by Tod Marks
After making seven starts in top-class U.S. company, Irv Naylor’s Belfast Banter broke through with his first National Steeplechase Association win – and did so emphatically – in Wednesday’s Grade 1 $150,000 A.P. Smithwick Stakes at Saratoga.
Under slick handling by jockey Barry Foley, the eight-year-old Irish-bred son of Jeremy earned his first trip to the winner’s circle since a novice hurdle tally at Aintree in April 2021.
The victory gave veteran jockey Foley his first Grade 1 score in 430 NSA mounts since 2016. And for trainer Cyril Murphy, it was his first Grade 1 hurdle victory since Naylor’s Rawnaq captured the Grand National at Far Hills in his 2016 Eclipse Award championship season. Murphy also captured the Smithwick as a rider, taking the 2003 edition with Fox Ridge Farm’s Anofferucanrefuse for late Hall of Fame trainer Tom Voss.
Belfast Banter came into the Smithwick off of two thirds in Grade 2 competition in the spring, the David Semmes Memorial at Great Meadow and Temple Gwathmey at Middleburg. Despite those competitive performances, Belfast Banter was sent off at $16.80-1, the second longest shot in the crowded field of nine.
The race played out with Riverdee Stable’s Gordon’s Jet grabbing the lead at the break only to be passed quickly by Upland Flats Racing’s West Newton, who dictated the pace for about 1 3/4 miles, opening up by as much as three lengths. Meanwhile, there was little change in position among those chasing the leader, with Gordon’s Jet in close pursuit, and Atlantic Friends Racing’s Historic Heart sitting in third.
Heading up the backside the second time, West Newton remained in command as the field bunched up nearing the far turn. That’s when Sonny Via’s Welshman launched his bid, and 2-1 favorite Freddy Flintshire, also owned by Upland Flats Racing, unfurled an even bolder move on the outside, while Belfast Banter was gobbling up ground on the inside while running easily.
It was anyone’s race as the field straightened for home, but with three-sixteenths of a mile to go, Historic Heart surged past tiring West Newton and Gordon’s Jet to take the lead only to be overtaken almost immediately by Belfast Banter and Foley, who slid to the far outside and cruised to victory under a hand ride by 6 1/2 widening lengths. Historic Heart continued on gamely under Danny Mullins, who made the trip from Ireland to ride for Keri Brion, finishing three lengths clear of late closing Freddy Flintshire and Parker Hendriks. Both Historic Heart and Freddy Flintshire were trained by Brion.
After the Smithwick, Murphy told the NYRA press office that Belfast Banter could make his next start in the 2 3/8-mile G1 Jonathan Sheppard. “We’ve got lots to think about, but we have time to think about it,” he said.