota Slew returned to top form last fall, third at Shawan in September, then winning over his first “big” course to win in allowance company at Pennsylvania Hunt Cup.
“I'd expect we're headed to the [Virginia] Gold Cup,” said trainer Valentine. “He's got the foot, and the distance looks like it suits him.”
The four-mile Gold Cup is a singular test. Just four races are run over the marathon distance: Virginia's Gold Cup, the Maryland Hunt Cup, the Pennsylvania Hunt Cup and the Loudoun Hunt Point-to-Point's Eustis Cup.
Valentine said Dakota Slew would likely get one more point-to-point prep before tackling stakes company at Great Meadow.
Beecher also steered Frank Bonsal's Terko Service to victory in the maiden timber, securing the award as leading rider at the meet.
Beecher, 28, has horses in his pedigree: He was a junior jumper champion, and his parents Tim and Marian Beecher and brother Paul operate the renowned Loughnatousa breeding and sporthorse training center in County Waterford, Ireland. Paul Beecher won the prestigious Hickstead Derby last summer on Loughnatousa WB, a family homebred.
Best of the rest
In the day's other racing, local favorite Teddy Zimmerman, whose father Tad is joint master for the hosting Piedmont hounds, won the Seven Corners timber race with his own Dr. Alex.
Zimmerman laid off the pace set by George Hundt and his Justpourit, challenging him in the testing, uphill homestretch to prevail by nearly two lengths.
Like Dr. Alex trained by Eva Smithwick, Rutledge Classic (Woods Winants up) won the foxhunters' timber, his second score of the young season.
South Carolina shipper Gerrymander (Diana Gillam up) won the ladies' timber for owner-trainer Ken Furlong. Furlong whips in to the Camden (S.C.) Hunt on the 9-year-old son of Boundary, something Gillam said really showed in the first-timer's jumping. “He was rock solid,” said the three-time series leader.
Gillam is a registered nurse at Mercy Medical Center in Baltimore. The amateur jockey is “able to clump my work days around the races I want to ride. I love this Piedmont course. This was one of my main targets this spring,” she said.
Sara Collette's homebred Vladykov (James Slater) won the Virginia-bred turf race, with Daybreak Stables' Casual Creeper (Keri Brion) and Irv Naylor's Jack Cool (Kieran Norris) also winning on the flat.
Complete results and more photos are online at www.CentralEntryOffice.com