As the burly bay thoroughbred approached the final jump on the northern New Jersey race course in October 2007, jockey Jody Petty looked over his shoulder to the left. Nothing. So Petty peeked over his right shoulder. No horses there either.
"They weren't near me - I was pretty shocked about that," recalled Petty. "All I had to do was keep him together."
And the Cochranville, Pa. resident did. In front of a raucous crowd of 50,000 at Moorland Farms in Somerset County, N. J., the handsome son of Dynaformer defeated rising star Good Night Shirt by six lengths over the soft turf course. He finished the 2 5/8 miles and 14 jumps in a swift 5 minutes, 30 3/5 seconds.
It was McDynamo’s fifth consecutive victory (2003- 2007) in steeplechasing’s richest race. (The Far Hill meet’s Grade-1 name eventually changed from the Breeders’ Cup to the Grand National). Owned by Chester County’s Michael Moran, at age 10, McDynamo was the oldest horse in any of the meet’s races that day. He also became the oldest ever to win the sport’s signature race.
McDynamo never lost a race at Far Hills-- going seven for seven. His legendary feat of winning five Grand Nationals in succession probably will never be matched. He won 15 of his 25 steeplechase starts and scored three Eclipse Awards as champion steeplechaser in 2003, 2005 and 2006. He amassed $1.3 million in career earnings, surpassing the legendary Lonesome Glory.
Standing 16.3-hands with a tiny star on his forehead, McDynamo possessed a tremendous stride and late speed, and soared over jumps with an effortless efficiency that few could match.
“When he walked out of the paddock (at Far Hills), he walked out like he was home,” said Petty. “I don’t know why, but I could feel it. He knew where he was and what he was doing. Watching him gave you chills. He’s a horse of a lifetime, there’s no denying that.”
On Friday morning August 9th, McDynamo will be inducted into the Racing Museum Hall of Fame in Saratoga Springs, N. Y. The museum’s Steeplechase Review Committee, which meets once every four years, requires 75 percent approval from its members for a candidate to gain election. Recognized as one of America’s greatest all-time jumpers, McDynamo will have a plaque on the wall to prove it.
“Anne (Moran’s wife) and I felt his induction was pretty eminent,” remarked Moran, who owns Applestone Farm where the Pennsylvania Hunt Cup is staged in early November. “We’ll have a group of eight to ten folks up there. Right now the plan is to bring McDynamo up to Saratoga and have Jody hack him around the track that day at the races. It will be pretty neat.”
The Early Years
Bred by Nathan Fox, Richard Fox and Richard Kaster of Lexington, Ky., when Moran saw the horse as a yearling at the Keeneland (Ky.) Sale he was attracted to the animal's intelligent head, his rangy limbs, and his big walk. Moran also fancied his sire, Dynaformer, known for his body type and running style. Moran took on partner Steve McDonald (hence the horse’s name) and bought the colt for $82,000.
Slow to come around, McDynamo had nine flat starts with two wins. Moran nicknamed him “curious George” for his wonder at outside the barn activity. When the colt arrived as a yearling at Moran’s farm he appeared to have issues with claustrophobia.
“He didn’t like to be confined, even in his own stall he’d spin like a whirlybird,” recalled Moran with a smile. “We had serious doubts at the beginning; he was a stall walker and he had a serious fear of the starting gate.”
Five years after he purchased the horse Moran hired Sanna Hendriks to tutor him in the sport of steeplechasing. With his stamina, tenacity, jumping ability and speed late in a race, McDynamo thrived at the new game. Ears pricked almost all the time, head raised, alert, he radiated confidence.
His beauty was he could run on any ground-- top of the ground, bottomless ground, the racetrack-- McDynamo won pretty much everywhere Moran and Hendriks took him.
"I had him six weeks before his first start over jumps at Far Hills," Hendriks recalled. "When he ran it, he was a powerful jumper from the beginning. He has a short back and a tremendous stride, and when he was younger he was very keen.”
In his fifth start at Belmont Park the horse was so aggressive that he fell at the seventh fence.
"He had to learn to be a bit more conservative," she said. "He thought he had wings."
With maturity McDynamo learned to relax on the racecourse in his second season. He triumphed in the $159,625 Royal Chase for the Sport of Kings, his first race in open company in April 2003. McDynamo also won his first ($175,000) Breeders' Cup Steeplechase again in October and then closed out the season with a victory in the $100,000 Colonial Cup at Camden, S.C. in November.
McDynamo won his first of three Eclipse Awards that season. A year later, off an 11-month layoff because of hock surgery, McDynamo won the Breeders’ Cup at Far Hills – over eventual champion Hirapour and multiple Grade 1 winner Sur La Tete – arguably the best field McDynamo ever beat.
He came into his own in 2005 winning twice and placing second three times in six starts ($265,425 that year). And the following year he won three of four starts ($285,000).
Certain horses have to have the right conditions before they can win, but not McDynamo.
“We could put him on the front end, and he could win, or if there was a speed horse, we could tuck him in behind that runner and he'll also do great,” Petty explained. “He has this amazing ability like no other. He's a great mover, a wonderful jumper, and he wanted to win like no other. It's the whole package."
In his racing years, McDynamo spent the winter outdoors “being a horse.” Draped in an emerald blanket he would be turned out year-round with a spunky, graying ex-race horse named Josh. The outdoor living and a challenging training regime kept him mentally sharp as well as physically primed.
“He did things so easily,” Hendriks remembered. “He didn’t look like he was working hard at all while other horses struggled, especially over soft ground. I guess that’s what greatness is. Horses who can put it all together. They have the right mind, the right body, the right everything.”
Although McDynamo ran well over hard or the soft turf, he never really outgrew his dislike for rain.
"You go to walk him out of the barn and if it's pouring he'll kind of pause and be like, 'I really don't want to go out there,'" said Hendriks with a laugh.
McDynamo has had his share of injuries, including chips taken out of front and hind legs and a screw put into his hock. He was given plenty of time off after injuries. To insure longevity and peak form, Moran and Hendriks were judicious in how the horse was managed. They never started him more than six times in a season, most years less. His final race was the Grade-1 Colonial Cup at Springdale Race Course in Camden, S.C. After being in the thick of it through much of the race McDynamo tired late to finish sixth, and was retired.
“Anne and I were getting very anxious that last year,” Moran remarked. “We knew that if he got hurt it would be our fault. He had nothing more to prove. He had done it all.”
Part of the horse's legend is that he regularly fox hunts with Hendriks in Chester County's horse country. It keeps him fit through the winter and that was more important in his final year of 2007 than ever.
"We did a lot of hunting with him. I wanted to see if I could get him kind of pepped up and good and sharp," Hendriks said. "When he was four, I was trying to throttle him down. When he got to ten, I tried to perk him up."
“When he was still racing he was one of the best hunters out there. He’ll stand quietly as the whole field gallops by him. We didn’t want to get him hurt so we didn’t jump him out there, but his big thing is he doesn’t like to train in the same place two days in a row.”
Today, sixteen-year old McDynamo lives on Hendriks’ farm near Cochranville where he hangs out with a pony and on occasion with active steeplechasers. He missed much of the 2013 hunting season with a pulled muscle in his hind end, but Moran expects him to return this winter.
“As you would expect he’s gotten a bit arthritic after seven campaigns over jumps,” Moran said. “But as long as he enjoys the hunting scene, he’ll be out there doing his thing.”