By Tod Marks
The marquee race on the summer steeplechase calendar — a contest that often has championship implications — takes center stage on Wednesday at Saratoga. The $150,000 Jonathan Sheppard Stakes, previously run as the New York Turf Writers Cup and rechristened in 2021 in honor of the legendary Hall of Fame conditioner, has attracted Bruton Street-US’ imposing Snap Decision, along with seven other competitors, most of whom will be getting a substantial break in the weights from the heavy favorite.
The Phipps-bred eight-year-old son of Hard Spun is a 10-time winner over jumps, and is three-for-three over hurdles at the Spa. But victory won’t be easy. Snap Decision, who romped in the G1 Iroquois in Nashville in May and tuned up for the Sheppard with a close third in the $150,000 Colonial Cup turf stakes at Colonial Downs in Virginia on the flat on July 27, will be giving away 11 to 24 pounds to his rivals over the 2 3/8-mile test, including 21 pounds to Joseph Fowler’s hard-knocking mare Down Royal, recent winner of the G1 A.P. Smithwick at Spa. Snap Decision carries 164 pounds.
Trainer Keri Brion, who saddled 2021 Eclipse Award winner The Mean Queen to victory in last year’s Sheppard, is skipping the race with her champion, who has yet to start this season following her recovery from a minor injury. Brion said the main target for the seven-year-old Irish-bred mare is a run at the prestigious Cheltenham Festival in England next year, and she’ll be preparing for the race with a winter campaign overseas.
“We are picking out spots this fall carefully not to over race her and to put ourselves in the best position heading overseas,” Brion said of The Mean Queen, who made eight starts last year, winning six. “She has nothing left to prove in this country, so I’m hoping to fulfill some dreams for myself and the Moorheads (Buttonwood Farm owners Rod and Alice) on the road to Cheltenham.”
The remaining seven runners who will take on Snap Decision include Gillian Johnston’s newcomer Song For Someone, trained by Leslie Young. The seven-year-old German-bred, who carries 153 pounds, makes his U.S. debut following seven hurdle victories in Europe for trainer Tom Symonds. Among those wins are a pair of Grade 2s, one at Ascot and another at Cheltenham.
“He is a very classy horse,” Young said. “He was to a point in the handicap (ranks) where they felt he started to struggle. He maybe needed a change of scenery. He is a class act at home. Lovely to be around. We are so appreciative of Gill to take a shot with him. If we can find his form he had a year or so ago we will be in the action. He is doing everything right so far. We are still learning about him. I am hopeful if he runs his race he will be in the shake up. He might need this race; we shall see.”
Young also saddles Sharon Sheppard’s Redicean, winner of the G2 David Semmes Memorial at Great Meadow in May, who ran well in the Smithwick and was on the lead after 1 3/4 miles, only to tire. He finished second in the 2020 running of the Turf Writers Cup.
Trainer Kate Dalton wheels back Down Royal following a thrilling stretch duel with Irv Naylor’s Chief Justice in the Smithwick on July 20. In that contest, the eight-year-old New York-bred daughter of Alphabet Soup prevailed by a neck to earn her first Grade 1 and fourth straight stakes race. Chief Justice, a two-time National Steeplechase Association stakes winner after a successful career in the UK, returns for another crack at Grade 1 glory. Cyril Murphy, who trains Chief Justice, is also sending out his Naylor stablemate Belfast Banter, an Irish-bred seven year-old, who finished second to Redicean in the Semmes Memorial in his NSA debut, which came after a six-month layoff.
Looking to regain his winning form is Blue Streak Racing, Meta Horse Racing, and CFC Stables’ Going Country. The Keri Brion-trainee is a two-time 2022 winner, but takes a giant step-up in class. He broke his maiden at Tryon, followed by an allowance victory at Middleburg. Going Country then finished third in the Green Pastures novice stakes in Nashville, and on Aug. 3 got up for third after struggling with his jumping in the Jonathan Kiser novice stakes at the Spa. Irish jockey Danny Mullins crosses the Atlantic for the ride.
Brion is also taking a shot with Atlantic Friends Racing’s Historic Heart, a five-year-old Irish-bred veteran of European racing who was impressive in his first three NSA starts, taking the Harry Harris four-year-old stakes at Far Hills last fall and the Carolina Cup novice stakes in Camden, S.C. this spring. He also finished a sharp second in the Aflac Supreme novice stakes at Callaway Gardens in November. He was a DNF in the Iroquois and wasn’t a factor in the Sheppard.
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NYRA races are broadcast live on Fox2 TV, with replays available on NYRA website, https://www.nyra.com/saratoga/racing/replays. You can also live stream via the NSA website, www.nationalsteeplechase.com.