The day couldn't have turned out better for owner Irv Naylor. And it wasn't too shabby for jockey James Slater, either.
With Slater in the saddle, Naylor's Alfa Beat captured the 111th running of the Grand National Steeplechase in Butler, adding a punctuation mark to a four-win performance at the Middleburg (Va.) Spring Races that shot Naylor into the national lead among owners in purses won.
All four Naylor horses who prevailed in Virginia were trained by Slater's wife, Brianne.
Meanwhile, the English-born Slater received a bonus of sorts in the co-featured Benjamin H. Murray Memorial when the two entries who outraced his mount Foyle to the finish line were disqualified for veering off the course. That development gave Slater victories in both top races on the card.
The win was the first in the United States for Alfa Beat, who was not nominated for the grand finale of the spring season, the Maryland Hunt Cup, next weekend. But the gray gelding showed he was on the verge of reaching the winner's circle last Saturday with a strong second-place finish in a division of the John Rush Streett at My Lady's Manor.
"He'll go in the Maryland Hunt Cup next year," Naylor said. "We'll talk about it and we might just gallop him over that course [Hunt Cup] just for schooling. It would be asking an awful lot to send him out this year."
Slater took his time on Alfa Beat, then made his big move against tiring rivals with less than a half-mile to go in the three-mile race over 18 obstacles.
"I didn't want to rush him at his fences," said Slater, a native of Lincolnshire, England, who came to the United States 10 years ago."He ran a good race last week [at the Manor], but he made a couple of errors he learned from. And I learned from. We just jumped very conservatively."
Bred in Ireland, Alfa Beat was purchased by Naylor three years ago and turned over to veteran William Meister to train last summer. The 9-year-old gelding is still short of experience in the United States.
In the Murray Memorial, Guts For Garters and Spencer Road reached the wire almost in tandem, but were almost immediately disqualified for running off course. That gave Hunt Cup nominee Foyle the victory.
"They were right in front of me, so I knew what was coming," Slater said."I realized I didn't necessarily have to ride as hard to the finish."
Meister, who still rides and conditions jumpers, took a hard spill in the Murray while guiding Sky Count, but eventually walked off. He was taken to a local hospital for precautionary reasons.
This marked the third Grand National victory for Naylor-owned horses, permanently retiring the Cup. His previous Grand National champions were Make Me A Champ in 2004 and Askim in 2006.
FIRST RACE--$30,000, The Grand National, abt 3 mi. over timber.
Alfa Beat................J. Slater
Garryowen Star......M. Rohan
Battle Op.................C. Hankin
Time: 6:33 2/5
Scratched: Guts For Garters, Foyle.
SECOND RACE---$15,000, Benjamin H. Murray Memorial, abt 3 mi. over timber.