The jumpers head to Tennessee for the richest and most significant meet of the Spring, while opportunities abound for apprentice riders in Pennsylvania.
by Tod Marks
On the penultimate weekend of the National Steeplechase Association spring calendar, the best horses in training head to Nashville for 82nd Iroquois Steeplechase, a seven-race card – three of which are stakes – worth $445,000.
At 3 miles, the $200,000 Calvin Houghland Iroquois is the longest of five 2023 NSA Grade 1s. And with each horse carrying 158 pounds, it assures that weight won’t be either an excuse or an advantage for the eventual outcome.
The race has drawn a field of eight led by Bruton Street-US’ Snap Decision, who is seeking to become only the second horse to win the fixture three times. Should he win, the Jack Fisher-trainee would stand alone as the only jumper to capture the classic in successive years. Mrs. Michael Sanger’s Uncle Edwin was victorious in 1982, 1985, and 1986.
A 12-time winner over hurdles — including 11 stakes and three Grade 1s — Snap Decision, now 9, would also eclipse the $1 million mark in career earnings. However, he’d still have a ways to go to break the million-dollar plateau as a jumper. To date, his steeplechase earnings are at $702,900.
A finalist for the 2022 Eclipse Award, Snap Decision made his seasonal bow last month in the G2 Temple Gwathmey at Middleburg, his first start in six months following a career low sixth-place finish in the Grand National at Far Hills. Facing four worthy opponents, the Phipps-bred son of Hard Spun was again asked to concede weight — from 12 to 18 pounds — under the Gwathmey’s handicap conditions, and neither the layoff nor impost mattered, as Snap Decision, under Graham Watters, won handily by nearly four lengths.
Lining up to face the Snap Decision, who has been made the 7-5 morning line favorite, are five familiar faces and two unknowns, one of whom is a European invader trained by legendary Irish conditioner Willie Mullins. Mullins has made one previous trip to the Iroquois, in 2016, finishing second and third with Shaneshill and Nichols Canyon. On Saturday, Mullins saddles Malcolm Denmark’s Scaramanga, an eight-year-old son of Mastercraftsman, who will be ridden by Mullins’ top jockey Paul Townend. Townend is a six-time Irish jump racing champion rider who has partnered with Mullins for three winners of the world’s most important jump race, the Cheltenham Gold Cup. Scaramanga is a five-time winner over hurdles and most recently finished a solid fourth (beaten just 10 lengths) in the Coral Cup Handicap Hurdle at the Cheltenham Festival in England in March. Townend has never ridden Scaramanga and the horse has been in Mullins’ barn for only his past three races. He’s listed as the 4-1 second choice.
The other NSA newcomer is Gill Johnston’s Irish-bred Mortlach, also age 8, who is trained by Willie Dowling. A seven time winner – mostly in novice hurdle and steeplechase competition in the UK – the son of Yeats is 15-1 on the morning line. Tom Garner rides.
A 10-time winner of nearly $370,000, Sharon Sheppard’s Recidean (10-1), trained by leading conditioner Leslie Young, who is off to a lightning start this season, was a two-time stakes victor last year, and closed nicely to finish an unthreatening second to Snap Decision in the Gwathmey.
Keystone Thoroughbreds’ Noah and the Ark engineered the biggest upset of 2022 with a 41-1 off-the-pace romp over Snap Decision in the G1 Lonesome Glory at Aqueduct while getting a 28-pound break in the weights. The Todd McKenna-trainee followed it up with a second at level weights to eventual Eclipse Award winner Hewick in the Grand National at Far Hills, proving that his defeat of Snap Decision was no fluke.
Jack Fisher also saddles Riverdee Stable’s City Dreamer, a three-time NSA novice stakes winner and stakes placed in open competition. Over his long career, the Irish-bred has earned nearly $300,000, and is coming off a second in the G2 Van Clief Memorial at Foxfield several weeks ago. City Dreamer won the Marcellus Frost novice stakes at the 2019 Iroquois races Jamie Bargary rides the 15-1 contender.
Irv Naylor’s Scorpion’s Revenge, who quickly advanced from maiden to novice stakes competition last year, won the Jonathan Kiser at Saratoga and finished third in the Michael G. Walsh. He, too, exits the Van Clief, where he rallied to be beaten a nose by West Newton. Barry Foley has the mount for trainer Cyril Murphy. He’s at 10-1.
Upland Flats, USA Steeplechase, and Del Rio Racing’s Ask Paddington (8-1), trained by Keri Brion and ridden by UK-based veteran Danny Mullins, – the nephew of Willie Mullins – was a nine-time winner in Europe, and finished third in his NSA debut in the Lonesome Glory last fall. He was no factor in the Gwathmey, his first start of the year.
The two other stakes on the day are the $75,000 Green Pastures Sport of Kings novice stakes and $50,000 Margaret Currey Henley filly and mare stakes, both at 2 1/4 miles and both attracting top talent.
Five are entered in the Green Pastures, led by Upland Partner’s Freddy Flintshire, the morning line choice at 6-5, who recently had a 15-length win in the Queen’s Cup novice stakes over Riverdee Stable’s maiden winner Cool Jet, who returns in the Green Pastures. Michael Smith’s The Hero Next Door, the 2-1 second choice, is undefeated in two career starts. He broke his maiden by 19 lengths at the Carolina Cup, then prevailed by a length and a half in a tough allowance contest at Middleburg. Graded-stakes placed Going Country, who runs in the colors of Madaket Stables and The International Venture, stumbled over a jump in the Grade 2 David Semmes Memorial at the Virginia Gold Cup Races last weekend. Bruton Street-US’ 2022 Novice champion, Proven Innocent tired to finish fourth in his spring debut, in the Queen’s Cup.
The Henley has eight prospective starters, with R and K Racing’s Molly Fantasy the lukewarm 2-1 favorite off of her victory in the Montpelier Cup filly and mare stakes in November. She wasn’t a factor in an open 120 handicap at Tryon to kickoff her 2023 campaign in April. Joseph Fowler’s Met in Miami was installed as the 3-1 second choice off of a score in an open maiden contest. Met in Miami has the same connections – Fowler along with trainer Kate and jockey Bernie Dalton – as last year’s Henley winner and champion mare Down Royal. Owner-trainer Arch Kingsley’s Cainudothetwist ran a bang-up second to Ziggle Pops in a 115 handicap at the Queen’s Cup and is at 4-1. Riverdee Stable’s Fits the Jill got up in time to break her maiden at the Old Dominion Hounds meet a month ago, while Upland Flats Racing and Jordan Wycoff’s Clara Belle faced top three-year-old males Topic Changer and The Insider in the Imperial Cup stakes at Aiken to kick off the season, finishing a decent second to the latter.
Potter Group USA and Ashwell Stable have two starters in the Henley for trainer Leslie Young. Right Tempo, 8-1, has a pair of career starts, defeating stablemate and hard-charging closer Fox in the Park by less than two lengths in a maiden event at Middleburg. Fox in the Park, still looking for his first career victory, is listed at 15-1.
Owner-trainer Kathy Neilson has an intriguing starter in Bercasa, who won two handicaps in Ireland before coming stateside in 2019, where she made two starts before going to the sidelines for a year and a half. She made her most recent trip to the post in the 2021 Henley, where she finished third (beaten less than six lengths) to Eclipse Award winner The Mean Queen and Down Royal, then went to the sidelines again for another two years. This is her first start since then.
The remainder of the card includes the $35,000 Bright Hour handicap for horses rated at 120 or less at 2 3/4 miles; two divisions of the $30,000 George Sloan & John Sloan Sr., maiden hurdle at 2 1/4 miles; and the $25,000 Mason Houghland Memorial allowance at 3 miles over timber.
Post time is 1 p.m. Central time. For complete entries, click here.
And at Willowdale: A feast for timber and hurdle runners
While Iroquois is a major race meet filled with pomp and pagentry, the beauty of the Willowdale Races in Kennett Square, Pa., rests with its relaxed country-fair atmosphere.
Six races worth $105,000 are on tap, with the eponymous $35,000 Willowdale Steeplechase timber stake at 3 1/2 miles anchoring the event. The feature has drawn only four starters, one of whom has gone from maiden to allowance to stakes winner in three races. In putting together that streak, Tuscany Racing’s Monbeg Stream, trained by Leslie Young, defeated eventual Maryland Hunt Cup winner Withourmoreado in the My Lady’s Manor stakes last month. Kiplin Hall’s Renegade River captured the Willowdale Steeplechase two years ago – his last trip to the winner’s circle – and was a determined second to Monbeg Stream at the Manor.
Kinross Corp’s Great Road was pressured but managed to hold on in an allowance score at a shorter distance at the recent Grand National Races. Fat Chance Farm’s Flaming Sword has been running against the likes of Andi’amu, Mystic Strike, and Storm Team, and gets a class break. But in his seasonal bow at Cheshire in March, he was eased against allowance company.
The remainder of the card consists of two timber and three hurdle events:
The $10,000 Liam Magee hurdle for non-winners of a stakes race in 2022-23, at 2 1/4 miles restricted to apprentice riders; $15,000 Folly maiden claiming hurdle at 2 1/4 miles; $20,000 Rose Tree Cup handicap hurdle for horses rates at 110 or less; $15,000 Landhope Cup timber maiden at 3 miles; $10,000 Marshall W. Jenney Memorial Foxhunter’s Chase for non-winners of a stakes race in 2022-23, at 3 miles restricted to apprentice riders.
Post time is 1 p.m. Eastern time. For complete entries, click here.
If you can’t make it to the races, both meets will be streamed live, courtesy of sponsor Brown Advisory, at www.nationalsteeplechase.com.