NSA season gets off to flying start in Aiken

West Newton © Tod Marks

By Tod Marks

Defying the weatherman, Saturday proved to be a lovely day in Aiken with plenty of exciting races.

Harry Beswick and Ricky Hendriks teamed up for a pair of wins, including a score with Upland Flats Racing’s West Newton in the featured Imperial Cup. Jockey Bernie Dalton also doubled, winning aboard Layton Register’s maiden filly Haint Blue for wife-trainer Kate Dalton, and Jordan Wycoff and Frank Mullins’ Clara Belle for Keri Brion.

Hurricana Farm and Arch Kingsley, who campaigned 2023 Eclipse Award winner Merry Maker, rolled out impressive maiden Chef d’Etat, under Parker Hendriks. And leading 2023 trainer Leslie Young also had a winner with Tom Rice’s Secret Soulmate, ridden by Jamie Bargary.

Here’s the recap:

A win fit for a queen

Upland Flats Racing’s West Newton was due for a big race, and he delivered in the $35,000 Imperial Cup, a stakes race for non-winners of an open sweepstakes.

Coming off a 2023 victory in the Van Clief Memorial at Foxfield, West Newton finished out the campaign with a solid second to the mighty Snap Decision in the G2 Zeke Ferguson at Great Meadow, beaten just 3 lengths.

West Newton, an eight-year-old bred by Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, faced a solid field of four challengers in the Imperial Cup, and he was up to the task. Breaking alertly, the Ricky Hendriks-trainee, ridden by Harry Beswick, controlled the early pace, maintaining an advantage of as much as 5 lengths over Hudson River Farms, Madaket Stables and R and K Racing’s The Insider (Graham Watters).

Heading toward the back straight the final time, West Newton began to be pushed by Sharon Sheppard and Gill Johnston’s Caramelised. Up the backside, Caramelised snatched the lead by about 3 lengths under Jamie Bargary. Coming to the 10th and final fence, Caramelised still had a similar lead, with Del Rio Racing’s Soviet Pimpernel another five lengths behind.

At the last jump, West Newton fought back on the inside, and dug in through the stretch drawing off by 3 1/4 lengths. Caramelised, trained by Leslie Young, was a gallant second, with Soviet Pimpernel, also trained by Hendriks and ridden by Gerard Galligan, closing briskly for the show spot.

For West Newton, a son of Kitten’s Joy, it was his seventh career win.

Hidden Path gets it done in NSA debut

Trainer Ricky Hendriks got the day started with the first of his two victories on the six-race card as Upland Flats Racing’s Hidden Path held on for a half-length score over three rivals in a training-flat contest at 1 1/4 miles.

With Harry Beswick aboard, the four-year-old son of Hard Spun asserted himself the second time around the course, overtaking Tom Rice’s Bee Major, ridden by Richard Boucher, and crossing the wire as Mark Buyck’s hard-charging Memento (Taylor Kingsley) narrowed the gap.

It was Hidden Path’s first start on the circuit following a seven-race career on the flat (for Starlight Racing and trainer Todd Pletcher), that included a pair of wins at Churchill Downs in 2023.

Secret Soulmate stars in $20,000 maiden starter/optional claimer

Tom Rice’s Secret Soulmate, who began his jump racing career last season after a dozen starts on the flat, earned his first NSA victory with a 4 3/4-length tally over Achsah O’Donovan’s Greylover in the season’s first hurdle event.

Like all jump races at Aiken, the race was over 2 1/8 miles and 10 national fences. The six-year-old, trained by Leslie Young, was content to sit patiently in last in the eight-horse field for most of the going. Jockey Jamie Bargary asked Secret Soulmate for run heading up the backside the final time, and the gelding responded, passing leaders Fingal and Greylover, and accelerating with each stride.

Greylover and Graham Watters were second with Shannon Hill Farm’s Evie’s Prince (Harry Beswick) third.

Clara Belle much the best in 110 handicap

Chalk one up for the home team. Jordan Wycoff and his father-in-law Frank Mullins’ Clara Belle, who has divided her time between flat and jump racing the past few seasons, came home a 5 1/4-length winner in the $25,000 handicap for horses rated at 110 or less.

Ridden by veteran Bernie Dalton for trainer Keri Brion, the five-year-old Kentucky-bred daughter of Broken Vow broke alertly and was never headed. Winflower’s Prophets Vision (Harry Beswick) was second while Carrington Holdings’ Bourbon Diversion was third under Parker Hendriks..

Co-owner Frank Mullins is president of the Aiken Steeplechase Association, and there was a big family celebration in the winner’s circle following the race.

Chef d’Etat impresses in NSA bow

Hurricana Farm’s four-year-old son of Ribchester, coming off of three starts and a pair of wins in Europe under the care of Shark Hanlon of Hewick fame, romped by 10 lengths in a $30,000 maiden special weights hurdle for new conditioner Arch Kingsley and jockey Parker Hendriks.

Chef d’Etat broke quickly and maintained a lengthy advantage throughout. His biggest challenge appeared to be avoiding early faller Mr. Jefferson.

Bonnie Rye Stables’ Quid, making his first start in 10 months for trainer Julie Gomena rallied for second under Gerard Galligan. Paul Willis’ Carloun (Graham Watters) was third.

Layton Register’s Haint Blue breaks maiden in first try

After 5 starts on the flat for Keri Brion, the four-year-old French-bred filly Haint Blue made an impressive debut over hurdles for the husband-and-wife rider-trainer team of Bernie and Kate Dalton, looking like a seasoned professional.

With Dalton aboard, the veteran reinsman patiently stalked leader Exculpate in second for most of the race, taking command on the backside the final time around the course. The daughter of multiple G1 winner The Grey Gatsby, a European classic winner of more than $4 million for Dermot Weld, Haint Blue extended her lead through the stretch, with Dalton looking back several times to gauge their advantage.

Exculpate, owned and trained by Arch Kingsley and ridden by Parker Hendriks, hung in gamely for second, beaten 8 1/4 lengths in the $30,000 maiden special weights contest for fillies and mares.  Potter Group USA’s Fox in the Park, who also had a stalking trip, was third.

Brion joined in the winner’s circle celebration with the Daltons and owner Register, with trainer Kate calling the win “a big team victory.”

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