By Katie Ritz
For red hot trainer Christophe Clement, there's much to look forward to as his blossoming turf star Decorated Invader (Declaration of War) progresses through his sophomore season. But for owner Cheri Manning, the talented colt has already given her the ride of a lifetime.
In partnership with West Point Thoroughbreds, William Freeman and William Sandbrook, Manning has watched her horse cross the wire first in a juvenile maiden race at Saratoga, then the GI Summer S., the Cuter Bay S., the GII Pennine Ridge S. and most recently, the GII National Museum of Racing Hall of Fame S.
Even with such a lengthy collection of victories, the Virginia resident still has yet to join her colt in the winner's circle.
“I almost don't even want to say this out loud, but I've never seen him win in person,” Manning said. “The only races I've been to were his first start [a close second at Saratoga] and the Breeders' Cup [Juvenile Turf, where he finished fourth after a troubled trip]. So now I'm a little nervous to go see him run.”
Although she's just getting started in her journey as an owner, Manning has been a fan of the sport since childhood.
“Even as a little kid, I enjoyed horse racing,” she recounted. “I was lucky enough to grow up in the '70s, so Secretariat, Affirmed and Alydar are the first horses I remember. My dad was into horse racing, so we would watch on TV. I was your typical horse-crazy kid.”
It wasn't until a few years ago that her interest in racing became something more.
“When I went to college, I stopped riding and horses kind of slipped out of my life,” she said. “But I always continued to follow racing. Then I started to get closer to the age of 50. And when that happened, I started thinking, 'Alright, I'm going to do something for myself.'”
Manning bought in on two 2-year-olds through West Point Thoroughbreds in 2016 and as she notes, “away we went.”
“Ownership was way more than I expected going in,” she said. “That first summer, coming up to Saratoga for the first time was quite the experience- being a total newbie on the backstretch and watching one of my horses run there. I felt like everyone in the industry was so welcoming. Even if you don't know what the heck you're talking about, everyone wants to help give you the information you need without making you feel stupid.”
That same year, a third juvenile on the West Point roster named Arch of the Diver (Arch) caught her eye.
“He was a bit more on the expensive side, so I tried to be practical and buy into two horses for the price of one,” Manning said. “But I couldn't stop thinking about him, so I ended up buying into him.”
Arch of the Diver showed promise early on, but endured several injury-induced setbacks. It wasn't until he was a 4-year-old that he broke his maiden at Saratoga by almost 10 lengths.
“I cried so hard,” Manning said with a laugh.
The gelding later won at Delaware Park, scoring a 93 Beyer Figure, but soon after an injury forced the West Point team to retire him. They turned to Manning to ask if 'Archie' could find a new home with his biggest fan.
“They knew I loved him and that he would be going to a really good home,” Manning said. “So when they asked me I said, 'Yes. We will figure it out. We will make it happen.'”
While Archie has yet to start a new career under saddle, he is thriving at his new home in Virginia.
“This horse is the biggest klutz. It's a miracle he raced at all, let alone won two races,” Manning joked. “The hope is to eventually get him under saddle and see what he wants to do, even if it's just hack around and be a trail horse. But if he ends up being a pasture pet, that's great too.”
Even though Manning has only been involved in racing for five years, she's already giving back to the sport through her dedication to aftercare and has big plans to do more.
“Eventually I could see myself having the Northern Virginia Home for Wayward Thoroughbreds, or something like that,” she said.
At around the same time of Arch of the Diver's retirement, a yearling with Arch as a broodmare sire became available.
“I really like turf horses, and the fact that he was out of an Arch mare really sold him for me,” Manning recalled.
Soon after, she was in on Decorated Invader's ownership.
“If you could line up Northern Dancer, Danzig, War Front, and Decorated Invader, the similarities would be so striking. It's quite a lineage,” she said.
Her ownership on Decorated Invader has quickly become a family affair.
“When we were in Saratoga last summer, my sister Cathy fell in love with him,” Manning said. “She was going on and on about how amazing he was after his first race when he ran second. I had an odd percentage on him, so I said, 'happy birthday' and gave her a small percentage. She says it was the best birthday present ever. She always liked horses and enjoyed going to the track with me, but with Decorated Invader, she knew he was The Horse, and now she's gotten the bug.”
Manning has also introduced her 13-year-old niece Vivienne to horse racing.
“From day one, Vivienne has been my silent partner,” she said. “She unofficially owns half the horses I partner in. She's your typical horse-crazy girl. What did we do for her Christmas break? We went to Florida to visit Payson Park and she was thrilled.”
For years, Vivienne and Manning also had their own riding horse that they owned together.
“Unfortunately he passed away in February of cancer,” Manning said. “So this year has really sucked, but Decorated Invader has sort of made up for a lot of not-so-great things.”
Manning remembers the Cutler Bay S. in March at Gulfstream as her favorite race of the season.
“Midway through the race he was totally out of it,” she said. “And you're like, 'Oh that's fine, it's his first race this year.' And then all of a sudden, he turns on an extra gear and wows us all. The way he won that day was amazing. That's when we knew it was going to be a fun year.”
Of course, having one of the hottest trainers on the Saratoga backstretch in Christophe Clement is a definite asset.
“I can't believe that barn,” Manning said. “They so deserve it. One of the deciding factors for me in buying a horse through West Point is if it's going to Clement.”
Manning shared that while Clement's assistant trainer and son Miguel says Decorated Invader acts studish whenever he's working with the colt, Manning finds that the bay is nothing less than a gentleman when she comes to the barn with carrots in hand.
“He's a very nice horse,” she said. “He's so smart, you get that vibe from him right away. He's got that intelligent eye. I'm so thankful to Terry Finley, Bill Freeman, Bill Sandbrook, as well as the West Point buying team and David Ingordo for finding Decorated Invader and letting me join the party. He's definitely special, and he knows he's special..”
West Point's COO Tom Bellhouse said that Decorated Invader has an equally-special owner.
“Cheri is a dream partner,” he said. “She's a great person. She takes the good news with the bad, and is always so supportive. She's a big believer in the animal and for caring for the animal. Any time you spend with Cheri, it will put a smile on your face.”