Iroquois & Willowdale recap

“Snap” reasserts his dominance, Andi’amu wins back-to-back stakes; Dalton earns his 100th victory, and Leslie Young bags five on the penultimate weekend of the NSA Spring season.

Snap Decision and Graham Watters win the Iroquois Steeplechase. ©Tod Marks

By Tod Marks

Saturday’s steeplechasing doubleheader at the Iroquois in Nashville, and Willowdale Races some 800 miles away in Kennett Square, Pa., offered a half-million-dollar feast for jumpers at every level of the sport. With 13 races and nearly a half-million dollars in purses on the line, the two meets drew 79 hurdle and timber entries from maidens, claimers, and ratings handicappers, to novices, allowance, and stakes stars, looking to increase their bankrolls as we head into the summer season at the flat tracks.

The centerpiece of the weekend, of course, was the $150,000 Iroquois at Percy Warner Park, the only Grade 1 of the spring. At three miles, the Iroquois is the longest hurdle stake on the circuit, an endurance test of a horse’s ability to handle both the distance and searing heat. And it was a fair fight since all seven starters carried equal weight of 158 pounds. In the end, it was one of the sport’s most accomplished stars who asserted his dominance in the race for the second straight year.

With Graham Watters riding for Hall of Fame trainer Jack Fisher, Bruton Street-US’ Snap Decision stalked Anthony and Mark Speelman’s European invader Pistol Whipped, and jockey Nico De Boinville, from the break, sitting in second outside the leader up, down, and around the course for the first two and a half miles. Heading into the final turn, Watters stepped on the gas and the big bay assumed command with consummate ease over a game Pistol Whipped, widening his margin through the lane to score easily by 7 ¼ lengths. Irv Naylor’s Amschel, who finished second to Snap Decision in last year’s Iroquois, was third, 2 ¼ lengths behind Pistol Whipped, with 2020 Eclipse-Award winner Moscato, Snap Decision’s Bruton Street stablemate, fourth.

“Saturday’s Iroquois was a great day for American steeplechase racing,” reflected Bruton Street co-owner Michael Hankin two days after the race. “While (wife) Ann and I were at our daughter’s graduation from a doctoral program on Saturday, I was able to visit the course Friday morning. What I saw then made me even more excited about the future of American steeplechasing. The course at Percy Warner is always in great condition – but Dwight Hall and team took it several steps better. Many of the familiar faces were there, including representation from overseas. It was also terrific to see several new owners represented on Saturday. A number of trainers and owners have worked hard to bring in people who are owners for the first time. It’s what needs to happen for there to be a healthy future for our sport.

“I’ve always thought this was important as it raises the bar for us and, frankly, makes it that much more exciting for us to compete against trainers like Nicky Henderson (Pistol Whipped’s fabled British conditioner) and Gordon Elliott and jockeys like Nico de Boinville and Davy Russell. It will take not just the top race on the card to get back to pre-Covid purse levels but the undercard races as well. A ton of credit goes to the entire race committee at Nashville for making this happen.

“Nothing was better on Friday morning though than to see Snap Decision and Moscato come out for a jog around the course. Jack Fisher clearly had them ready and, while we were nervous for sure, we knew that they each had a good chance.”

To those who thought Snap Decision might have lost a step or two following two second-place finishes to Buttonwood Farm’s The Mean Queen, and in the Temple Gwathmey at Middleburg last month when he finished behind Hudson River Farm’s Iranistan after conceding 14 pounds to the winner, Hankin had this to say:

“A lot has been said and written about whether Snap Decision had lost his higher gear. Racing is a tough sport and winning nine in a row, I think, made us all forget that even the top horses don’t win every time out. There are lots of good horses out there and Pistol Whipped, Iranistan, The Mean Queen and Amschel will win on any given day. It wouldn’t be racing without the competition. I know how much work and thought other owners, trainers and jockeys put into this sport; on Saturday, it was just great to see it come together again for Snap. He is our once in a lifetime horse.”

But the day was equally rewarding for Hankin and Bruton Street, when Proven Innocent, a lightly raced steel gray four-year-old son of Blame out of an A.P. Indy mare, captured the $40,000 George & John Sloan Sr. maiden hurdle, with son Connor Hankin in the saddle.

Making his seasonal bow and only second start over hurdles, Proven Innocent sat well back in the field of nine for much of the going, then rallied along the inside in the long uphill grind to the final fence. That’s when Proven Innocent and Hankin snatched the lead and extended it to 3 ¾ lengths at the finish. Gill Johnston’s Bickley was second.

“Seeing Connor out there on Proven Innocent was really special for Ann and me,” Michael Hankin said. “He loves this sport and we haven’t quite figured out how he has found the time or energy among his U.S. Marine Corps schedule to make it happen; it’s pretty humbling to watch. We are very grateful to Jack and our Bruton Street co-owners to support his interest in racing again.”

Racing fans will recall that Connor Hankin was an NSA rider from 2010 to 2016, before joining the Marines. Since returning to limited action in April 2021, Connor has had 18 mounts, notably in timber events, and recently finished second in the $100,000 Virginia Gold Cup.

Clear “Vision” in the Bright Hour

The day got underway with a popular win by local owners, Leipers Fork Steeplechasers, whose Fast Vision romped by 7 ½ lengths in the $25,000 Bright Hour handicap for horses rated at 115 or less for jockey Harry Beswick and trainer Leslie Young. It was one of two winners on the card for the trainer, who also captured three at Willowdale in Pennsylvania. 

The French-bred four-year-old was fourth in his U.S. debut in the Gladstone hurdle stakes for three year olds at Far Hills last fall to Ben Griswold’s buzzsaw named Realist. He followed up that effort with a second at Charleston to close out the season, and after running seventh at Middleburg in April, was primed and ready on Saturday. After an unhurried fourth for the first two miles, Fast Vision took the lead from Jeffrey Morris’ Shaka on the far turn and was an easy winner.

“Scorpion” gets his revenge in novice stakes

With a purse of $75,000, the Green Pastures is one of the richest novice stakes of the year, so it’s no surprise that the connections of the top up-and-coming hurdlers circled this event on their calendars. The field of seven drew Paul and Molly Willis’ Boulette, coming off of two smashing wins in lower-level events; Blue Streak Racing, Metahorse Racing, CFC Stables, and The International Venture’s Going Country, another two-time 2022 winner who was forced off course while making a big move in the G2 David Semmes Stakes at Great Meadow; Holwood and Port Lairge Stable’s Decisive Triumph, a close third in the Carolina Cup and closer second in the Queen’s Cup novice stakes; Leipers Fork Steeplechaser’s Drewscourt, an optional claiming allowance winner at the Queen’s Cup; and Sonny Via’s Welshman, a runaway maiden winner in his U.S. debut at Foxfield. 

But the victory went to Irv Naylor’s Scorpion’s Revenge, an Irish-bred six-year-old who has quietly captured three of his five career outings. With Barry Foley riding for trainer Cyril Murphy, Scorpion’s Revenge trailed by as much as 40 lengths behind the blistering pace set by Boulette. When new leader Decisive Triumph took charge, Scorpion’s Revenge took aim, collaring the leader over the last and drawing clear by 3 ¼ lengths.

Bernie Dalton’s 100th NSA win came in the Henley. ©Tod Marks

“Princess” gives Dalton a milestone win in the Henley

It’s hard to imagine any horse giving more pleasure to its connections than Down Royal. The eight-year-old nearly white New York-bred daughter of Alphabet Soup out of the mare Miss Crown, is affectionately called “Princess” by her breeders, jockey Bernie Dalton and his trainer-wife, Kate. The Daltons, who also campaigned her dam, and owner Joseph Fowler have watched the mare blossom into a star who has now won three straight distaff stakes: the Randolph Rouse at Colonial Downs, the Peapack at Far Hills and, now the $50,000 Margaret Currey Henley in a hard-fought battle to the wire with Del Rio Racing’s new acquisition Burn the Evidence, making her first NSA start, for the powerhouse European trainer-rider duo of Gordon Elliott and Davy Russell.

For Bernie Dalton, the victory was his 100th since launching his NSA career in 2004. Over the years, Bernie has ridden plenty of good ones including Diplomat, Pierrot Lunaire, Red Letter Day, Belisarius, Cat Feathers, Italian Wedding, Bluegrass Summer, African Oil, and Orchid Princess.

Monbeg Stream is the first winner over Percy Warner Park’s new timber course

John Greene’s Monbeg Stream is a horse to watch. The six-year-old, trained by Leslie Young, has made only four starts, all over timber, but aside from losing his rider in a maiden at the 14th fence at last year’s Pennsylvania Hunt Cup Races, the Irish-bred has been a solid and steady performer. Following his debut at the Virginia Fall Races in 2021, when he was beaten less than a length by the much more seasoned First Friday, Monbeg Stream scored by 15 to break his maiden at the My Lady’s Manor Races in April. On Saturday, with Tom Garner aboard, he came back to defeat a fine field of allowance runners in the $25,000 Mason Houghland Memorial at Iroquois.

Sitting behind Armata Stable’s Chosen Mate, the pacesetter, Monbeg Stream took over when the leader fell at the 15th fence, and prevailed over Boudinot Farm’s Elusive Exclusive, also trained by Young, by 2 ¼ lengths.

The 3-mile race was run over a new timber course donated by Leiper’s Fork Steeplechasers owners, Mark McMillan and Mark George, in honor of Brown McMillan. The course features new rails that are safer for horses and riders.

“This is a big deal for our family and the rest of the team at Leiper’s Fork Steeplechasers to donate this timber course in honor of my father, Brown McMillan,” Mark McMillan said at the time of the ground-breaking last year. “To leave this legacy for my father and improve the very event he cared so much for is such an honor for the Leiper’s Fork Steeplechasers.” The namesake of the timber course, Brown McMillan, was a long-time supporter of the Iroquois Steeplechase.

Andi’Amu and Freddie Procter lead Withoutmoreado and Skylar McKenna over the water in the Willowdale Steeplechase. ©Jim Graham

And at Willowdale…

By any measure, Ballybristol Farm’s Andi’amu is a remarkable comeback story. Out for 20 months with a tendon injury, the 2019 timber champion finished second in his comeback race in the Middleburg Hunt Cup, then last week reached the summit once again, taking the $100,000 Virginia Gold Cup at Great Meadow over tough competitors including Schoodic, Storm Team, and 2021 timber champ Tomgarrow. On Saturday, the 12-year-old, trained by Leslie Young and ridden by Freddie Procter, made it to the winner’s circle for the 12th time in his career, rolling to victory by 16 ½ lengths in the $35,000 Willowdale Steeplechase Stakes. Irv Naylor’s Withoutmoreado, an 11-length winner of the Winterthur Bowl timber allowance last week, was second under Skylar McKenna for trainer Kathy Neilson, in the three-horse field going 3 ½ miles.

For Procter, it was another huge day in a storybook beginning to his NSA career. With three more wins on the day, he now has a total of nine victories in 17 starts. He also has five seconds to go along with those wins. Procter currently stands second in wins to Parker Hendriks, who has a dozen. In each of those races at Willowdale, Procter teamed up with Young, who doubled at Iroquois, giving her a total of five victories on the day, and the lead among trainers in wins with 18 (vs. Keri Brion’s 14) and earnings, $397,000 to Brion’s $355,000.

Procter began the day on a high note, guiding Leipers Fork Steeplechaser’s Perfect Tapatino to a win in the $10,000 hurdle for apprentice riders. And that margin of victory was even wider than Andi’amu’s score. Bouncing back from two DNFs in novice stakes competition, Perfect Tapatino grabbed the lead from the Irv Naylor duo of Chetzeron and Chief Justice two hurdles from home, was in the clear on the final turn, and drew off by 19 lengths.

It was a tighter finish for Procter and Sharon Sheppard’s recent British import Mojave in the third, a $15,000 maiden claiming hurdle. In that race, Mojave stalked Greg Hawkins’ Mekong and edged clear in the stretch by 3 ¾ lengths, with Daddy’s Cozy, owned and trained by Danielle Hodsdon, closing well for the place spot. 

Like Procter, young rider Teddy Davies, fresh off his first triumph in the Maryland Hunt Cup with Armata Stable’s Vintage Vinnie, was a three-time winner at Willowdale. Davies struck first in the fourth, a $20,000 handicap for horses rated at 110 or less, with Riverdee Stable’s Twenty Years On for trainer Jack Fisher. Twenty Years On, who finished second in similar company at Tryon, sat well off the pace early, moved up to third on the final circuit, was in command two fences from home, and finished 31 lengths in front of Potter Group USA’s Don’t Shout.

Davies gave Buttonwood Farm’s The Silent Trainer his first win in six tries in a $15,000 maiden timber event, prevailing by 1 ¾ lengths in a long stretch drive with Elizabeth Korrell’s Tiepolo, who hung in gamely after leading nearly the entire 3-mile distance under Virginia Korrell. Keri Brion trained the winner. Davies finished out the day by guiding Armata Stable’s Our Friend to a score in the $10,000 apprentice rider timber race at 3 miles, collaring Ballybristol Farm’s Mercoeur at the final fence, then driving clear by about 6 lengths at the wire. Joe Davies trained Our Friend.

The only other victory on the card went to Colin Smith, who steered Jennifer Pitts’ mare Lear Avia to the front in the $15,000 maiden claiming hurdle for trainer Todd Wyatt. Nineteen lengths behind was pacesetter Taking the Lead Stable and Dark Horse Racing’s Seville Barber. In her previous start, Lear Avia ran second in a maiden special weights hurdle at Middleburg won by Kicking Myself, who on Saturday finished third in the $50,000 Margaret Currey Henley filly & mare stakes Nashville to Down Royal. 

Full results for both race meets can be found HERE.

Teddy Davies, who had three wins on the day, was joined in the Willowdale winner’s circle by his grandfather, trainer Bruce Miller. ©Jim Graham

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