Weekend doubleheader to jumpstart NSA season

The 2022 Aiken Spring Steeplechase. ©Tod Marks

by Tod Marks

The National Steeplechase Association Spring campaign gets underway Saturday in South Carolina at Aiken’s sprawling new showcase racecourse on Richland Avenue, while the Mid-Atlantic timber season begins with a family-fun day at Cheshire in Pennsylvania on Sunday. Both events will be streamed live for free on the NSA website.

Steeplechase racing resumes this weekend after a four-month winter break, beginning with a six-race card in Aiken on Saturday and four sanctioned timber contests as part of the Cheshire Hunt Races in Unionville, Pa., on Sunday.

The meets are two of 16 on the National Steeplechase Association Spring calendar, which consists of approximately 75 races across seven states with purses totaling $2.335 million, about $300,000 more than last Spring.

First run in 1930, the Aiken Races have launched the season since the Little Everglades in Dade City, Fla., ended its run in 2009. And this year, Aiken takes on added significance. The Fall meet, run over the same course on Nov. 18, will replace Charleston as the 2023 finale, and serve as host of the National Steeplechase Association’s year-end awards gala honoring the sport’s champions.

Saturday’s card, which offers $125,000 in prize money, consists of the featured $35,000 Imperial Cup, a Sport of Kings hurdle stake for four-year-olds at 2 1/16 miles; a $30,000 handicap for horses rated at 120 or less; $25,000 maiden hurdle; $20,000 handicap for horses rated at 110 or less; $15,000 maiden starter hurdle for horses that have been entered for a claiming price of $20,000 or less on the flat or over fences; and a training flat race. Post time is 1 p.m.

Both of last year’s two top two trainers, leading conditioner Leslie Young, and Keri Brion, will be represented on the card. Brion, in particular, has a bevy of runners, saddling eight including all three entrants in the Imperial Cup. The field may be small in size, but it’s packed with up-and-coming young talent.                                                                 

Hudson River Farms, Madaket Stables, and R and K Racing’s The Insider was the runaway 17-length winner of the prestigious Gladstone stakes at Far Hills in October. The Insider was poised to lock up the sophomore crown as top three-year-old in the season finale, the Alston Cup at Charleston, but lost all chance in a spill at the final fence that also took out Jordan Wycoff’s filly, Clara Belle. Like The Insider, Clara Belle, who was making a strong bid before the mishap, looks to avenge that loss at Charleston to Topic Changer, who returns to prove that his victory was no fluke. Topic Changer, who runs in the colors of Wycoff, Upland Flats Racing, and Frank Mullins (who is president of the Aiken Steeplechase Association), gets the services of regular rider Barry Foley. For Topic Changer and Foley it’ll be like old homecoming as the duo teamed up for a maiden victory over the course last fall. Leading 2022 jockey Parker Hendriks rides The Insider, while veteran reinsman Bernie Dalton pilots Clara Belle.

For complete Aiken entries, click here.

And at the 76th Cheshire Races…

A full day of action is scheduled for Sunday in Pennsylvania, where 11 races are on tap at Mr. Stewart’s Cheshire Foxhounds Point to Point at Plantation Field. The four sanctioned contests, all over timber at three miles, include the $15,000 Cheshire Bowl allowance; $10,000 Louis Neilson III allowance for apprentice riders; and two $10,000 maiden races. The sanctioned races begin at noon.

The rest of the day’s events, which will take place before and after the sanctioned contests, include pony races, a lead-line trot, flat races, a side-saddle field master’s chase, and a timber race.

The Cheshire Bowl is shaping up as a corker of a race that has drawn a talented field of six, led by the remarkable Mystic Strike. Now 14, Upland Partners’ durable seven-time stakes winner of more than $300,000, is coming off an emotional score in the Pennsylvania Hunt Cup in November, a race he captured for the third time since 2019. Gerard Galligan rides for trainer Todd McKenna.

Though his connections toyed with the idea of retiring their star, McKenna said the Smart Strike gelding was out hunting earlier in the week and is doing “amazing.”

“‘I hate to compare horses to humans, but if we did we would have to say he’s a bit like Tom Brady; retirement is not an option,” McKenna quipped. “Imagine if Tom retired at the expected retirement age of footballers, he would have missed five of seven Super Bowl wins!”

With nice weather in the forecast for Cheshire, which is a local meet for Mystic Strike and his connections, the trainer made it his starting point for the season. If all goes well, he might make one or two additional starts this spring.

Mystic Strike’s five opponents are veterans, and most have enjoyed their own moment or two in the spotlight. Kiplin Hall’s Renegade River upset champion Schoodic in the 2019 Willowdale Stakes, while The Hundred Acre Field’s Cracker Factory bested Mystic Strike and Storm Team, a duel stakes winner last season, in the National Sporting Library & Museum Cup at the Virginia Fall Races in Middleburg in October. Ballybristol Farm’s Rakhaa makes his first start in more than a year, but was impressive when taking an allowance race by 32 lengths at the Genesee Valley Hunt Races in upstate New York in 2021. His stablemate, Leipers Fork Steeplechasers’ Court Ruler, was a two-time winner over hurdles in 2022, romped by 37 lengths upon switching to timber at Callaway Gardens last fall. Both are trained by Leslie Young. Fat Chance Farm’s Flaming Sword is a two-time allowance winner, with several thirds in stakes competition.

For full Cheshire entries, click here.

This year’s Cheshire meet is being run in honor of Elizabeth Cromwell Bosley Bird. Betty Bird, as she was known, was an accomplished steeplechase trainer, avid rider and foxhunter, professional fashion model, and beloved member of the community. Her accomplishments as a trainer include winning the Maryland Hunt Cup with Marchized in 1954 and Fort Devon in 1976. Fort Devon was also named the NSA timber champion in 1974 and 1975 and was the winner of the 1975 Cheshire Bowl.

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