by Tod Marks
The 2023 Saratoga steeplechase season begins with a bang on Wednesday with the Grade 1 $150,000 A.P. Smithwick Memorial handicap at 2 1/16 miles, a race that’s drawn a competitive field of nine as well as an international array of visiting riders.
Leading the list of contenders for the Smithwick, one of two Grade 1s at Saratoga, is Keystone Thoroughbreds’ Noah and the Ark, longshot winner of the G1 Lonesome Glory at Aqueduct last September, who proved his defeat of the mighty Snap Decision while getting a big break in the weights was no fluke. In his following start at level weights, Noah and the Ark kicked in late and got up for second to eventual Eclipse Award winner Hewick in the American Grand National at Far Hills, the most significant hurdle race in the U.S. Though he contended before fading to fifth in the longer 3-mile Iroquois in Nashville in May, Noah and the Ark is the starting top weight (158 pounds) in the Smithwick, giving away six to 18 pounds to his rivals. Regular rider Harrison Beswick has the mount for trainer Todd McKenna.
Trainers Keri Brion and Hall of Famer Jack Fisher each saddle two challengers in Upland Flats Racing’s Freddy Flintshire and Atlantic Friends Racing’s Historic Heart (Brion) and Sonny Via’s Welshman and Riverdee Stable’s Gordon’s Jet (Fisher).
In two career Spa starts, Freddy Flintshire, who gets the services of 2022 leading rider Parker Hendriks, has an allowance victory and close second in the Michael G. Walsh novice stakes. He was the runaway winner of the Queen’s Cup novice stakes this spring, and has both tactical speed and the ability to come from off the pace. Historic Heart, a tough competitor in the novice ranks, was fourth in last year’s Smithwick, and will be ridden by UK-based veteran Danny Mullins, the nephew of legendary Irish conditioner Willie Mullins. Mullins is no stranger to American steeplechasing, having reached the summit when piloting Mr. Hot Stuff to victory in the Grand National at Far Hills in 2017. Mullins is a veteran of 40 NSA starts over seven years. In his most recent ride, at the Iroquois Races in May, he won a handicap aboard Jimmy P. Historic Heart went to the sidelines for a year following the Smithwick, and tuned up for his hurdle return in a maiden special weights turf race on the flat at 1 3/8 miles at Delaware Park earlier this month. Both carry 148 pounds.
Fisher’s duo also pack quite a punch, and seem to be in fine form. Five-year-old Welshman, who was acquired off the flat from trainer Barclay Tagg two years ago, boasts three wins in his past four starts, including the AFLAC Supreme novice stakes at Callaway Gardens last fall and, more recently, the Grade 2 David Semmes Memorial at the Virginia Gold Cup Races in May. In the Semmes, at 2 1/8 miles, he was a convincing two-length winner over Gordon’s Jet, who ran gallantly in his stakes debut following a 120 Ratings Handicap victory at Tryon. Previous to that, he was a four-time winner in Europe. Tom Garner rides Gordon’s Jet (144 pounds); Graham Watters gets the call on Welshman (152 pounds).
A 10-time winner of $364,000, Sharon Sheppard’s Recidean, trained by leading conditioner Leslie Young, was a two-time stakes victor last year, taking the David Semmes Memorial, then closed out his campaign with an emphatic tally in the Appleton hurdle stakes at Far Hills. He began this season with a gutsy second to Snap Decision, but was subsequently non competitive in the Iroquois. Redicean gets a new rider in veteran Robbie Dunne, an Irishman who came stateside recently and rode two races at the summer season opener at Colonial Downs. Prior to that, Dunne made one appearance on the NSA circuit, guiding Macnicholson to a second-place finish behind Moscato in the 2017 Michael G. Walsh novice stakes at Saratoga. Dunne’s biggest win came in the 2015 Scottish Grand National on 25-1 shot Wayward Prince. Redicean has been assigned 146 pounds.
Upland Flats Racing’s West Newton, trained by Ricky Hendriks, was bred by Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth, and has five victories since coming over from England in 2019. The son of Kitten’s Joy has captured his last two starts, including his first stakes, the Van Clief Memorial, at Foxfield in April, though the Smithwick represents a huge step up in class. West Newton carries 144 pounds and Irish jockey Stephen Mulqueen. Mulqueen, who began his NSA career in the spring, has four wins in 17 outings riding for trainer Arch Kingsley.
Irv Naylor’s Belfast Banter (144 pounds), an accomplished hurdler in Europe, is still looking for his first U.S. win. In six NSA starts (all in Grade 1 and 2 competition), the eight-year-old Irish-bred’s best finish was a second to Redicean in the Semmes. He has two thirds in 2023, in the Temple Gwathmey and Semmes Memorial. Cyril Murphy is the trainer and Barry Foley rides.
A wild card in the race is Patrick Merrigan’s Salvino, trained by Patrick Neville and ridden by Gavin Sheehan. Salvino makes the trip from the UK, where he registered one win, in a novice weight-for-age hurdle, and six seconds in 13 career starts. The seven-year-old Irish-bred hasn’t hit the board this year, and this will be his first stakes try. Sheehan is a national hunt jockey and has competed in some of the country’s most storied events, including the Grand National at Aintree and the Cheltenham Festival. The Irishman rode in four jump races at Saratoga in 2016; his last NSA mount was at Colonial Downs in 2019, where he finished second, beaten a nose. Post time for all Saratoga steeplechase races is 1:10 p.m. on Wednesdays. NYRA races are broadcast live on Fox2 TV, with replays available on NYRA website, https://www.nyra.com/saratoga/racing/replays.