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Not Surprising, 1995 Eclipse Champion

by Press Box | Jan 18, 2015

Two days before the announcement of the 2014 Eclipse Award winners on Saturday at Gulfstream Park, local horseman Jud Van Worp and retired jockey William Henry paid a visit to Thoroughbred racing royalty at the Odessa, Fla., home of Terry Davie.

The subject of their admiration, 25-year-old gelding Not Surprising, took Van Worp and his family to unprecedented heights during the 1995 season. And while Henry rode along for only part of the journey, he played an integral role in the horse’s remarkable success.

Not Surprising’s dark chestnut coat shone brightly and his eyes were alert during the nostalgia-filled reunion. When Van Worp led him outside his stall, he gobbled grass with enthusiasm, lifting his head occasionally when a horse whinnied from a nearby paddock.

The 1995 North American Eclipse Champion Sprinter clearly is living the good, if decidedly low-key, life. And although the years have passed quickly, Van Worp says Not Surprising is almost as energetic, inquisitive – and feisty – as ever.

“Like the rest of us, he is getting a few years on him, but he is hanging in there pretty good,” said Van Worp, who trained Not Surprising for his father, now-83-year-old Robert Van Worp, Jr. “The horse doesn’t have any major, life-threatening problems. Some older horses will kind of drop their stomachs and their hips will cave in, but he’s not doing that yet, which is a pretty good sign.”

Not Surprising has resided on Davie’s farm for the past nine years since Van Worp brought him back from his previous home in Ocala. “They take good care of him here, and there are some young girls who come by to play with him. He’s a pretty happy horse,” Van Worp said before joking: “He’s still the same. You go to pet him on the neck and he tries to bite you.”  

It seemed fitting to visit Not Surprising last week, in part because the Eclipse Award ceremonies were Saturday and also because his championship season started on Jan. 7, 1995 in the (then) $25,000-added Pelican Stakes at six furlongs at Tampa Bay Downs.

The Pelican, which Not Surprising won in 1994 and 1995, now offers $100,000 in purse money and is part of a stellar Jan. 24 Tampa Bay Downs card that includes the Grade III, $150,000 Tampa Bay Stakes and the $100,000 Lightning City Stakes, the latter two on the turf course.

Van Worp and Henry are both 55 now and remain in the area. Van Worp and his wife Debbie, who race three Thoroughbreds, including two homebreds, have three grown children (two daughters and a son) and a 1-year-old grandson, Judson III. Jud’s brother, R.E. “Bob” Van Worp, also races horses.

Henry, who works in the Tampa Bay Downs Maintenance Department, is married to another retired jockey, the former Lisa Misiewicz. They have a grown son and a grown daughter.

Not Surprising, who had been gelded during his 3-year-old season – “he really became determined and consistent then,” Van Worp recalls – entered the 1995 Pelican 10-for-26 through his first three seasons, including the 1994 Pelican victory and four other Florida stakes.

Certainly, Van Worp – who purchased the Florida-bred son of Medieval Man-Tenderly Calling, by Always Gallant, for $7,200 at the 1991 Ocala Breeders’ Sales Company’s August Yearling Sale for his father – would have had no kicks coming if he didn’t win another race.

Henry, who retired from riding in 2003 with 1,500 career victories, had ridden Not Surprising for the first time in the 1994 Pelican. On that day, Not Surprising posted a three-length victory from the Ray Tamargo-owned-and-trained Oh So Striking, an unsung speedball who later set the six-and-a-half furlong track record at Churchill Downs (since bettered) under Henry. (The jockeys in Henry’s wake that spring day under the Twin Spires included Shane Sellers, Patricia Cooksey, Garrett Gomez and Pat Day.)

A four-time Tampa Bay Downs riding champion, Henry had been aboard Oh So Striking when the then-4-year-old gelding broke his maiden by 10 lengths in his career debut in 58.20 seconds for five furlongs, only nine days before the Pelican. Henry, as much as anyone, knew a Pelican victory by the more-experienced Not Surprising was not guaranteed on that 1994 January day.

 “I knew they both were runners,” said Henry, who had already committed to ride Not Surprising. “I had been getting on Not Surprising in the morning and he was more seasoned, and it’s hard for a horse that just broke his maiden to win a stakes. But I knew Oh So Striking would be tough.”

Henry was in the middle of a three-year period when he rode 313 winners at Tampa Bay Downs, and he rode a near-flawless race. He and Not Surprising found an opening along the rail in the stretch and powered to a three-length victory from a determined Oh So Striking and his jockey, Julio Espinoza.

That was the outset of a productive partnership for Henry and the 4-year-old Not Surprising. They won the $47,550 Breeders’ Cup Super Stakes at Tampa Bay Downs three weeks later, and after a second in another Oldsmar stakes, they teamed to win the $100,000, mile-and-an-eighth Seminole Handicap on a sloppy track at Hialeah at odds of 11-1.

Not Surprising failed to win in his next five starts that year, although he managed a second under Henry in the $100,000, five-furlong Lago Mar Handicap on the turf at Calder in Miami in June. After three consecutive fifth-place finishes, the last on a sloppy Calder surface in July, Van Worp brought him home for an extended layoff.

“He wasn’t sweating really good in Miami, so we decided to turn him out,” Van Worp said. “Luckily, he was our horse and we could do that.”

The Van Worps targeted the 1995 Pelican for Not Surprising’s 5-year-old debut. After working the horse in the mornings leading to the race, Henry knew he was sitting on a powder keg, and he relayed his feelings to Jud. “Billy had him ready to go, and he knew how good he was doing,” Van Worp said. “Bill probably rode the majority of horses I ran then, and he could always tell you a little something about a horse that you could use.

“He was never one of those guys who came back and just said ‘Yes, sir’ and ‘No, sir.’ It made a lot of difference. You don’t get to be leading rider unless you’re willing to go out there and give it your all, all the time, and that’s what Bill did.”

Although Not Surprising was a 9-10 favorite for the Pelican, he drew the No. 9 post in a field of 12, not a bad post but not necessarily ideal. But none of the others were in his league. Henry reserved his mount early in the second wave of runners, then unleashed a remarkable turn of foot that resulted in an 11 ½-length victory in 1:10 4/5.

“Just working him in the mornings then was like driving a Mercedes,” Henry said. “But after that race, my feeling was that he was a Breeders’ Cup horse. He gave you everything you asked of him, and even when you didn’t ask him, he gave it to you. I ain’t never sat on a horse that was doing as good as he was.”

Not Surprising was an excellent gate horse, but his preferred style of running was to track the early speed and pick up the leaders approaching the turn, then leave them in his dust with a devastating stretch kick.

“You could put him almost anywhere you wanted in a race,” Henry recalled. “I’d just let him break on his own, get a hold of him and try to get him in behind horses. Once you did that, he would relax.”

“He had a lot of natural speed, but his best game was when you’d break him and just sit and give him something to run at,” Van Worp said. “That was what he enjoyed.”

Not Surprising finished third in his next start, the Breeders’ Cup Super Stakes, at odds of 1-5 when he was impeded at the start, opening a nasty gash in his shin. The loss was a major disappointment in front of the hometown crowd, but the injury was superficial, and he returned three weeks later with Henry in the saddle to win the mile-and-a-sixteenth Tampa Bay Budweiser Breeders’ Cup by a neck from Mighty Avanti in front of a boisterous, adoring crowd.

The 9-10 favorite in that race, fourth-place finisher Pride of Burkaan, finished second in his next start in the Gulfstream Park Handicap to Hall of Fame legend Cigar.

The Tampa Bay Budweiser Breeders’ Cup was Not Surprising’s last start at the Oldsmar oval as a 5-year-old. And Henry would ride him only once more that season, a ninth-place finish in the Grade III Fort Lauderdale Handicap at Gulfstream on March 11.

Two decades can dull the sharpest of memories, and neither Van Worp nor Henry seemed entirely sure how the trainer came to use Robbie Davis in Not Surprising’s next outing, a victory in the Hialeah Sprint Championship at odds of 12-1.

Henry thinks he might have been sidelined with an injury, which is plausible given that four weeks later, Van Worp used Heberto Castillo, Jr., for the horse’s repeat victory in the Seminole Handicap.

Regardless, Davis was one of the top jockeys on the New York circuit for many years, finishing his career just below “all-time great” status with 3,382 career victories. “I just went to Hialeah and used Robbie on him and he ran so good, we ended up sticking with him,” Van Worp said. And beginning with Not Surprising’s fourth-place finish in the Grade I, $500,000 Metropolitan Handicap at Belmont, Davis was Not Surprising’s jockey for all but one of his starts the remainder of the season.

It took a few more races before the horse rounded into Eclipse Award-winning form. Following the Met Mile and a laboring eighth in the Brooklyn Handicap, Van Worp elected to send Not Surprising to upstate New York, where he won the Grade III, $200,000 Finger Lakes Budweiser Breeders’ Cup on the Fourth of July under local jockey John Davila, Jr., in a scintillating 1:09 for six furlongs.

“I was about ready to get him out of (the Northeast) when (jockey agent) Richard DePass told me about the Finger Lakes race,” Van Worp recalled. “The horse won for fun, and from there it just snowballed. I think a big thing was, we were willing to take a chance with him and it paid off. We could have easily gone somewhere else and tried to win a lesser stakes, but we decided to bring him to New York and take a shot and it worked out.”

In August, Not Surprising and Davis won the Grade II, six-furlong A Phenomenon Handicap at Saratoga, followed by another Grade II Spa score in the seven-furlong Forego. That race attracted only four entrants, with most trainers scared off by 3-5 shot Lite the Fuse, who had won the Grade I Carter at Belmont and two Grade II stakes entering the Forego but could only manage third.

“Martha Gerry, the owner of Forego, gave us the trophy, and that was a real thrill,” Van Worp remembered a few years ago. “Our horse Proud and Bold had run third against (Hall of Famer) Forego in the 1974 Donn Handicap at Gulfstream, and the next year Proud and Bold won the Donn.”

In September of 1995 at Belmont, Not Surprising tackled the likes of the Bobby Frankel-trained You and I, the Shug McGaughey-trained Our Emblem and Lite the Fuse in the Grade I, $200,000 Vosburgh at seven furlongs.

Incredibly, the top 12 finishers were separated at the wire by about four lengths, but Not Surprising and Davis emerged on top by a nose from You and I for a fourth consecutive graded triumph.

That sent Not Surprising to the $1-million, six-furlong Breeders’ Cup Sprint in late October at Belmont as the favorite, but Van Worp suspected an off track (officially listed as good) would not be to his liking. “In the grandstand before the race, someone said ‘Isn’t that a beautiful rainbow?’, but everybody loved it except me,” Van Worp said. “I thought it stunk. The only place he had run well in the slop was Hialeah because that was a deep slop and he could dig into it, but they had sealed the track at Belmont and it was too slick for him.”

Despite that, Not Surprising started to roll late, but he could only get fourth-place money, two-and-a-half lengths behind winning mare Desert Stormer.

The Van Worps were uncertain how the Eclipse voters would view that slipup, but his body of work – 8-for-13 for the year, highlighted by his four-race graded winning streak – was impossible to ignore.

Jud and wife Debbie accepted the trophy in San Diego from Tampa Bay Downs owner Stella F. Thayer, who was delighted with the public-relations boost Not Surprising had provided for the sleepy track on Florida’s west coast.

“I think he might have gotten the biggest applause of any horse at the Eclipse Awards, because his background and his story were so amazing,” Jud said.

Not Surprising raced until he was 9, but although he won the Hialeah Sprint Championship under Craig Perret and the Grade II True North Handicap at Belmont under Davis as a 6-year-old, he was never quite the same horse. He picked up fourth-place checks in three consecutive Grade II stakes later in his 6-year-old year, but managed only two more victories the remainder of his career – both as an 8-year-old at Tampa Bay Downs.

Henry was aboard his old friend in the first of those 1998 Oldsmar victories, a five-and-a-half furlong allowance for a purse of $11,400 (for trivia buffs, Kevin Whitley was the last jockey to win on Not Surprising).

Henry still wonders how he might have fared on Not Surprising during the magical summer of 1995, but has always accepted Van Worp’s decision to go with Davis as part of the business. Henry and Van Worp remain good friends.

“At least I can say I rode him,” said Henry. “A lot of riders didn’t get to.”

The Van Worps raced Not Surprising at Tampa Bay Downs four times after his championship season, and he always drew a huge crowd eager to get close to him and take pictures. He even appeared as a special guest at the track’s Saturday “Morning Glory Club” Show.

“It was amazing how many people loved him,” said Van Worp, who still has a pencil sketch of Not Surprising from a young female fan.

Considering all he accomplished in eight seasons – 15 stakes victories, four consecutive New York graded stakes wins, $1.1-million in career earnings and the coveted Eclipse Award as Champion Sprinter – it would not be hyperbole to call Not Surprising a “once-in-a-lifetime” horse.

Yet Van Worp knows better. The odds of purchasing a horse like Not Surprising for $7,200 and accompanying him to the sport’s pinnacle are so astronomical, it’s still hard for Van Worp to comprehend.

“We’ve had a lot of fun with horses for a long time, but to get one like him is just a bonus. There is a lot of luck that goes along with it,” Van Worp said. “That year he won the Eclipse Award, every day I walked in his stall, he was absolutely perfect. Nothing was ever wrong. He would eat up and never take a bad step.

“You don’t know how amazing that is until you’ve trained horses for 20 years,” Van Worp said. “I’ve picked out hundreds of horses that look just like him. I always buy big, strong horses that look like they might mature down the road. If you looked at him then, you probably would have said he was not going to make it. But as soon as he got on the track and started breezing, you knew he was going to be a real nice horse.

 “But even with a horse of his caliber, everything has to come together,” Van Worp observed. “There are a lot of horses with talent that never get to do what he did. Robbie Davis told me when he would turn for home in his big New York races, his neck would just blow up. He was an incredibly focused horse that year. He had grown up into a man.”

And an all-time Tampa Bay Downs legend.

View the Tampa Bay Downs 1995 Pelican Stakes Here.