Editor Joe Clancy previews the steeplechase season as it swings into motion with classy trio at top of stakes division.
As close as the battle for the 2012 steeplechase championship was, with the Eclipse Award decided by 16 votes between Pierrot Lunaire and Demonstrative, the 2013 version might be even tighter.
The leaders return. They’re in their primes. They’re headed in the same direction. And they’ll have company as 2011 champion Black Jack Blues (Ire) returns after missing most of 2012 recovering from an injury.
“It’s a great group,” said Brianne Slater, who trains the latter for leading owner Irv Naylor. “Demonstrative is going to be tough. Pierrot Lunaire really stepped up last year. Black Jack is doing really, really well. It should be fun, a fun spring.”
In February, all three were loosely targeting the Grade 1 Iroquois in May, richest stop of the spring for the National Steeplechase Association at $150,000. The 2012 protagonists could renew their rivalry in the Temple Gwathmey at Middleburg, Va., in April, while Black Jack Blues will likely head to the Iroquois, in Nashville, Tenn., off training and a flat race or two. Like the hit television show of the same name, the city will be packed with drama come Iroquois time?–?especially if all three show up for the 3-mile classic.
Until proven otherwise, the championship picture revolves around them. Others dot the periphery, including several in Slater’s barn, but none are as accomplished.
Pierrot Lunaire won the 2012 Eclipse based on two races late in the year. Mary Ann Houghland’s runner stopped a three-year losing streak when he won the Lonesome Glory-G1 at Belmont Park in September, then backed that up with a powerhouse stretch rally in the Grand National-G1 at Far Hills, N.J., in October. Trainer Blythe Miller Davies chose to avoid the Colonial Cup in November, in favor of another month’s rest for 2013. Like all steeplechasers, he did little in December and was gradually back in work by January. He’ll do the bulk of his training in Pennsylvania with Davies’ father Bruce Miller, and then travel back and forth to Maryland for some finishing touches. Davies and her husband, Joe, live in Monkton on the farm once owned by Hall of Fame trainer Sidney Watters Jr. Pierrot Lunaire did much of his serious workouts last fall in a big field at the farm, and Davies likes what she sees.
“Dad had been losing land to gallop on up there, or access to it,” Davies said. “I showed him this field, talked to him about what we could do. We didn’t know it was going to work, until we saw how fit the horse got off it. They really are great gallops.”
They’re as much co-trainers as anything, with Pierrot Lunaire putting in plenty of miles in Pennsylvania for Bruce and shipping to Blythe in Maryland, where she puts him through more strenuous work on the farm’s hills?–?turning back time to the father/daughter partnership that produced Hall of Famer Lonesome Glory in the 1990s.
“It just evolved, it’s not that dad needed me, we just worked together,” she said. “It was fun when Dad brought him down here, I had to get on (the horse) and it worked out best. The horse just got better, we’re not sure why. He didn’t have to improve. After last year, we have something to gauge it on, since we’ve been training here and after seeing the way he ran off here.”
Like Pierrot Lunaire, Demonstrative won two Grade 1 stakes in 2012?–?taking the New York Turf Writers Cup at Saratoga in August and the season-ending Colonial Cup in November. He finished behind Pierrot Lunaire in the Grand National and was scratched as the favorite for the Lonesome Glory when jockey Robbie Walsh was injured a race earlier. Without Pierrot Lunaire, Demonstrative turned in the performance of the year with a last-to-first stretch rally in the Colonial Cup?–?THE reason for the narrow Eclipse vote.
Since then, Jacqueline Ohrstrom’s stable star chilled in Virginia for the first part of the winter before heading to Camden, S.C., with half of trainer Richard Valentine’s string. He called his horse an easy keeper.
“He’s such a simple horse,” Valentine said. “I’m surprised how easy he is on himself, he’s so easy and uncomplicated, until he gets on the racecourse, then he’s too keen, he reeks of class, you don’t really notice him in the barn because he’s not needy, he’s just another horse.”
Champion 3-year-old jumper of 2010, Demonstrative won twice that year and has risen through the ranks since with $326,300 in earnings. Valentine continues to learn about the son of Elusive Quality.
“He thrives on work,” the trainer said. “He could work every fourth day and still put his head in the tub and eat. I’d like to kick off the rust and run him at Middleburg (in the Gwathmey), it’s one of our local meets and it’s a very important race.”
Valentine will consider the Iroquois after that, though may lean toward waiting for the summer and fall.
“He’ll pick up weight from last year, but he’s a big strong horse and can carry weight,” Valentine said. “We’ll run him in the Gwathmey and see where he goes from there. He’s limited where we can run him, we should probably think about a more aggressive summer and fall campaign than a spring campaign.”
After bursting on to the scene with two electric, late-season wins and a championship in 2011, Black Jack Blues kicked off 2012 like a champion should?–?taking down the Carolina Cup in March. The win improved the import’s American mark to 3-for-3 and left plenty of options. Then he got hurt, trainer J.W. Delozier got replaced and the season was lost. Hired last fall, Slater took over the deepest barn in the game at Naylor’s Maryland base and went to work getting to know the facility, the horses, the system of new recruits and old standbys. In February, she counted 24 horses in the barn, another four at Fair Hill Equine Therapy Center and four more in Europe waiting for the signal from America.
The group in Maryland includes major winners Black Jack Blues, Via Galilei (Ire), Tax Ruling, Decoy Daddy (Ire) and You’re the Top (Fr) plus stakes performers Pullyourfingerout (Ire), Nearby (GB), Charminster (Ire) and Organisateur (Ire) and classy 4-year-old Top Man Michael (Ire). Slater likes what she sees, and also likes the feeling of comfort she’s getting in the job.
“I got thrown into the deep end a little, didn’t know the horses, didn’t know the place that well, but it’s a great opportunity,” said the former assistant to trainer Sanna Hendriks. “With a new year, you can start from scratch, get a better perspective on where to ride, what each horse is like. I’m starting them up my way. It’s nice to start from scratch and build something.”
Black Jack Blues rates as one of the best on the circuit if all goes well. “He’s all racehorse and loves doing his job, just wants to do his job,” Slater said.
“He’s not as little as I thought he was, a real classy horse to be around. He’ll go to Nashville off a flat race or two, he’s proven he’s a really good horse.”
Beyond the big three, the stakes division looks deeper than in recent history.
Divine Fortune steps back into the upper level for trainer Jonathan Sheppard and owner Bill Pape. The Pennsylvania-bred finished second in three Grade 1 stakes last year – the Iroquois, the Grand National and the Colonial Cup. He’s a good yardstick against Pierrot Lunaire and Demonstrative?–?losing to the former by three-quarters of a length in the Grand National and the latter by a length in the Colonial Cup. The 10-year-old was training in Pennsylvania with many of Sheppard’s steeplechasers.
Five-year-old Alajmal made his case for becoming a Grade 1 horse with a third in the Colonial Cup for trainer Janet Elliot and owner Greg Hawkins. The son of First Samurai started 2012 as a steeplechase maiden, and won twice?–?meaning he still has novice conditions and the options they provide.
Trainer Jack Fisher won two fall races with 2012 steeplechase rookie Dahoud (NZ) last year, meaning owner Gill Johnston’s 7-year-old could be a spring force in that division.
Early Timber Look
As usual, two goals highlight the spring for timber horses and they’re almost always separate. Horses aim for the last Saturday in April for the Maryland Hunt Cup, or the first Saturday in May for the Virginia Gold Cup. Everything else flows around the 4-mile classics.
Hunt Cup contenders for 2013 include the usual suspects. Trainer Billy Meister expects to return with two-time race winner Twill Do among others. Dawn Williams looks to make another go at the big one with Bon Caddo, who won the Gold Cup in 2011 and finished third in the Hunt Cup in 2012. Last year’s Hunt Cup runner-up Battle Op looks to go one better for young jockey Connor Hankin and new trainer Fisher.
On the Gold Cup side, last year’s winner and timber champion Incomplete went to the sidelines late with tendon trouble so he likely won’t be heard from early. Heir apparent Grinding Speed looked like a rising star, including a victory in the International Gold Cup late in the year, for Murphy.
Out And About
• With help from the Naylor/Slater barn, Ross Geraghty will try to repeat as champion jockey. His 2012 crown came as much from a handful of victories from other clients, so expect the Irishman to be busy. Paddy Young won three crowns (2009-11) before losing all chance at a fourth when he went to the sidelines early with a broken arm and missed half the year. Robbie Walsh looks to bounce back from a broken hip that cost him October and November in 2012, while reuniting with the quality stock in Valentine’s barn. Veterans Brian Crowley and Matt McCarron retired in 2012, leaving some space at the top, and opening doors for others including Darren Nagle, who should get plenty of mounts from Sheppard.
• Jack Fisher won his sixth training crown in 2012, but could face more competition this year?–?with Slater and Valentine in charge of bigger stables, in addition to the usual challenges from Sheppard and Voss. Valentine has finished second in each of the past two seasons, and could muscle his way into the championship conversation in 2013.
• The schedule underwent a slight facelift with some condition changes and stakes shuffling among the novice, filly/mare and open divisions, but otherwise looks familiar. The season gets an unofficial new start with the first Charleston Trials in Charleston, S.C., March 17. The St. Patrick’s Day event will help local organizers test the reality of a spring meet (with some association help) and give horses an early prep along with the traditional slate of point-to-points in Virginia, Maryland and Pennsylvania. The races carry no purses and do not count on a horse’s official record. They will be run under NSA rules, including pre-race veterinary examinations and pre- and post-race testing.
The season starts for real at Aiken, S.C., March 23 and progresses through the usual stops in Camden for the Carolina Cup March 30, where the feature will be a novice hurdle stakes (it was an open race in 2012). Racing continues every weekend through May 25 at Fair Hill in Maryland. Kentucky’s High Hope meet has been shelved for 2013, as organizers hunt for a permanent location. Colonial Downs hosts a new steeplechase meet called the Dogwood Classic April 6. The card replaces the old Strawberry Hill meet on the calendar and offers purses of $70,000. In all, the spring calendar includes 20 stops and more than $2 million in total purses. As usual, the stakes-filled Iroquois card headlines at $400,000 in purses for the day.
The Virginia Gold Cup meet will include pari-mutuel wagering for the first time, bringing a little something different to the event, which attracts a crowd estimated at 50,000 each year. The racing program, under the supervision of the Virginia Racing Commission, will include $200,000 in total purses with betting via tote
• Ill-fated steeplechaser Arcadius, who collapsed and died after winning the 2012 Iroquois, will be honored with a bronze at the race course this year. Created by artist Alexa King, the half-size sculpture of the horse at a walk will grace an old loading ramp in the barn area and provide a fitting tribute to the heartache of 2012 and the multiple Grade 1 winner. Owner Ed Swyer commissioned the work of King, who also produced the sculpture of Barbaro at Churchill Downs.
“It will be dedicated to all those folks who tried to save his life and for that matter the lives of all horses who compete in the sport,” Swyer said. The statue will be placed on a sandstone base with an inscription, and officially dedicated in a ceremony the day before this year’s race.
• In response to some incidents last year, the NSA created a Safety Task Force to study the sport and its many variables. The group has met several times, exchanged a myriad of ideas and debated a number of issues. Early decisions will be a chance to test some fence modifications (with a lower frame and a slightly higher brush portion) at Charleston in March and enforce tighter barn security measures at several stops on the circuit. Steeplechasing is known for its openness and accessibility for fans, but that will change at the Virginia Gold Cup, Iroquois and Far Hills meets (at least) in 2013 with restricted barn areas and tighter veterinary protocols.
In addition, some restrictions have been put in place for apprentice jockeys and horses can now be placed on a more formal stewards’ list for poor jumping, starting problems or other performances.
“The conversations have been great,” said Dwight Hall, a task force member. “It’s a dynamic group. Everybody is really contributing. We’re looking at many, many, many things and it has to help.”
The task force came to be after what seemed like a higher incidence of falls and injuries in 2012 – including a race with five fallers at Belmont Park in September.
• The 2013 racetrack schedule should look similar to 2012, with a few modifications. Steeplechasing plans a nine-race program at Saratoga (the same as in 2012). The Colonial Downs schedule has been trimmed to one day (June 8), though that is softened somewhat by the Dogwood Classic in April. Other summer stops were being planned for Parx Racing and Penn National. The Saratoga Open House, a traditional mid-July stop since 1987, has been shelved.
Longtime steeplechase newspaper Steeplechase Times joins with Mid-Atlantic Thoroughbred for 2013. For more jump-racing news, see www.steeplechasetimes.com and www.midatlantictb.com.