The envelope, please
The annual NSA awards gala is back after a hiatus. Be sure to circle January 19 on your calendars.
By Tod Marks, photos by Tod Marks
In a clear sign signaling that the sport is inching its way back from Covid, the National Steeplechase Association will honor the leading horse and human competitors of 2022 at an awards dinner in Baltimore on Thursday, January 19, the first such gala in three years.
The evening event, at the Maryland Club beginning at 6 p.m., will also pay homage to the champions of 2020 and 2021, who were deprived of full-scale public accolades because of restrictions and concerns about the pandemic. Tickets are priced at $150 per person, and can be purchased via the NSA website, www.nationalsteeplechase.com. For information, contact Rosella Hunter, the NSA’s new business manager, at email@example.com. Tickets will go on sale Monday, December 12. Well-known NSA personality Megan Connolly, a familiar commentator at many meets, will be the master of ceremonies.
The recently concluded 2022 season boasted a full slate of meets for the first time since 2019, so there’s plenty to celebrate. Here are the honorees:
Lonesome Glory winner – Snap Decision
Bruton Street-US’ Snap Decision has been so good for so long, and this year he’ll finally get his due as the jumper with the highest earnings. The only two-time Grade 1 winner of the year (Iroquois, Jonathan Sheppard), the eight-year-old Hard Spun gelding, also finished second twice in G1 competition and ended the season with $220,500 in NSA purses. He’s the odds-on choice to be voted the Eclipse Award winner, too, when those ceremonies are held in Palm Beach, Fla., on Jan. 26. Trained by Hall of Famer Jack Fisher and ridden by Graham Watters, Snap Decision registered nine straight wins at one point in his remarkable career and toted 164 pounds – the most weight in a generation – to a smashing 13 ¼-length score at Saratoga last summer.
Leading owner – Bruton Street-US
A partnership of three friends (Mike Hankin, Charlie Fenwick, and Charlie Noell) that had its genesis less than a decade ago, Bruton Street has experienced heady success over hurdles and timber in that short span. The trio captured their first Eclipse Award with Scorpiancer, in 2017, and Moscato in 2020, and are likely to secure their third title with Snap Decision. Bruton Street was also the leading owner in the pandemic-shortened 2020 season. With trainer Jack Fisher at the helm, the stable had 34 starters in 2022, with seven winners, six seconds, and five thirds, and total earnings of $450,750, $27,000 more than the Irv Naylor stable. Besides Snap Decision, Bruton Street campaigned novice champion Proven Innocent, and impressive maiden winners Neotropic and South Mountain.
Leading trainer – Leslie Young
After coming oh-so-close to dethroning 14-time champion Jack Fisher for honors in 2021, Leslie Young notched her first title with an incredible 37 winners, the most since Fisher hit that mark in 2019. Before that, you’d have to go back to 1994 when the immortal Jonathan Sheppard won that many. Sheppard is the only conditioner since 1974 to have had a season with even more winners. Young’s $994,100 in purse earnings was second only to rival Keri Brion, who amassed $1,106,950 – becoming the only trainer other than Fisher to crack the million-dollar mark in NSA history. In all, Young saddled 153 starters, and also had 25 seconds and 19 thirds. Young, who is married to six-time champion rider Paddy Young, has been training on the circuit for 16 years. Her top runners include Ballybristol Farm’s multiple stakes winner Andi’amu, who took his second timber title in 2022, Silverton Hill’s Bodes well, a stakes winner over hurdles who has become the star of steeplethon events over mixed obstacles; Sharon Sheppard’s hard-hitting graded stakes winner Redicean; and timber ace Tomgarrow, the 2021 timber champ, who runs in the colors of Leipers Fork Steeplechasers.
Leading jockey – Parker Hendriks
Talk about a sensational career start. In only his third year on the NSA circuit, teen sensation Parker Hendriks not only rode more winners – and secured more purse money – than anyone else, his total of 25 victories was the highest since Paddy Young’s 27 in 2011. Hendriks, who turned 19 last month, has the pedigree to excel. He is the son of former champion rider and current trainer Ricky Hendriks and Sanna Neilson, the trainer of one of the sport’s greatest legends, McDynamo. He is also the grandson of the late-great horseman Paddy Neilson, and nephew of trainer Kathy Neilson. In addition to his victories, Hendriks also had 15 seconds, and seven thirds, while riding first-call for Keri Brion. His purses, from 96 starts, totaled $730,850, $93,000 more than runnerup Graham Watters. Hendriks piloted stakes winners Historic Heart (Carolina Cup), Iranistan (G2 Temple Gwathmey), French Light (Queen’s Cup), Ljay (Harry Harris), and Molly Fantasy (Montpelier Cup).
Leading apprentice jockey – Freddie Procter
Demonstrating incredible consistency throughout his first season in the U.S., UK-based rider Freddie Procter made the most of his NSA opportunities, securing rides for champion trainer Leslie Young aboard stalwarts including timber champions Andi’amu and Tomgarrow, as well as accomplished veterans Court Ruler, Mercoeur, Perfect Tapatino, and maiden winners Uco Valley, Monbeg Stream, and Boutinniere. For much of the season, Procter’s winning percentage topped 50 percent and he ended the year with a strike rate of 36 percent. Beyond that, he racked up 32 in-the-money finishes in just 50 rides, including 18 wins, 10 seconds, and four thirds. He partnered with Andi’amu for four stakes scores, in the Virginia and International Gold Cups, the Genesee Valley Hunt Cup and the Willowdale Steeplechase. Along the way, he picked up $358,400 in purses.
Novice champion – Proven Innocent
A four-year-old son of Blame, bred in Kentucky by Stuart Janney III, Bruton Street-US’ Proven Innocent began his jump racing career in April at the Queen’s Cup races following five starts on the flat for Hall of Fame trainer Shug McGaughey. And he turned heads from the get-go. Following a close fourth in his debut, the steely gray broke his maiden at the Iroquois Races for trainer Jack Fisher, then finished a troubled second to Freddy Flintshire in a Saratoga allowance. Bet down to favoritism in his next start in another Spa allowance, Proven Innocent prevailed in a spirited duel with Bandua, then faced what seemed like an insurmountable task against 2021 Eclipse Award winner The Mean Queen, making her first and only start of the year in the $75,000 William Entenmann novice stakes at Aqueduct. In the Entenmann, Proven Innocent and Jamie Bargary stalked the champ, gaining a bit of ground with every stride through the lane, and nipping her at the wire at 9-1. In his final start of the year, the Harry Harris stakes at Far Hills, Proven Innocent came up a bit flat to finish third at even money, but had already secured his place in NSA history.
Filly & Mare champion – Down Royal
At eight years old, Joseph Fowler’s Down Royal has been formidable since her NSA debut back in 2017. Stakes placed at age three, she signaled she was ready for bigger conquests with a blowout score in a handicap against males in the spring of 2021 at the Queen’s Cup races. But it was following her next start, a close second to eventual Eclipse Award winner The Mean Queen in the Margaret Currey Henley Stakes at Nashville that Down Royal reached a new plateau for the trainer-rider team of Kate and Bernie Dalton, who bred the mare they affectionately call “Princess.” After that impressive effort, the New York-bred daughter of Breeders’ Cup Classic winner Alphabet Soup and the Dalton’s mare Miss Crown reeled off four straight stakes victories, two of which came in 2022, including the Henley, which gave Bernie Dalton his 100th career victory. However, the best was still yet to come, as Down Royal earned her first Grade 1 in the A.P. Smithwick at Saratoga then put an exclamation point on the season with another open stakes score against males in the G2 Zeke Ferguson at the International Gold Cup Races in October. Her overall record for the year: Three wins in four starts and $165,000 in earnings.
Timber champion – Andi’amu
It’s rare for a horse to return from an injury layoff of nearly two years, and rarer still for that horse to come back in top form at the highest level of competition. It’s even more remarkable when that comeback involves a 12-year-old. Yet, Ballybristol Farm’s Andi’amu overcame all of those obstacles to put together his second championship season under the careful handling of Leslie Young. He previously took the title in 2019. Ridden by Freddie Procter in five of his six starts (and all four victories), Andi’amu made his first start since June 27, 2020 in the Middleburg Hunt Cup in late April, finishing second to rival Storm Team. With a race under his belt, Andi’amu romped in the $100,000 Virginia Gold Cup in May by 23 lengths, then scored by 16 in the Willowdale Steeplechase a week later. Following another second to Storm Team at Shawan, Andi’amu won the Genesee Valley Hunt Cup by 12 lengths. He closed out the year with a dazzling 10-length victory in the $75,000 International Gold Cup, a race that put him over the half-million-dollar mark in his 45-race career that began in 2012. With the title, Andi’amu joins Doc Cebu, Bubble Economy, Saluter, Dosdi, Fort Devon, and Jacko to repeat (at least twice) as timber champion.
Leading three-year-old – Topic Changer
There aren’t many opportunities for freshman jumpers, but three-year-old Topic Changer made the most of his two starts, which took place within a two-week span in late fall. A New York-bred son of Flintshire, Jordan Wycoff and Frank Mullins’ Topic Changer made the transition to steeplechasing after five starts on the NYRA circuit. Making his debut at Aiken, the Keri Brion-trainee broke his maiden by 4 ½ lengths, then prepared for a showdown in the season finale at Charleston with Irish invader The Insider, who was coming off a 17-length triumph in his only U.S. start, the Gladstone Stakes at Far Hills. In the Alston Cup at Charleston, Topic Changer was miraculously able to avoid a mishap at the last fence that eliminated his two nearest foes, including The Insider, and sprint clear by 13 lengths as one of only two finishers. The victory wasn’t pretty, but it was enough to cement the title.
Tribute to previous winners
Also on the Jan. 19 agenda will be awards to the champions the previous two seasons, both of which were shortened due to the pandemic.
The 2020 titlists include Leading owner Bruton Street-US; jockey Gerard Galligan; trainer Jonathan Sheppard (his 25th and final title).
The 2021 list includes Lonesome Glory, Novice, Filly & Mare, and Eclipse Award winner The Mean Queen; owner Buttonwood Farm; jockey Graham Watters; apprentice jockey Skylar McKenna; trainer Jack Fisher; timber horse Tomgarrow; three-year-old Realist.