Two at the Top

Rough day at Callaway Gardens Saturday. Jockeys and horses hitting the ground. Stellar racing. With a cost.

Carrying Jack Doyle’s whip to a somber jocks’ room after the last, I wondered about blessings in disguise and all the years when we wished for Montpelier and Callaway Gardens to be on separate days, allowing for more runners, better racing at both storied venues. Well, this year we got our wish with full fields at Montpelier in Virginia Nov. 2 and at Callaway Gardens in Georgia a week later. Full fields of fast horses and determined jockeys on a tight, right-handed, demanding course. A cauldron. There was nowhere to hide.

Former champion jockey Kieran Norris had two falls, the latter sending him to the hospital with three broken ribs, a collapsed lung and a broken arm. Doyle had two falls, the latter ending his season with a broken jaw. It was as brutal as I’ve ever seen, the perspective of a jockey’s life right there in front of you. Jack curled on his side, blood spewing from his mouth, clotting in his nostrils, reaching for his head while trying to comprehend the pain. He could only moan.

Doyle has made a positive impact on American steeplechasing since he arrived for seven summer rides in 2014. A winner of more than 200 races in England and Ireland before he came to America, he’s a gifted jockey with light hands, long leg and gymnast’s balance. Horses like him, horsemen like him. He was six rides away (the finale at Callaway and a possible five at Charleston) from ending his American stint on a high with perhaps his first title, and heading home to take the baton from his dad Pat in their burgeoning training business in Ireland.

Six rides away.

With 20 wins for the season, Doyle went to Callaway with a tenuous one-win lead over Mikey Mitchell. It was a margin that had been clawed back through a torrid run during the late summer and fall. Doyle won four at Colonial Downs, two at Shawan Downs, three at Foxfield. He engineered singles at Virginia Fall, Far Hills, Montpelier and a miraculous one aboard Just Wait And See at the Pennsylvania Hunt Cup when horse and rider were down but not quite out. After four seasons in the top five, maybe this would be Doyle’s year. He’d lost by one to Darren Nagle in 2018, was way ahead by September in 2016 only to wind up fifth after breaking his pelvis in a fall.

Irish-born Doyle, 30, had reeled in British-born Mitchell, 28, who burned through the spring and summer, building what looked like an insurmountable lead atop Jack Fisher’s freight trains. Mitchell’s output slowed but he was still in the ring, one back, going to Callaway. That margin vanished when he squeezed 2 1/4 miles out of Storm Team to best Doyle on City Dreamer in the $75,000 AFLAC Supreme novice hurdle stakes. In a year of deciding moments, this looked like a big one.

A race later, turning for home on Zanzi Win, Doyle had a chance to wrangle his lead back. They stretched to the last hurdle, sand slipping through the sieve and misjudged or miscommunicated with a long and low stab. Zanzi Win stayed on his feet but jutted like a motorcycle hitting a curb. Doyle usually sticks, he didn’t this time, splaying right, landing awkwardly in front of Sportswear who kicked him like a tin can down a storm drain.

With or without a title, Doyle was meant to be getting out and going home. Instead he’s at Johns Hopkins, getting out of surgery and far from home.

Sunday’s finale at Charleston was meant to decide the jockey title. Mitchell was live on Fast Car in the 3-year-old race and Eleven It Is in the maiden claimer for Fisher. The  jockey had a chance on Gaye Breeze in the 115 handicap hurdle, was booked on Paddy’s Crown in the 110 and a maiden was certainly available. Doyle had a couple for his main barn, Elizabeth Voss, and would have surely picked up plum rides in the other races as well.

It would have been good sport.

Respected in all camps, Mitchell and Doyle each deserve the title. And each will get it.

Sunday morning, Fisher walked into the tack room and looked at Mitchell.

“So, Charleston, what do you want to do?” the trainer asked.

Mitchell told Fisher he didn’t think he should run his two, but he should honor his commitment on the others. Then he called home, talked to his parents. Talked to a few other older, wiser confidants. It became crystal clear.

“Going down to Charleston, I was putting myself into a position where I was taking away from someone else. I’ve won. Jack’s won. The only other outcome would be winning a race and taking that title away from Jack. That’s what hit me,” Mitchell said. “It was the opportunity to take it away from someone else. I know how hard I’ve worked to try to get that title. The amount you stress over rides, the amount you stress over your weight, you put everything in for that season. For it to come to the last meeting and have someone take it away from you, when you have it, that’s tough. That’s what clinched the decision for me.”

In baseball, a tie goes to the runner. In steeplechasing, sometimes, a tie goes to the champions.