By Tod Marks
With all eyes focused on the Grand National, it’s easy to look past the rest of the seven-race card for Saturday’s 101st Far Hills Race meeting at Moorland Farm in New Jersey.
While the outcome of the $250,000 Grand National has often helped crown Eclipse Award winners – including The Mean Queen last year – the other stakes typically have an impact on divisional honors.
Far Hills always poses a challenge for handicappers not only because it’s a course that so many horses either love or loathe, but also because of the presence of European invaders whose foreign form, for better or worse, might not carry over to American racing. Leading Irish trainer Gordon Elliott doesn’t have a starter in this year’s Grand National, but he has three entries on the day, who will be ridden by Irish National Hunt jockey Davy Russell. Elliott’s presence at Far Hills in recent years has been formidable; he’s won a race in each of the past four meets.
In 2017 he saddled Zanjabeel to take the Foxbrook Champion Hurdle. Zanjabeel would go on to win the Eclipse Award a year later running in the colors of Rosbrian and Meadow Run Farms under the tutelage of Ricky Hendriks. Elliott struck again, in 2018 with Jury Duty in the Grand National. A year later, he won with Global Freedom in the Gladstone, and did so in the same race again last year with Realist, who put in a powerhouse performance, romping by 28 lengths.
Here’s a look at the card and a snapshot of some of the key contenders:
1st: $50,000 Harry Harris 4-year-old stakes, 2 ⅛ miles.
Six are expected to go postward led by giant killer, Bruton Street-US’ Proven Innocent, a winner of two straight and three of his last four, including his 9-1 takedown of The Mean Queen in the William Entenmann novice stakes at Aqueduct. Trained by Jack Fisher and ridden by the hottest rider on the NSA tour, Jamie Bargary, the son of Blame and grandson of AP Indy is the 6-5 morning line favorite, and rightly so after inching past the champ in the final stride. His winning move was similar to that in a Saratoga allowance race over the summer. He might be on a three-race win streak but for a troubled trip in another Saratoga allowance in July. Proven Innocent’s toughest competition could come from the International Venture and Belle Meade Jockey Club’s up-and-comer Ljay, who captured a $50,000 stake at Great Meadow in the spring in only his second career effort. After being pulled up in a handicap at Percy Warner Park in May, Ljay signaled his readiness on Oct. 2 with a good second in an optional claiming allowance at Foxfield. South Branch Equine’s Who’s Counting was a game second to Ljay in the stake and has been running well under trainer-jockey Sean McDermott, though he was no match for Proven Innocent at Saratoga. An intriguing entry is Jacqueline Ohrstrom’s Tease and Squeeze, who makes his first NSA start (and first appearance since January) for trainer Richard Valentine. Tease and Squeeze previously made 11 starts in England with five top-three finishes. After an impressive maiden tally at Colonial Downs, Michael Smith’s Project Two, trained by leading conditioner Leslie Young, was a far-back fifth to Proven Innocent at Saratoga.
2nd: $50,000 Gladstone 3-year-old stakes, 2 ⅛ miles.
Can Gordon Elliott make it three straight victories in the Gladstone? After crushing the field with Realist last year, the Irishman unleashes another tough prospect in The Insider, an experienced jumper with 14 starts already under his girth at the tender age of three, including two wins and a second in his last three. He’s 8-5 on the morning line. Sean McDermott rides and trains Ciarrai Bloodstock’s precocious Maryland-bred Fleeting Atte, who won in his jumps debut at Shawan Downs last month with a strong kick to win by about four lengths, defeating among others, Michael Smith’s Hoffman, who is in the field as well. Hoffman is likely to improve off of that solid third, which came off a three-month layoff and eight previous tries in England. In June, Jordan Wycoff claimed the American Pharoah filly Solib, who had been running on the NYRA circuit, for $50,000 and she makes her first start over hurdles for Keri Brion.
3rd: $75,000 Foxbrook Champion Hurdle novice stakes, 4-year-olds and up, 2 ½ miles.
After a maiden win and two seconds in allowance company in Ireland, morning-line choice Howyabud joined the Irv Naylor stable, and promptly impressed with a 10-length allowance victory at Great Meadow over State of Affair, who would go on to a runaway score in similar company at Saratoga. He made it two straight, taking the Jonathan Kiser novice stakes at the Spa over the hard-knocking Holwood Stable’s Decisive Triumph, who is in the Foxbrook field as well. Howyabud was a steady third in the Entenmann, less than seven lengths behind Proven Innocent and The Mean Queen. With three consecutive wins, including a 16-1 upset on the flat in Ireland two weeks ago, Ted Hastings looms a serious threat for Elliott. Riverdee Stable’s Awakened has been wide awake of late. Since beginning his jumps career in April, the Jack Fisher-trainee has two wins and two seconds in five starts, including a tally on the flat for steeplechasers at Colonial Downs. Though he has competed only in maiden hurdles, he did face Proven Innocent, when the latter broke his maiden at the Iroquois Races, finishing fourth of nine, beaten less than five lengths.
4th: $50,000 Appleton Stakes for 4-year-olds and up, 2 ⅝ miles.
Run at the same distance as the Grand National, the Appleton, a handicap for horses rated at 130 or less, features an impressive NSA newcomer along with some experienced European runners with American connections making their first start in the States. Atlantic Friends Racings’ Theocrat is two for two since coming from England. His first win came at Colonial Downs in a 115 handicap, followed by a 13-1 upset of stablemate Freddy Flintshire in the Michael G. Walsh novice stakes at Saratoga. Though he hasn’t won since December 2019, Del Rio Racing’s Soviet Pimpernel has been made the 2-1 second choice for his NSA debut, based on his 12 for 21 in-the-money record mostly in Ireland, the quality of his previous competition, and his trainer, Gordon Elliott. Theocrat and Soviet Pimpernel share top weight of 158 pounds, six to 18 more than the rest of the field. Sharon Sheppard’s Redicean, from the Leslie Young barn, is used to going against Grade 1 competition, where he’s usually a threat to claim a piece of the purse. On Saturday, he may have an even better chance to hit the board. Merriebelle Stable’s Grey Falcon, trained by Elizabeth Voss, has been racing in France where he’s two for his last three. Daniel Denefrio’s Fightinirishtabit has back-to-back wins, a 110 handicap at Colonial Downs and optional claiming allowance at Shawan, and gets in light at 144 pounds.
5th: $100,000 John Forbes Memorial Flat Stakes for 4-year-olds and up, 2 miles.
Far Hills will honor the late John Forbes, a fixture at Monmouth Park for 40 years as a trainer and a past president of the New Jersey Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association, with a $100,000 race at 2 miles on the turf. The 14 entries mostly have steeplechase connections (owners, trainers, and riders), but the flat community will be represented by trainers Greg Sacco, Michael Dickinson, and Kent Sweezey, and jockeys Isaac Castillo, Nik Juarez, and Feargal Lynch. The early favorite is Three Diamonds Farm’s multiple graded stakes winner and millionaire Cross Border, who makes his first start in his transition to the NSA.
7th: $50,000 Sport of Kings maiden hurdle for 4-year-olds and up, 2 ⅛ miles.
The finale, with a 4:41 p.m. post time, is as rich a contest for non-winners that you’ll find on the calendar, and a full field will be vying for the winner’s share. After a pair of starts in Ireland, Potter Group USA’s Uco Valley (Leslie Young) upped his game at Colonial Downs and Shawan Downs three weeks ago, where he finished two lengths behind Awakened, who runs in the novice stakes. Pure Courage finished third in that race. Riverdee Stable’s Cool Jet also improved dramatically in his U.S. debut, with a close second at Foxfield on Oct. 2. Paul and Molly Willis’ Parish Delight was second to runaway winner Realist in last year’s Gladstone over the course, but had a pair of seconds in maiden company in the spring.
You can download the full entries here.
How to watch
The Grand National will be broadcast live on America’s Day at the Races, produced by the New York Racing Association in partnership with Fox Sports. Coverage begins at 12:30 p.m. Fox NYRA host Acacia Clement will anchor the coverage from Far Hills joined by Joe Clancy and Richard Migliore.
America’s Day at the Races will air on FS2 from 12:30 to 5:30 p.m.
As always, you can alternately watch Saturday’s races via live stream from the link on the NSA homepage, www.NationalSteeplechase.com. The stream, sponsored by Brown Advisory, is offered through Mandolin, which hosted the NSA spring meets. There is a fee to watch the stream, and meets can be viewed and paid for individually or for the entire Fall season.
How to wager
Outside of the NYRA circuit and a few hunt meets, pari-mutuel wagering on steeplechasing is a rarity, but on Saturday fans have the chance to bet on all their favorites through 4NJBets, which is partnered with TVG. To sign up, deposit, and wager, you’ll need to download the 4NJBets app or visit 4njbets.com. Fans are encouraged to sign up, and to download the app, in advance and be sure to use promo code 200FARHILLS. That way, you can place your first win wager up to $200 on a single horse and get it back as wagering credit if you don’t win. Note that there will not be mutuels tellers onsite for wagering.