Virginian Harold “Sonny” Via’s Good Night Shirt, the reigning champion steeplechaser, returned to action with a convincing victory in Saturday’s $100,000 Georgia Cup (NSA-G1) at the Atlanta Steeplechase.

Trained by Jack Fisher, Good Night Shirt caught Hip Hop (Count the Time) after the last fence and won by 1 1/2 lengths under regular jockey Willie Dowling. Mixed Up (Carnivalay) finished 14 1/4 lengths back in third. The Maryland-bred winner covered the two miles and 12 fences in 3:45 4/5 while winning the fourth Grade 1 of his career. Good Night Shirt collected $60,000 with the win and jumped to the top of the 2008 National Steeplechase Association standings.

But he had to work to do it.

Ranging alongside Hip Hop after the second-last, Good Night Shirt looked poised to claim an easy victory until he bungled the last fence with a sloppy leap. Landing two lengths behind Hip Hop, Good Night Shirt dug in again and closed the gap before drawing off at the finish.

“There was a little bit of pressure today — back over two miles which he hasn’t done for a while,” Dowling said. “I got upsides (Hip Hop) at the last, but we didn’t jump it well. He galloped all the way to the line. He doesn’t know when he’s beat. A lot of horses if they make a mistake at a fence like he did today would quit. He’s got a lot of heart.”

Bred by Dr. and Mrs. Thomas Bowman, Good Night Shirt won for the seventh time in his steeplechase career and pushed his career jump earnings to $508,973. Fisher bypassed a potential start in next week’s Royal Chase for the Sport of Kings (NSA-G1) at Keeneland in favor of the Atlanta race due to weight assignments, and the move paid off despite less than ideal conditions.

“It’s not quite his distance, he’d rather go three miles, and the race didn’t set up for him at all,” Fisher said. “He was done at the last, or should have been but he’s got heart. A lot of horses are better than him probably, but they don’t try like him. I didn’t go to Keeneland because of the weight — I can’t give 20 pounds away and feel confident. I could come here and feel more confident.”

Good Night Shirt will aim next for the $150,000 Iroquois (NSA-G1) at Nashville, Tennessee, on May 10. He won the 2007 running en route to the steeplechase Eclipse Award. — Steeplechase Times and Brisnet.

(Photo by Tod Marks)