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 Editorials

Thoughts from our editor, Joe Clancy. For archived editorials click here.

Dear steeplechase owners and trainers, you’ve been doing it wrong. Hit the rewind button. Start over. Go back to the proverbial drawing board.

And get a new horse. A horse like Snap Decision.

For most of its history, America’s jumping sport relied on Thoroughbreds who – for one reason or another – didn’t make it on the flat track. They weren’t fast enough to be stakes horses. Their pedigrees went a bit too far on the stamina side. They weren’t necessarily motivated to try their hardest until somebody put some obstacles in the way. Farm life suited them better than racetrack life. Something, somewhere, somehow clicked when they shifted gears and tried something new.

For proof I give you Good Night Shirt, McDynamo, Flat Top, Lonesome Glory and Flatterer – the last five truly great American steeplechasers (sorry everybody else going back to the mid-1980s). Four are in the Hall of Fame, with only Flat Top missing out on that honor because soundness issues shortened his career. All tried flat racing to one extent or another. Good Night Shirt won twice. Same with McDynamo. Flat Top only ran three times, and didn’t get close. Lonesome Glory never did start from a gate, but he was headed that way for a time. Flatterer, the only one of the bunch to race for his breeders, collected four wins before trying jumps for the first time.

Combined, they won 16 Eclipse Awards and earned $4,295,858 racing in the U.S. over fences. Trainers used to scout for such horses, and buy them as prospects. They used to develop them. They used to succeed with them. Then everything changed. Flat owners and trainers grew reluctant to sell, dreaming of big purses even for lower-level horses. Jump owners and trainers wanted a faster process, and looked abroad to England and Ireland (mainly) for ready-made horses. They are bred, schooled, prepped, pointed and raced in a healthy, productive jump-racing industry. Foreign trainers, agents and sales companies were happy to source horses – there are thousands in the game, with more on the way all the time, and purses (on an individual race basis) are comparatively weak. Selling makes sense. Also partly fueled by the American use of anti-bleeding medication Lasix, the shift brought horses with form to American jump racing and resulted in six foreign-bred champions from 2015-20.

None turned out to be truly great. All missed time with injuries. And of that group of six, three are retired, one is a timber horse and two are on the shelf with injuries.

And now we have Snap Decision, an old-fashioned American steeplechaser in a new time who just might start changing minds. He was bred by the Phipps Stable, whose connection to jump racing goes way back to the heyday of stars owned by Mrs. Ogden Phipps and trained by Mikey Smithwick and Pete Bostwick. The old rose silks won championships with Straight and True, Top Bid, Mako, Ancestor, Neji and Oedipus. All were bred in America. All raced on the flat (Straight and True in France).

Snap Decision won twice on the flat for trainer Shug McGaughey, made a few stakes starts and even traded jabs with future Horse of the Year Bricks and Mortar before leveling off and losing 11 consecutive starts from August 2017 to November 2018. Scouting for horses sired by Hard Spun because of some success with timber horse Doc Cebu, steeplechase owner Charlie Fenwick saw Snap Decision and made an offer. Phipps and McGaughey said OK. The $75,000 price tag wasn’t cheap, but it certainly fit with what American owners pay for English and Irish horses with form.

Racing for the Bruton Street-US partnership of Fenwick, Mike Hankin and Charlie Noell, Snap Decision finished second in his first two hurdle starts in spring 2019. He hasn’t lost since – rattling off nine in a row and piling up $368,400 in steeplechase earnings (nearly double his flat earnings by the way). In June, the 7-year-old tied Thrice Worthy’s modern-day record for consecutive American steeplechase victories with a facile triumph in the Grade 1 Iroquois. The field of six included horses bred in England, Ireland and France, all imported with jump form and none as good as the lone American-bred who galloped away from them.

The field behind him, other than Irish star Footpad (who fell) would never be confused with superstars but that’s not Snap Decision’s fault. He can only outrun those lined up against him and he’s beaten everyone over parts of three seasons. Faced with the task of tackling handicap conditions (and a likely weight assignment of 165 pounds or more) at Saratoga, trainer Jack Fisher opted for a freshening with October’s weight-for-age American Grand National the ultimate target. Irish and English raiders (so not even horses American owners imported) have won the last two runnings of the Grade 1, with foreign-breds taking four of the last five, and new ones will likely return this year.

Tell them they have to beat the American.

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