Legends Of Steeplechase: Cheekily-Named Good Night Shirt A ‘Horse Of A Lifetime’

Sonny Via remembers feeling a little shy, almost sheepish, at cocktail hour before collecting the 2007 Eclipse Award. His Good Night Shirt had run away with the voting that year, winning three grade 1’s – second in another.

The horse was clearly best.

Via says he felt almost like an imposter.

Hobnobbing with thoroughbred racing’s elite by that Hollywood, California stage gave the Virginia-born insurance salesman pause.

“I was wondering, ‘what am I doing here?’ It was almost unreal. I was a little dazzled.

“I’m looking around the room and there’s sheikhs and billionaires and legends. My god, they’re at the top the heap.

“And me.”

It was kindly counsel from Canadian billionaire, racetrack owner and multi-time champion breeder Frank Stronach’s son, Andrew, that quelled Via’s brief instant of insecurity.

“He was there to accept an award for his father – I remember this (conversation) like it was yesterday. I was saying I didn’t really belong, and he said, ‘Hell, if you were invited here, you belong here.’ ”

A few minutes later, Via strolled with renewed confidence across the stage to collect Good Night Shirt’s first Eclipse Award as champion ‘chaser.

“I wasn’t nervous any more because of what he said. I still remember that. I guess he was right.

“Right place, right time, right horse. That’s what did it.”

Good Night Shirt was Via’s best hurdler in a long line of National Steeplechase Association winners he’s had over more than three decades in the game.

“Ann Via and I were lucky as hell to have some really good horses,” says the 92-year-old Via, as usual referring to his late wife of 61 years by both her first and last names. She died in 2014, but Sonny Via still credits her as a vital part of his racing success. “Good Night Shirt was the one people remember,” Via says. “There’s others – Hinterland, Footpad, Welshman – he won at Foxfield just this spring.

“But Good Night Shirt. He was the greatest.”

On the eve of his local steeplechase meet – the 44th annual Foxfield Fall Races run this Sunday, Oct. 2, and it’s the meet that actually started the ball rolling on Good Night Shirt’s ‘chase career, Via took time to trace his meteoric rise in the game. With a little prompting, he was able to recall some of the stories, some of the people that put into motion what Via calls the ride of a lifetime.

Sonny Via

How It Happened

Harold Anderson Via Jr. was born July 18, 1930 in Charlottesville, Virginia. His father was a small businessman with an ardor for good horses and fast cars. The junior Via ended up following his dad into in all three.

Sonny Via started showing horses when he was about 10, moving to the open jumper division – he especially loved the old knockdown-and-out classes, by age 15. One of his contemporaries was neighbor and eventual show jumping hall of fame rider Rodney Jenkins.

The Vias showed horses all summer through Sonny’s youth, up and down the Shenandoah Valley at county fairs and local and regional shows. They hunted with the local Farmington Hunt.

After high school graduation, Via studied at the University of Virginia for a semester then joined the U.S. Navy. It was during the Korean conflict, and he and a friend decided to sign up rather than sweat out the draft.

Via was assigned to the USS Antietam, an aircraft carrier used for anti-submarine warfare in the North Atlantic.

When not away at sea, Via was stationed at Oceana in Virginia Beach. He continued to ride at the local Cavalier Stables.

One day at the barn, a real-life meet-cute rocked his world.

“I was out there at Cavalier, and here comes these two girls – they were driving a brand-spanking new Cadillac towing a two horse trailer with two Dalmations in the back seat,” he said.

Via remembers being instantly smitten by Ann’s vivacity and beauty.

“She had this boyfriend at the time. I had to relieve her of that, but, you know, we made it 61 years.

“My mom always told me the military was the best thing that ever happened to me. I argue that Ann Via was the best thing that ever happened to me.”

Ann and Sonny Via with jockey Willie Dowling after Good Night Shirt’s Grade 1 Iroquois win in 2009.

When he was discharged from the navy, Via entered a lifelong career in the casualty commercial insurance business, working out of Baltimore, Richmond and Norfolk. He retired in 1984 and the couple moved to a small farm in Free Union, near Charlottesville.

Via says the farm fed his growing penchant for tinkering and reno. He got totally into the job of fixing up the 1800’s cottage: to expand the small home on the farm, they disassembled a 1776 house off another property they owned in rural Dinwiddie County, and carefully moved it to Free Union. He helped design a handsome pairing of the two post and beam structures, rebuilt to look like an original frame farmhouse.

“I like everything old,” Via says. “Old cars, old friends, old buildings. I love things that (mark) the passing of time.”

How Hob Knob got its name is a story unto itself: “I knew country places needed to have a name. So I sat down a yellow legal pad one day when we bought this place and started writing. I wrote down dozens of names, lots of words. I thought of the word, ‘hobnob’ which means ‘to socialize.’

“Then I looked at the property. This house is on a little knoll, a knob. And don’t you know Ann Via and I were super social back then.

“Hob Knob. The perfect name.”

Once settled in Free Union, Via dove deeper into another of his passions – vintage cars. He has a penchant for American originals: He’s got a 1910 Packard, a 1912 Pierce Arrow, a 1914 Ford Model T and a 1930 Ford Model A.

Ann Via was a car enthusiast as well: her prize possession was a 1934 Rolls Royce.

“I got her that after she’d said she wanted a vintage car, and she wanted it to be a Bentley.

“I heard the cash register going – dinga, dinga, dinga. That’s when we got her the Rolls Royce,” a little less pricey, Via says, but equally beautiful.

“I’d been taking cars apart and putting them back together since I was 11. I used to buy them out of barns and fields for as little as $2.”

One treasured find was discovering a 1930 Ford Model A – a two-door sedan he spied under a tattered tarp outside a barn near The Plains, Virginia.

Via’s cars aren’t just for show: he drives in vintage car tours over sometimes thousands of miles. Good Night Shirt’s first hurdle win at the 2005 Iroquois collided with one of Via’s car rallies. The Vias were already in Nashville that weekend for a car tour, guests of another steeplechase owner and vintage car enthusiast, Douglas Joyce.

“The horse (breaking his maiden) that day was icing on the cake,” Via says.

Via had previously owned horses in a small partnership with Jack Sanford and others – Farmwick Stables, but he had horses on his own with trainer Jack Fisher starting in the late 1990s. His first horse, Moccasin Run, won his first start for Via – 1998 at Foxfield. It started into motion a dream run for the small stable. Via still says he was always a little cowed even when the success began to pile up.

“I remember one day a horse of ours won at Camden. Our group was excited and jumped up to run to the winner’s circle.

“I had to tell them, ‘You guys go on down. I can’t feel my legs.’

“I had to just sit there for a little bit. I was weak-kneed.”

He eventually made it for the trophy presentation, but a humble authenticity shines through Via’s words.

“These horses were so great, it just overwhelmed me. It did then, and it even does now.

“We’ve had some great times.”

Gangly Youngster to Hall of Fame Champion

Born at Dr. and Mrs. Thomas Bowman’s Dance Forth Farm in Chestertown, Maryland, the chestnut son of Breeders’ Cup Classic winner and 2014 Maryland-bred Hall of Fame inductee Concern and the Two Punch mare Hot Story, Good Night Shirt was named after a saying by Tom Bowman’s grandmother.

Sonny Via knew exactly what “Good Night Shirt” stood for when he purchased the horse in early 2005.

“It was a really old-fashioned saying, and a generation thing, a time-period thing, I’m sure.

“My father would not curse, but if something upset him, he’d come in with ‘well, good night shirt’ instead of saying, ‘well, s**t’ like you would today.

“It was old-fashioned and sort of sweet, I think, and fun that probably the Bowmans thought of that, too, when naming their horse.”

The Bowmans told the Blood-Horse that Good Night Shirt was considered “too big, too immature” to be sold with other Bowman-breds as a yearling, so they sent him for early training with Suzanne Moscarelli (who bred his dam.) He later was with Suzanne’s son Vince at Maryland’s Fair Hill Training Center.

Sean Clancy and then-wife Liz Merryman purchased the horse as an unraced 3-year-old and the big gelding embarked on a flat campaign for Clancy’s Riverdee Stable. He made his first start in April 2004 at Pimlico and during the summer meet won back-to-back turf starts. That was the extent of his main track success – his flat career concluded with two wins from eight starts.

What Could Have Been

For her part, Liz Merryman remembers Good Night Shirt as a once-in-a-lifetime animal.

“He was the only perfect horse I have ever been around,” she says. “He had every good attribute a horse could have. He was sound, sweet, sensible, athletic, incredibly talented and a delight to be around.”

“Make sure Lizzie Merryman gets credit for his success. She made the horse,” recalls Good Night Shirt’s one-time owner Sean Clancy.

After breaking his maiden and winning his NW2, Good Night Shirt wasn’t effective at the allowance level. The timing of deciding to sell the horse and publication deadline made for a history-making collision.

“We had a quarter page hole on deadline” in the old print edition of Steeplechase Times, Clancy recalls. Brother and co-editor Joe Clancy “said we needed an ad to fill the space.

“We designed (a sales ad for Good Night Shirt) in minutes and threw it in there.

“We were probably both a little punchy and didn’t think much of it. I got a couple of calls, and sold the horse, so I guess it worked.”

“Jack Fisher saw the ad, I saw it too,” says Sonny Via. “Everybody read the print Steeplechase Times back then. I remember the ad – it said ‘Buy this horse, or you’ll be chasing him.’ It was clever, and, yes, I guess it worked ’cause we bought him.”

When asked if he was “sorry” to have sold the future champion, Clancy is circumspect.

“Lizzie told me not to sell him.”

New Beginnings

Trainer Jack Fisher and Sonny Via purchased Good Night Shirt from Riverdee after his last start on the flat in late 2004.

“Sean Clancy kept pestering me, telling me I should buy this horse,” Fisher recalls. “I finally got tired of hearing him talk about it so we bought the horse.”

Good Night Shirt won his first NSA start, a training turf at the old Strawberry Hill meet in Richmond in April, 2005. It was rider Willie Dowling’s first NSA win, having arrived in the U.S. from Ireland just a week before.

He was third in his hurdle debut two weeks later at Foxfield Spring, and broke his hurdle maiden at Iroquois two weeks after that. They were brought down in a rough race at Saratoga, Dowling was sidelined and Xavier Aizpuru got the mount. With Aizpuru aboard, Good Night Shirt won the grade 2 Ferguson at Colonial Downs the next summer, second in the Smithwick.

Dowling got the ride back for the Royal Chase at Keeneland in April, 2007, and stayed aboard the rest of the horse’s career. That year, they won the Iroquois, Lonesome Glory and Colonial Cup — all Grade 1 — to earn his first Eclipse. He defeated three-time champion and future Hall of Famer McDynamo twice that season.

In 2008, Good Night Shirt raced exclusively in grade 1 company, taking in succession the Georgia Cup, Iroquois, Lonesome Glory, Grand National and Colonial Cup. Good Night Shirt’s 2008 earnings of $485,520 set a single-season record, surpassing the previous mark of $314,163, which he’d set in 2007.

At 8, Good Night Shirt started the 2009 season winning the grade 2 Carolina Cup for his 10th career graded stakes win.

He retired after second in the Iroquois with a fracture to his cannon bone. Good Night Shirt recovered and was pensioned to Fisher’s Monkton, Maryland farm where he lived for years in the 60-acre retiree field at Kingfisher. Pasturemates included timber champions Saluter and Call Louis.
Good Night Shirt was inducted into the Racing Hall of Fame in 2017. He died in 2018, and is buried in Fisher’s field alongside Saluter.

Good Night Shirt won 14 of 33 lifetime starts, career earnings of $1,041,083. He was the third steeplechaser in history to surpass $1 million in career earnings, and was the first ‘chaser to be named Maryland-bred Horse of the Year – in 2008.

He earned four consecutive Maryland-bred steeplechase championship titles (2006-2009).

Dowling Found His Perfect Match

Jockey Willie Dowling got the mount on Good Night Shirt just a week after relocating to Maryland from his native Kilkenny, Ireland. It was his first American winner, too – a training flat race at the Strawberry Hill meet at Colonial Downs.

Dowling got the call in the horse’s hurdle debut two weeks later at owner Sonny Via’s home meet – Foxfield near Charlottesville.

Good Night Shirt darted to a wide lead from the flag, stumbled at the ninth fence up the hill by the stable area but recovered to finish third.

Fisher wheeled the horse back in a competitive maiden at Iroquois two weeks later. Good Night Shirt jumped well and won easily.

It  set into motion what Dowling calls a dream ride.

“This was the horse of a lifetime. (Trainer Jack Fisher) always said nobody heard of me before Good Night Shirt.

“I say nobody heard of Good Night Shirt before me.”

Dowling and Good Night Shirt winning the 2007 Lonesome Glory.

The post Legends Of Steeplechase: Cheekily-Named Good Night Shirt A ‘Horse Of A Lifetime’ appeared first on Horse Racing News | Paulick Report.

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