The kickoff begins this week with a pair of major stakes featuring major stars at Aqueduct, marking the sport’s return to the Big A for the first time in nearly half a century.
By Tod Marks
After a successful 24-race summer campaign at Colonial Downs and Saratoga, the National Steeplechase Association launches its two-month fall season on Sept. 15, with the first of a dozen meets that will take place as far north as Geneseo, N.Y. and as far south as Pine Mountain, Ga.
The march to year-end honors begins with a historic return to Aqueduct Race Track in South Ozone Park, Queens, on Thursday for the $150,000 Grade 1 Lonesome Glory and $75,000 William Entenmann novice stakes. It will be the first steeplechase at Aqueduct since 1974. The entire 28-day Belmont Fall Meet has been moved to the Big A as a result of a major construction project to build vehicle and pedestrian tunnels, the latter eventually enabling patrons to enter the infield from the racetrack’s parking lots and Long Island Railroad station. The project is part of a broader overall plan to revamp the entire facility along with its racing surfaces.
Steeplechasing has a storied past at all three New York Racing Association tracks, and in 197I, for example, Aqueduct hosted 21 of the 57 steeplechase races on the circuit. While there are far fewer jump races at the flat tracks today, NYRA continues to showcase the sport’s major events, including the Lonesome Glory as well as the A.P. Smithwick, and Jonathan Sheppard stakes, three of the year’s five Grade 1 hurdle contests.
“We (the NSA) are greatly appreciative of NYRA’s offer to allow us to be a part of opening day of the Belmont at the Big A fall meet,” said Director of Racing Bill Gallo. “It has been quite some time since we last raced over jumps at Aqueduct, but like Saratoga and Belmont, there is a rich history of steeplechasing in New York, and NYRA management continues to support that tradition.”
The last steeplechase race run at Aqueduct was on July 24, 1974, when Powhatan Stable’s Afilador won an allowance hurdle for trainer Pat Graham. Legendary New York flat trainer Leo O’Brien (now retired) rode the winner, so there is a lot of nostalgia and tradition attached to the return to Aqueduct. Back in the 1950’s and 60’s steeplechasing was a regular part of the NYRA program at Aqueduct, Belmont and Saratoga. That peaked in 1970 when 83 jump races were run in New York for total purses of more than $850,000.
Since that time the steeplechase program has been modified and more focused on the summer at Saratoga and the fall at Belmont. These two hurdle races at Aqueduct are major events on the NSA calendar, linking the stakes action at Saratoga and championship day at Far Hills, N.J., on October 15, an all-stakes card anchored by the $250,000 Grand National.
And this year’s running of those linchpins will showcase the best the sport has to offer. In the Lonesome Glory, at 2 ½ miles, dual 2022 Grade 1 winner Snap Decision totes highweight of 168 pounds – 18 to 28 pounds more than his seven mostly familiar foes under the race’s handicap conditions. The eight-year-old Bruton Street-US star, trained by Hall of Famer Jack Fisher and ridden by Graham Watters, is two for three over hurdles this season, and is coming off of a 13 ¼-length blowout in the $150,000 Jonathan Sheppard at the Spa last month. The last time a horse carried 168 pounds to victory in New York was R.D. Hubbard’s Mistico, trained by Jonathan Sheppard, in 1994. Snap Decision finished second, carrying 164 pounds, in last year’s Lonesome Glory, to Buttonwood Farm’s The Mean Queen.
Speaking of The Mean Queen, the six-year-old Irish-bred mare, a winner of six of eight last year, hasn’t run since the 2022 Grand National, in which she narrowly defeated Snap Decision to clinch the Eclipse Awards. An injury kept her on the sidelines, and her connections were in no hurry to bring her back to the races since her main objective is to travel to Cheltenham in England next season to compete in the Mares’ Hurdle.
The Mean Queen makes her long-awaited return in the 2 ⅜-mile Entenmann as she remains eligible for novice competition because she didn’t win over jumps until after March 1 of 2021.
Under the Entenmann’s conditions, The Mean Queen, trained by Keri Brion, carries 158 pounds, only two to eight pounds more than her six ambitiously placed rivals. Parker Hendriks has the mount.
Should both heavy favorites win on Thursday, it would set the stage for a dramatic showdown at Far Hills under the Grand National’s weight-for-age conditions.
The Entenmann will go off as the first race on Thursday’s 10-race opening-day card at the Big A. Post time is 1 p.m. The Lonesome Glory is race two. The entries can be found here: https://nationalsteeplechase.com/wp-content/uploads/2022/09/NYRA-Aqueduct-Overnight-Sept15.pdf
NYRA races are broadcast live on Fox2 TV, with replays available on NYRA website, https://www.nyra.com/saratoga/racing/replays. You can also live stream via the NSA website, www.nationalsteeplechase.com.
The full fall schedule
Shawan Downs Legacy Chase, Hunt Valley, Md., Sept. 24
Foxfield Fall, Charlottesville, Va., Oct, 2
Genesee Valley Hunt Races, Geneseo, N.Y., Oct. 2
Virginia Fall, Middleburg, Va., Oct. 8
Far Hills, Far Hills, N.J., Oct. 15
International Gold Cup, The Plains, Va., Oct. 22
Aiken Fall, Aiken, S.C., Oct. 29
Steeplechase at Callaway Gardens, Pine Mountain, Ga., Nov. 5
Montpelier Hunt Races, Montpelier Station, Va., Nov. 5
Pennsylvania Hunt Cup, Unionville, Pa., Nov. 6
Steeplechase of Charleston, Hollywood, S.C., Nov. 13
To download the condition book, click here: https://nationalsteeplechase.com/wp-content/uploads/2022/08/NSA-ConditionBook-Fall-2022-RevisedAug9.pdf