Saturday's Temple Gwathmey steeplechase stakes drew a big field of 11, but it might be better known for who's not running.
Five weeks into the season, 2012 champion Pierrot Lunaire is on the sidelines with an injury, 2011 champion Black Jack Blues may never run again, last year's Gwathmy winner Via Galilei recently died of complications from a leg infection or other rare malady. On a more positive note, stakes horses Demonstrative and Divine Fortune are skipping the $50,000 stakes which headlines the Middleburg Spring Races at Glenwood Park in Middleburg, Va.
Nobody was more affected by the bad news than owner Irv Naylor and trainer Brianne Slater. The Maryland-based barn, easily the sport's largest, entered 2013 aiming for another owner championship with a strong corps of upper-division stakes horses. Black Jack Blues, unbeaten in three American starts (two in 2011 and one in 2012) aimed to reclaim his championship. Via Galilei, who won the Gwathmey and Zeke Ferguson last season, also factored into any stakes conversation. Now they're both gone.
"It's a big blow," said Slater, hired last fall to take over the Naylor job. "I didn't really get the chance to train them for long. We had Black Jack one work away from running and he got hurt again."
The Irish-bred son of Definite Article was trying to return from an injury to a deep flexor tendon in a hind leg and will need at least a year of recuperation before he can resume training. Slater sounded doubtful about a return to racing, but was happy to at least be able to see and touch the champion. Via Galilei, on the other hand, never made it back to Slater's barn. The son of Galileo was in light exercise at another facility when diagnosed with a leg infection. Treated with antibiotics, the horse did not respond, eventually could not bear weight on a leg and was later sent to New Bolton Center veterinary hospital, Slater said, where he was euthanized.
"Everyone loves Black Jack, but he's still here and alive and we see him," she said. "Via was just a really nice horse to be around and losing him hit us hard. He will be missed."
Beyond Naylor and Slater the bad news hit 2012 steeplechase champion Pierrot Lunaire, who was diagnosed with a tendon injury and will miss 2013. He won two Grade 1 stakes during a short resurgence last fall, and was voted Eclipse champion for owner Mary Ann Houghland and trainer Blythe Miller. The 9-year-old is back on the sidelines.
The defections still leave a crowded, competitive, race full of contenders - even if the names aren't as big. The 2 ½-mile test offers a last prep for the Grade 1 Iroquois Steeplechase next month in Nashville, Tenn.
Naylor and Slater entered four, and will have a big impact on the race. Irish-bred veteran Decoy Daddy leads the way in his 46th steeplechase start. The 11-year-old finished fourth in the Colonial Cup late last season and prepped for the Gwathmey with a third behind Grade 1 winners Divine Fortune and Slip Away at Stoneybrook April 6. Slater named apprentice jockey Carol Ann Sloan, and expects a solid effort from the chestnut son of Lord Of Appeal.
"He's doing great, and I think he's going to run some race," Slater said. "He's training better than he ever has and the more I look back on that race at Stoneybrook, he didn't get beat that far. He's just bouncing and I think Carol Ann has a lot of confidence in him."
Decoy Daddy won the Gwathmey in 2011, a year in which he won three stakes and $124,100.
Slater also entered You're The Top, a French-bred brought over just before the Grand National at Far Hills last year. The 9-year-old bled in that race, finished sixth, and missed the Colonial Cup. Winner of the Norwegian Champion Hurdle in 2012 and English jump races earlier in his career, the veteran could turn in an improved effort. Xavier Aizpuru rides the son of Poliglote (a Sadler's Wells stallion bred in England).
"He's a much stronger horse than he was last year," Slater said. "I think he's got talent and if he doesn't bleed and everything holds together he can be in for a piece. It wouldn't surprise me if he won."
Jack Cool, another Irish-bred, is the third Naylor/Slater runner. Like You're The Top, he was a late arrival in the United States last season - pulling up in the Grand National and finishing ninth in the Colonial Cup. Ross Geraghty rides the son of One Cool Cat. Slater also entered Lake Placid, but was undecided about his plans. The eight-time jump winner would appreciate soft ground if more rain arrives. No jockey has been named.
Beyond the Naylor brigade, the race lured several potential players.
- Grade 1 winner Spy In The Sky does his best work on the flat/fast courses of summer, but gets a chance to shine in his home state for owner Randleston Farm and trainer Jimmy Day. The 9-year-old son of Thunder Gulch will be ridden by regular jockey Danielle Hodsdon and would appreciate a fast pace up front on the rolling Glenwood course.
"He really is more of a summer horse, always has been," said Day. "He loves the top of the ground and plenty of speed out there in front of him. We're in good shape, I wish I had a race going into this, but other than that I couldn't have him any better."
- Veteran Rainiero, a winner in seven of his 19 jump starts, gets another crack in a stakes for Augustin Stable and trainer Richard Valentine. The 11-year-old Chilean import has done his best work in the claiming/starter ranks, winning four in a row in 2011-12, then won the Noel Laing Stakes at Montpelier late last year. Second to Aiken winner Sunshine Numbers at Camden in November, the son of African Dancer defeated Decoy Daddy in the Laing and carries 146 pounds including jockey Robbie Walsh.
- Novice stakes winner Gustavian has done little wrong in his young jump career with nine top-two finishes in 10 tries over jumps for Hickory Tree Stable and trainer Leslie Young. The 7-year-old son of Giant's Causeway and stakes-winning distaffer Mossflower will appreciate the recent rain. Champion jockey Paddy Young has the ride.
- Consistent 10-year-old Country Cousin returns to the Gwathmey after finishing second to Via Galilei in last year's race. The son of Lear Fan opened 2013 with a second to Sunshine Numbers at Aiken for Oakwood Stable and trainer Julie Gomena. Roddy Mackenzie rides at 148.
Extraextraordinary, Cornhusker and All Together complete a tough field. The Gwathmey is the third of eight races on the card which starts at 1 p.m.
Also at Middleburg are two strong maiden hurdle races featuring promising newcomers Puller, Critical Point, Beamer, Annawon and Annual Update in one division; Kingdom, Sacred Soul, Ice Bear and Wait Outside in the other. Esteemed timber horse Swimming River goes for his third consecutive victory in the Alfred Hunt Steeplechase over Glenwood's varied course.
NOTES: Other steeplechase action Saturday stops at the Grand National timber meet in Butler, Md. - last chance for Maryland Hunt Cup contenders to emerge - and the Block House Races in Tryon, N.C. In the former, the $30,000 stakes drew last year's winner And The Eagle Flys, Battle Op, two-time Hunt Cup winner Twill Do, Guts For Garters, Alfa Beat and Foyle.