Virginia Gold Cup adds Grade 1 to NSA Calendar

© Tod Marks

By Tod Marks

The new stake coupled with an enriched Iroquois program makes for an unprecedented cross-country racing spectacular with two meets worth nearly $1 million on successive weekends.

The Virginia Gold Cup Association revealed plans for a new Grade 1 fixture to be run as part of the sensational $430,000 card at Great Meadow Race Course in The Plains, Va. on May 4. The $150,000 Commonwealth Cup will be contested as a handicap hurdle stake for four-year-olds and up at 2 1/8 miles over a dozen national fences.

The race creates an unprecedented one-two punch for the National Steeplechase Association, with Grade 1 stakes run on consecutive Saturdays. On May 11, seven days after the Commonwealth Cup, Percy Warner Park in Nashville plays host to the $200,000 Calvin Houghland Iroquois, the centerpiece of the spring calendar. Unlike the Commonwealth Cup, the Iroquois is contested as a weight-for-age event and, at a distance of three miles, making it the longest hurdle stakes of the year.  It’s the first time the NSA has had back-to-back G1s in the spring.

To sweeten the pot and encourage owners and trainers on both sides of the Atlantic to participate in this two-state racing extravaganza, officials in Tennessee have bumped up total purses to $475,000, including two  $40,000 Sport of Kings maiden special weights hurdles and a $45,000 handicap for horses rated at 120 or less (up from $35,000 last season). Other card highlights include the $75,000 Green Pastures novice stakes and $50,000 Margaret Currey Henley filly & mare stakes.

Besides the Commonwealth Cup, which used to be contested as the G2 David Semmes Memorial, there are two additional stakes on the Gold Cup card. The prestigious $75,000 Virginia Gold Cup is one of the foremost timber stakes of the year. The $50,000 Speedy Smithwick Memorial remains a restricted four-year-old stakes over hurdles. The Great Meadow Steeplethon has been rechristened after Semmes, a venerated Virginia horseman and timber racing enthusiast who died in 2009.

NSA Director of Racing Bill Gallo said he hopes the stakes-laden cards will provide extra inducements to European horsemen such as the legendary Willie Mullins (who shipped over Scaramanga to win the 2023 Iroquois) and Irish champion conditioner Gordon Elliott, who also successfully campaigned runners stateside, to make the trip.

“Foreign horsemen won the Iroquois in 2023 and they’ve come over a number of years,” said Iroquois chairman Dwight Hall. “It’s a big, galloping course, the accommodations are great, and they have a great time in Nashville.”

Gallo added that both Great Meadow and Percy Warner Park

are fully irrigated courses and meticulously maintained, which provides perfect racing conditions.

“The creation of the Commonwealth Cup is a natural progression for steeplechasing in Virginia,” said Gold Cup co-chairman and NSA President Al Griffin. The Virginia Gold Cup Association runs significant race meets in both the spring and the fall, and we have worked hard to create enhanced opportunities for the horsemen.  And it is not just Gold Cup. Foxfield (in Charlottesville) is carding an enhanced event this spring as well.

“On the other end of the spectrum, we have created sanctioned racing opportunities at point-to-points with the Old Dominion Hunt, and this year with Blue Ridge Hunt.  With all of the steeplechase racing in Virginia, it was time that we created a Grade 1 racing opportunity in the Commonwealth.”

The announcements of bigger and better programs in Virginia and Tennessee come on the heels of another major development on the NSA circuit. In late November, the Carolina Cup Association said the Grade 1 Colonial Cup would return after an eight-year-hiatus to Springdale Race Course in Camden, S.C., as part of an-all stakes card on Nov. 17.

The addition of the Commonwealth Cup and Colonial Cup gives American steeplechasing a huge boost, providing the sport with much-needed championship-caliber races to help decide year-end honors, specifically, the Eclipse Award. In 2024, there will be a total of seven Grade 1s, with three at the New York Racing Association flat tracks in Saratoga Springs and Aqueduct in Queens, along with the Grand National at Far Hills. That’s the highest number of top-class races in recent memory.

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