In honor of Joe Clancy's birthday, here is his first story published in Mid-Atlantic Thoroughbred magazine, March/April, 1996
American steeplechasing is about to jump --- headlong --- into its second century. The 1996 season starts March 23 at Aiken, and there promises to be much worth watching.
A great deal has changed in the steeplechasing world since the last horse walked off the course in the final race of the 1995 season. For starters, the National Steeplechase Association (which turned 100 years old in 1995) recently voted to approve the use of Lasix at its race meets. Add in optional central bookkeeping, a Steeplechase Triple Crown, a year-long graded stakes series, an amateur/apprentice jockey program, new rules to determine timber and novice champions, and you have a revamped sport.
Most of the regular players should be back in 1996. But don't count on the same results. In 1995, the champion owner (Kay Jeffords) and trainer (Jonathan Sheppard) weren't assured the titles until the final day of the season. Those races will likely be just as competitive this year. The sister/brother duo of Blythe and Chip Miller topped the jockey standings in 1995, and both will return with plenty of live mounts.
Defending Eclipse champion Lonesome Glory returns from England (where he went 1 for 2 over steeplechase fences) with new targets and ---surely --- new rivals. Another year like 1995 and he could challenge Victorian Hill as steeplechasing's leading earner. Over timber, Saluter goes for his third consecutive NSA title, while Buck Jakes aims at a second Maryland Hunt Cup victory.
The times finally caught up with American racing's only medication-free jurisdiction as the NSA added the anti-bleeding medication Lasix to its rulebook. With so many jumpers converted from the flat game, and Lasix use so prevalent there, steeplechasing had little choice.
Horsemen, through the Steeplechase Owners and Trainers Association, lobbied for Lasix at a December meeting of the race chairmen. The race meets favored adopting Lasix, and the NSA board of directors concurred. The final decision on the medication's use lies with individual race meets, but all 24 spring meets will allow Lasix.
"The topic was one our horsemen and race meets wanted us to explore, and we spent a lot of time debating the issue," said William L. Pape, NSA president. "The concerns of some meets regarding the reactions of charitable beneficiaries and corporate sponsors encouraged us to leave the ultimate choice on the Lasix with the meets."
Though results of the new medication rule remain to be seen, Lasix could help the NSA's declining horse population. In 1991, a record 745 horses started over jumps. That number decreased to 637 in 1995.
Final regulations regarding the medication's use have not been set, but the NSA explored many options. There won't be a Lasix barn, and much of the medication's control will be in the hands of horsemen. Sophisticated drug tests will ultimately police the program.
"For the purist, I'm sure Lasix is a setback," said Charlie Colgan, NSA executive vice-president. "But so many horses we race come from the flat track that it makes it difficult for our owners and trainers to go out and confidently buy a horse to make into a jumper."
Sheppard, a trainer and NSA board member, agreed.
"There will be an immediate impact because there are trainers with horses that bleed right now," he said, "and now we'll know we're doing everything we can to help the horse. There's still no guarantees, because in this game a horse can be worth $50,000 one day and diddley squat the next, but the trainer's job is easier and the owner's position is more stable."
Along with its Lasix request, SOTA pushed for a horsemen's bookkeeper. The NSA responded, and 17 spring meets will participate in t new purse payment/entry fee system.
The program gives owners a more direct relationship with the NSA in that entry fees (1.5 percent of the purse) will be paid directly to the association. Purses at participating meets will be paid from the national office. In turn, the NSA waives its fees for administrative services, drug testing and travel to the race meets.
Runners' Reward --- no entry fee to horses who don't earn a portion of the purse --- applies in all races at participating meets and should save owners money.
"There are some encouraging signs for horsemen heading into 1996," says Bill Gallo, NSA racing secretary. "Based on some statistics we have kept, we've shown a leveling off of purses and a decrease in the number of participants. We've made some positive strides that should help reverse those trends."
Racing will have a different look, thanks to the NSA graded stakes series, in which horses competing in 12 graded stakes from March through November will accumulate points toward a final series champion. The series includes five Grade 1 races (each worth at least $100,000): the Atlanta Cup, Iroquois, New York Turf Writers Breeders' Cup Grand National and Colonial Cup. Three races carry Grade 2 status, while four were awarded Grade 3.
On a similar note, three spring race meets linked their stakes to form the Steeplechase Triple Crown, a three-race mini-series over five weeks in the spring. The Atlanta Cup starts the triple on April 6, followed by the $75,000 Temple Gwathmey (Grace 2) at Middleburg on April 20 and the Iroquois on May 11. The horse who sweeps all three earns a $100,000 bonus.
Steeplechasing tries to bring back some of its past with a new amateur/apprentice rider program. Funded by the National Steeplechase Foundation, the program injects $50,000 into the spring purse structure by encouraging meets to card races restricted to amateurs and apprentices. Ten races carry such designations in the spring.
The program is designed to help return the amateur segment to a sport once filled with "gentlemen" riders.
"If you look at some of the people who have made an impact in this sport ---Charlie Fenwick, Mason Lampton, Russell Jones, Turney McKnight, George Sloan, George Strawbridge, John Griggs, and so many more --- they all had their interests piqued by the fact that they could ride in races," said Colgan. "We've lost that for a variety of reasons. The amateur/apprentice program will work; it's just a matter of degree."
Finally, two awards get new twists in 1996. The timber championship, formerly decided on a points system, will go to the horse who earns the most money over timber throughout the year. The NSA will recognize an official novice hurdle champion, the horse who starts the year as a maiden and earns the most money.
Old faces, new goals
Only one horse --- Flatterer --- owns four steeplechase Eclipse awards. Considered by many as the top U.S. jumper in history, Flatterer may have company unless someone finds a way to stop three-time champion Lonesome Glory.
There should be plenty of contenders.
Jefford's 8-year-old gelding will likely miss the earliest spring assignments, thanks to a winter spent in England. Expect a return in time for the Iroquois, or possibly the Gwathmey, which carries a $25,000 purse increase this year. Then again, the Steeplechase Triple Crown could lure Lonesome Glory to Atlanta.
"He'd have to come back with some fire for us to think about Atlanta," said trainer Bruce Miller, "but the reason I brought him home was he's got a whole lot more to do in this country."
Look for some big efforts, no matter which direction Lonesome Glory takes. "Lonesome Glory is part of the excitement right now --- flat racing has Cigar and we have him," said Gallo. "Getting to watch him will be a major, major treat for anyone."
Trainer Jonathan Sheppard will bring R.D. Hubbard's 10-year-old Mistico (Chi) back for another season. Winless last year, but a game second (beaten a neck) to Lonesome Glory in the Turf Writers, Mistico should benefit from a weight shift of the handicap and from the Atlanta Cup's new allowance conditions.
Another threat to Lonesome Glory's throne is Rowdy Irishman, winner of the 1995 Breeders' Cup Grand National. Trained in Tennessee by Bruce Haynes, Vesta Balestiere's 7-year-old will likely point to the Iroquois's inviting three-mile distance and irrigated turf course.
Veteran Victorian Hill returns to the wars once again. At age 11, the sport's leading money-earner ($747,170) may have lost a step, but look for another year of stout tries.
"He's no older in his mind," said trainer Janet Elliot.
Lonesome Glory's half-sister Strawberry Angel (who started three times in England over the winter) jumps to the open stakes division after a strong novice campaign last year. She will miss most of the spring and be pointed for Saratoga.
The long list of extras features such names as Crown Royal Stakes victor To Ridley, Carolina Cup winner Mr. Yankee (NZ), former novice champion Irish Approach, veteran Circuit Bar and a host of others.
In the timber division Buck James and Saluter will continue their rivalry from afar as the former goes after a second straight Maryland Hunt Cup and the latter looks to extend his Virginia Gold Cup skein to three.
Owned by Arcadia Stable, Buck Jakes broke Ben Nevis II's Hunt Cup course record with a dazzling nose win over fellow gray Florida Law in 1995. Trainer Charlie Fenwick expects even more from his stable star, the only horse to defeat Saluter in 1995.
"He will be on the same schedule as 1995 with a point-to-point start in April, the Grand National and then the Hunt Cup," said Fenwick. "Everything got a little easier for him by the fall of last year and I've seen him grow and mature as a timber horse."
Saluter approached perfection in 1995, winning six of seven starts over the boards. With 12 career wins (to go with just three defeats) and more than $200,000 bankrolled, Ann Stern's 7-year-old tries to extend his greatness in 1995. Expect a similar schedule --- with the Virginia Gold Cup his primary goal --- in 1996.
The ever-popular novice division will recognize its first official champion in 1996. Predicting that winner is like trying to handicap the 1997 Preakness, but keep an eye on early spring maiden races.
The novice race division extends invitations to more seasoned competitors including three-time 1995 winner High Card from the Bruce Miller barn and double winner Stop and Listen (Rusty Carrier). Both broke their maidens in the spring of 1995, but will get a chance to star in the three Sport of Kings spring novice stakes at Atlantic, Iroquois and Hard Scuttle.
Nineteen-ninety six --- an election year --- features several strong incumbents, as champions Blyth Miller (jockey), Jonathan Sheppard (trainer) and Key Jeffords (owner) return with sound qualifications for longer terms.
Miller eyes her third consecutive championship after becoming the first rider to win 30 races in a single season since John Cushman in 1983. She brings plenty of ammunition to the fray, essentially riding for the sport's two leading trainers --- Jonathan Sheppard, and her father Bruce Miller.
Blythe splits rides for the latter with younger brother Chip, who was second in the 1995 standings with 23 victories. Coming off the best year of his career, Chip should have an even easier time finding winners in 1996.
In other jockey news, Sean Clancy returns after missing the final three weeks of 1995 with a wrist injury. Clancy, second in the 1994 standings, will again ride for Jack Fisher.
Veteran jockey Colvin (Greg) Ryan needs seven winners to reach the exclusive 100-win club. Look for him to partner Circuit Bar in spring stakes like the new Marcellus Frost, a two-mile handicap at the Iroquois meet.
Trainers battled until the final day in 1995 as all-time leader Sheppard edged two-time runner-up Fisher, 27 to 26. That duo, along with spring leader Tom Voss, vollied with the top spot for much of the year.
Expect an even deeper stable from Sheppard, who usually responds to challenges with dominant years (after losing his title in 1991, he ran away with the 1992 crown). Not that the trainer, winner of 21 of the last 26 titles, plans on a big year. "The horses are all a year older --- and so's the trainer," he said. "I have a few horses coming back, but most of them are the same old group and I can't expect much."
Don't believe him.
Fisher, second in each of the last two years, should get plenty of victories from timber champion Saluter, but also expects big returns from budding board star Dusty Corners, stakes contender To Ridley, novice Robber Ramble and 4-year-old Sunset Falls. Timber horses Navy Pilot and Tarsky return from layoffs.
Fisher's neighbor Tom Voss won a host of maiden events last year, and should be in line to do so again, with ten first-time starters in his crowded 35-horse stable.
"I've got a lot of them, that's for sure," said Voss, who started 1995 with 20 horses. "I bought some horses at the Belmont horses of racing age sale, and should have some others coming on." Stable star Cold Beauty won three times in 1995 and will be tough in the right spot. Petroski wound up 1995 with an allowance win at Charlotte. Voss has two horses for the Maryland Hunt Cup: two-time runner-up Florida Law and Welter Weight. The latter jumps to Voss from the stable of Joe Gillet, who is taking a hiatus from steeplechasing in order to pursue other business ventures.
Pennsylvanian Bruce Miller should again vie for the trainer championship on several fronts. Last year he placed third in the races won category with 21, and won the money title with just under $500,000. And he did it all while winning races at a nearly 40 percent clip.
Miller's stable overflows with talent. In addition to Lonesome Glory and Strawberry Angel, he has 3-year-old champion Beau Centavo and three-time winner High Card. There are also several on the comeback trail including 1994 winners Grenade and Anzac Cove, and stakes-places Cheering News.
Elliot, fifth in 1995 with 15 victories, brings back several familiar names and a few new ones for the 1996 season. Prepped for a return are Hallalujah I'mabum, a novice stakes winner in 1994; and Correggio (Ire), who was second in his only U.S start (a 3-year-old stakes) in 1994. Other potential starters include 1995 Carolina Cup winner Mr. Yankee (in late spring or summer), a New Zealand import All in Grey and a timber convert Dancingontestimony.
Charlie Fenwick's Maryland stable should again be busy, thanks to some recent acquisitions and the development of several promising horses from 1995.
Buck Jakes takes most of the attention, but hurdle winners Water Skipper, Halomatt and Bet on Rain lead the stable along with newcomers such as Mumblemood (a promising 2-year-old in 1995) and Warm Wayne. The latter, a graded stakes winner on the flat, will make his first start over hurdles this spring for new owner Dogwood Stable. Dogwood, which campaigned 1987 steeplechase champion Inlander (GB) with Fenwick, purchased Warm Wayne from the Due Process Stable dispersal and expects big things from its first serious foray into the sport in recent years.
Look for owners Kay Jeffords and Bill Lickle to renew their rivalry in 1996. "I approach it like a business and then I keep my fingers crossed and hope for some luck," said Lickle, who keeps his horses with trainers Elliot and Ricky Hendriks. "The plan last year was to be leading owner, and we didn't quite make it. We'll try again."
Jeffords, whose stable could be compared to a small corner grocery store competing with Lickle's far-reaching chain-store type conglomerate, edged out her heavily-stocked rival last season by less than $7,000. Jeffords focuses on homebred talent and comes up with new stars every year.
Maryland-based Arcadia Stable, part of the Fenwick contingent of owners, enjoyed a rousing season in 1995, winning seven races and over $142,000. Buck Jakes leads the way, but novices Water Skipper and Halomatt should also make some noise.
Pennsylvania owner Irv Naylor completed his busiest season with seven wins and $111,111 in earnings last year. Naylor's stable found success in the spring with big wins by Woody Boy Would, Tarsky and Chirkpar. All were on the sidelines by the end of the year, but look for Naylor's colors (he employs multiple trainers) in the winner's circles.
Owners, trainers, jockeys, officials --- and perhaps even the horses --- may wonder what got into their sport, with all the changes on the horizon. But many will doubtless agree with Lickle, who said, "I was glad to see some of those changes; I was concerned about the sport. You can't be an island unto yourself and expect to be successful."