If Mount Everest cards a steeplechase, Scorpiancer will look up and start running. He’s that game, that competitive, and proved it – again – last Saturday with a complete dismantling of five foes in the $200,000 Iroquois at Percy Warner Park in Nashville, Tenn.
The Irish-bred collected his second Grade 1 victory since being imported by the Bruton Street-US partnership and trainer Jack Fisher in 2015, improved to 2-for-2 this season and established himself as the horse to beat in the open stakes division in 2017. What’s more, the 8-year-old Scorpion gelding qualified for the TVV Capital Challenge which awards a $500,000 bonus to a horse who can sweep the Iroquois and England’s Stayers Hurdle at the Cheltenham Festival in March.
Fourth in the 2016 Iroquois, Scorpiancer (Sean McDermott) blasted the 2017 version. He shadowed Andi’amu (Ross Geraghty) early, drew alongside after about 2 miles and galloped away on the backstretch the final time. Eight lengths clear with a half-mile to go, Scorpiancer widened it to 10 in the stretch and 16 in the finish. Hinterland finished second, 40 lengths clear of Andi’amu. The others – Martini Brother, Mr. Hot Stuff and 2015 steeplechase champion Dawalan – were pulled up.
McDermott improved to 3-for-4 (with a second) aboard Scorpiancer, and predictably loved the trip.
“I just saw Ross twitch a bit and his horse changed his legs and he turned on the tap just for the first furlong but we didn’t quicken off that,” McDermott said of the final run up the backstretch. “Scorpiancer just went by Andi’amu and sickened him. He made him throw in the towel. (On the turn), he actually twitched his ears and had a look around and thought, ‘Am I done?’ I took a long look and couldn’t believe how far in front I was so I gave him a breather.”
From there, it was merely pop two fences in the stretch and keep galloping. Scorpiancer, coming off a win going 2 1/2 miles in the Temple Gwathmey April 22, thrived at the distance. Dawalan, making his first start since a championship campaign in the autumn of 2015, was pulled up after jumping a fence poorly on the backside. This year’s Stayers Hurdle winner, Irish-based Nichols Canyon, scratched the week of the race after being injured in transit – though McDermott would been confident regardless of who showed up.
“I actually wanted Nichols Canyon to come today because I wanted to take him on,” the jockey said. “I just thought this horse had had a clean preparation. Dawalan was coming back off an injury. Hinterland, who’s very high class, is coming off an injury and it was his first try over 3 miles which was a bit of a question mark. I was relishing the challenge.”
Scorpiancer would have been tough to handle, as he won for the sixth time in 16 career starts over jumps. In the U.S., he’s won five of 11 and finished worse than second just twice (fourth in the 2016 Iroquois and third in the 2016 New York Turf Writers Cup). The $120,000 payday lifted Scorpiancer’s career earnings to $455,360.
It’s been a long road for the bay gelding. Bred by Mary O'Connor, he went through the sales ring three times – first as a foal at Tattersalls Ireland in November 2009. He failed to sell for 4,800 euros. Nearly three years later, he went from O'Connor to Eugene O'Sullivan for 26,000 euros at Goffs Land Rover Sale as an unbroken 3-year-old. O’Sullivan unveiled Scorpiancer at Kildorrery Point-to-Point in February 2014. He won and impressed everybody over 3 miles in heavy ground.
O'Sullivan sent him to Brightwells Cheltenham Sale in 2014 and got £200,000 on a bid by Gearoid Costelloe, partner of trainer Rebecca Curtis. Running for Bruton Street-UK, Scorpiancer made his debut under National Hunt rules with a promising second in a Ffos Las bumper in November 2014. He went 1-for-5 over hurdles, his only victory coming in a maiden at Ludlow in the dead of winter.
Then came America. Fisher took advantage of a 124 handicap rating, and a 5-pound apprentice allowance for Connor Hankin, and won a race at Shawan Downs in September 2015. Next came a novice win at Far Hills, a 2016 season with one win, four seconds a third and $217,600 at the top level. This year, Scorpiancer ran down lightweight Portade in the Temple Gwathmey, and delivered a career best in the Iroquois.
“He’s got that very light, athletic build, his wind is 100 percent perfect which is a rarity so, look, if nobody was going to go on I wasn’t going to come here and sit and turn it into a sprint,” said McDermott. “I wanted a stamina test.”
• It’s official. Surprising Soul is no longer a surprise. Wendy Hendriks’ newcomer won for the third time in as many starts this year – taking the $100,000 Marcellus Frost novice hurdle stakes by 2 1/4 lengths over My Afleet with Ice It third. The stakes victory came after a maiden win at Aiken on the season’s first day and an allowance tally at Tryon April 15.
Trained by Hendriks’ son Ricky and ridden by Geraghty, the winner made it look easy in Nashville. He backed off the early pace of Show Court and Ice it, took over leaving the backside the final time and was well clear when the field was waved around the last fence because of an injury to jockey Paddy Young. My Afleet, also 2-for-2 this year coming in, made up a little ground late but was no match for the winner. Ice It, who won the novice at Queen’s Cup, settled for third while Carolina Cup novice winner Show Court finished fifth.
Surprising Soul lost all five flat starts for breeder Chuck Fipke before Hendriks spent $9,000 at the Fasig-Tipton Kentucky mixed sale in February 2016. The bay gelding stayed on the flat with a third at Great Meadow in April, a second at Parx in June and a win at Penn National for a $25,000 tag 10 days later. He was second for $20,000 in September, and made three hurdle starts – two seconds and a fourth – to close 2016.
Geraghty called jumping the key.
“We started jumping him and he loves to jump, loves to jump. He had a few runs in the fall, we got a couple of seconds, a fourth and it was probably brilliant he didn’t break his maiden then,” said the jcokey. “He wintered and he did really well. I think it was mid-January when I first went up to school and this fella was on his A game the whole time.”
Surprising Soul collected $60,000 to raise his earnings to $96,000 this year.
Young missed the rest of the card, but is back in action this weekend.
• Just about when the real running began in the $50,000 Margaret Currey Henley stakes for fillies and mares, Sarah Joyce looked beaten. She’d stuck it out for almost 2 miles, but others in the field of eight were traveling better and they’d surely kick on from there.
One Lucky Lady, who won the 2016 Henley, would be tough as usual. Lightweight maiden Ciboure was loaded. Last year’s champion Get Ready Set Goes might yet summon her kick. All the while, Sarah Joyce (Jack Doyle) kept plugging. She got through on the inside in the stretch, caught One Lucky Lady and beat Ciboure to the last fence. Owned by The Fields Stable, Sarah Joyce won by 3 1/4 lengths. Ciboure, in her hurdle debut, claimed second with One Lucky Lady third.
Bred in Ireland, Sarah Joyce won her second consecutive start (after a handicap hurdle at Queen’s Cup April 29) after losing all three tries last year for trainer Elizabeth Voss.
“She’s really a different filly than she was last year, she’s moving better,” said Voss. “When we first started getting back on her this year, Jack and Bethany (Baumgardner) were like ‘She’s just better, a different filly this year.’ The break, the time, I don’t know. She was just OK in the fall. She’s a brilliant jumper now, and hardy and gritty and all the things you want. I was watching her and thought, ‘Oh we’re getting tired, we’re not going to get there.’ She’s tough, she’s not very big, but she’s tough and that gets them a long way.”
Bred by Thistle Bloodstock, the 5-year-old mare won once over hurdles in Ireland for trainer Colin Bowe before being imported last spring.
• Jockey Mark Beecher calls Cornhusker a “minimalist” when it comes to jumping, which – depending on how you look at it – can be a good thing. The timber veteran measures his fences, precisely, and gets back to running as quickly as possible. The strategy apparently works as Cornhusker won his eighth timber race in the $50,000 Mason Houghland Memorial.
Owned by Armata Stable and trained by Alicia Murphy, the 10-year-old did it with a burst of speed on the final run up the backstretch – much like he did in 2014 and 2015 editions of the Houghland – and rolled from there. He won by 2 1/2 lengths over Syros with Henry San third. Cornhusker was running six days after finishing second at Winterthur and 21 days after winning at Middleburg. The schedule agrees with the son of Dynaformer.
“He’s so good in the spring because you get to run him plenty,” said Beecher. “He loves racing, he loves foxhunting. I think he’s a lot happier in the spring, I’m not saying he can’t run in the fall because he has, but he’s definitely a better horse in the spring.”
One of two winners on the day bred by Juddmonte Farm, Cornhusker has been running over jumps since 2011. He won twice over hurdles, became somewhat famous for sprawling on the ground (and getting up to finish fourth) at Saratoga in 2012 and converted to timber in September 2013. He’s won at the Iroquois and Middleburg three times each, but also jumped around stiffer courses at the Pennsylvania Hunt Cup and My Lady’s Manor.
“He loves this course because you’re always kind of turning, fences come up fast,” said Beecher. “He measures them, barely. He’s so quick over them. Some of the long ones, when he jumped by (the others to the front) that was a long one, but it doesn’t bother him. When you decide to go for one, you’ve got to just send him at it. Put your heart over it and he will follow.”
Winless in five starts on the flat (in France and one forgettable try at Saratoga), Cornhusker has won 10 of 33 over jumps and earned $243,550.
• Fisher, McDermott and Bruton Street started the day with a $50,000 allowance hurdle win with Moscato. The English-bred, a maiden winner at Queen’s Cup, galloped to the front with a lap to go and kicked away coming off the turn to win by 5 1/2 lengths over Lyonell with Strongbox third.
The son of Hernando won five times on the flat with Mark Prescott, tackling long-distance races such as the Cesarewitch, Ascot Stakes, Northumberland Plate and others. Over fences, he made four hurdle starts for Bruton Street-UK and trainer Oliver Sherwood last year and was second twice.
The 6-year-old opened 2016 with a second (beaten a neck) at Charleston before ousting stablemate (and Iroquois maiden winner) Kremlin next out at Queen’s Cup.
“I gave him a tough race at Queen’s Cup a couple weeks ago, but he’s the type who does have a think and I think it helped make a man of him,” said McDermott. “He’s only started shedding his hair in the last week, but if you can come here and finish second and win and start improving, it’s a good thing.”
• Early in the day, trainer Jimmy Day made small talk about the chances for Plated in the $35,000 handicap hurdle and sounded confident despite a pull up in his first start in 18 months at the Queen’s Cup. Three miles should suit, Day said, and that the last race was lost when Plated landed awkwardly a few strides after the fifth fence.
A few hours later, Plated lived up to the chatter – as Plated reeled in pacesetter Classical Art and outfinished All The Way Jose in the stretch to win by 1 1/2 lengths. Race highweight Selection Sunday lost McDermott with a mistake on the backside the final time. Apprentice Brenan Crowley was on board for the win, Plated’s third in 11 starts over jumps.
“He’s an out-and-out stayer,” Day said of his horse. “Even when he won at Saratoga he was doing his best running the last sixteenth and he just galloped. He doesn’t have blistering speed. He’s a timber horse in the making if I can keep him sound, but not if he runs like this often enough.”
Bred by Overbrook Farm, Plated sold for $500,000 as a 2-year-old in 2011 but lost all seven starts for Lael Stable. Day bought the son of Tiznow in 2013, sold him to Maggie Bryant and taught him to jump. Third at Foxfield in his debut in April 2014, Plated went back to the flat and won a $40,000 maiden claimer at Belmont Park in 2014. He broke his maiden over hurdles that fall and won a Saratoga allowance hurdle in 2015 before missing last year with an injury.
Then came the Queen’s Cup race, where Plated seemed to get dragged down behind after the fifth fence and steadily retreated before being pulled up.
“Sean (McDermott) thought he was a winner and a horse just literally sat on his back or something and he just pulled him up,” said Day. “We just wanted to make sure he wasn’t sore in the muscles. A chiropractor looked at him and said he was good to go.”
• Third behind Zio Eilo and Moscato at Charleston and second behind Moscato at the Queen’s Cup, Rather Be Racing’s Kremlin graduated the maiden ranks with a $40,000 score for Fisher and jockey Keith Dalton. The Juddmonte-bred made all the running, and won by 5 1/4 lengths over stablemate Dark Gemini with No Wunder third.
Kremlin owes his steeplechase career to co-owner Meriwether Morris’ friendship with Parx Racing-based trainer Marya Montoya. Morris keeps in touch with Montoya, watches her horses and tries to interpret some steeplechase potential along the way. Morris called about a horse (not Kremlin), and Montoya told a story of a shedrow session that included a few impromptu leaps.
“There were some sunbeams of light in the shedrow and Kremlin would jump the sunbeams every time he went around,” Morris said. “I had come to her because she had different horses that I would admire and I’d ask if she would sell them. She said no about a couple but said, ‘Watch Kremlin.’ ”
Waldorf Racing ultimately moved Kremlin from Montoya’s barn to that of Tim Keefe, who put the horse in a $35,000 claimer. Morris and trainer Robert Leaf made the claim, Kremlin won to give his previous owner a $53,000 payday and the son of Eskendereya had a new career. He made two starts last year and put his experience to good use at Nashville.
“I don’t think he’s got a real punch at the end so going to the front is not a bad idea for him,” Morris said. “I was waiting for the others to thunder by him the whole time. It was a white-knuckle ride.”
Morris heads up the ownership group, which also includes Sheila Williams, Barbara Voss, Lucy Goelet, Johnny Sullivan and Gail Clark.