Aiken Steeplechase preview and picks

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Aiken? Already? Yes, steeplechase fans, the NSA season kicks into gear – for real – Saturday at the Aiken Steeplechase’s annual spring meet in Aiken, S.C. Entries are pretty light, which happens sometimes, but the six-race card includes plenty of competition and interest.

As for the season, there’s plenty of news kicking around and we’ll catch up in more detail next week. Jockey Robbie Walsh retired. He’ll be missed, but hopefully he stays out of the hospital now. Multiple stakes winner Decoy Daddy retired, too. He’ll be missed as well, but here’s to lots of green grass to eat and sand to roll in.

Stakes stars Dawalan and Demonstrative return and aim for the Iroquois in May. The Maryland Hunt Cup’s purse is $100,000 and the historic timber race lured a big nomination list of 30 (yes 30). The group includes divisional stars Guts For Garters, Imperial Way and Raven’s Choice plus Foyle, Hunt Ball and loads more. Yes, 30. The National Steeplechase Association has a new website that merges content from the Go Jump Racing site under one umbrella. Brilliant. The Go Jump Racing folks host a second steeplechase prospect sale and symposium April 10 at Great Meadow in The Plains, Va. Come on out.

Shorter term, the Carolina Cup lured a dozen nominations for next weekend’s novice stakes. Just how good is Special Skills?

And now, on to Aiken. First post on the six-race card is 1 p.m. Entries are light, but big stables trained by Jack Fisher, Cyril Murphy, Jonathan Sheppard, Elizabeth Voss and Leslie Young are not represented. They’ll help next week and beyond. The feature is a $30,000 optional claimer headed by Harrods Creek and Orchestra Leader. So Outspoken, twice a winner early last year, gets in light at 146 pounds.

The TIHR team will take another swing at picking winners all season. Last year, we split the season in two. Joe and Sean tied in the spring while Sean won the fall after fighting off a strong rally from Tom.

First Race. Training flat going 1 ¼ miles. Five runners get tuned up for future jump starts, or perhaps something else as the group includes Last Stand from flat trainer Glenn Thompson and two-time flat winner Artie’s Flight for Lilith Boucher.

Joe: Artie’s Flight, Cash Crop, Northern Hawk.
Sean: Cash Crop, Artie’s Flight, Last Stand.
Tom: Cash Crop, Bob’n for Silver, Northern Hawk.

Second Race. $25,000 maiden hurdle going 2 miles. Who’s ready? Six runners include first-timers Devil’s Wrangler and Conor. Ride Away (six starts) leads in experience and has been second twice.  Candy Man Can was second over the course last fall.

Joe: Candy Man Can, Ride Away, Devil’s Wrangler.
Sean: Candy Man Can, Ride Away, Conor. 
Tom: Ride Away, Conor, Candy Man Can.

Third Race. $15,000 maiden claiming hurdle going 2 miles. Field of seven including first-timers Elusive Evening, Dr. K’eogh and Open Throttle. Zol Zayne is in the aforementioned sale April 10 and has been close a few times, so you get an early look.

Joe: Elusive Evening, Zol Zayne, Dr. K’eogh.
Sean: Zol Zayne, Elusive Envening, Dr. K’eogh.
Tom: Zol Zayne, Imperial Rule, Elusive Evening.

Fourth Race. $30,000 optional claiming hurdle for non winners of $18,000 going 2 miles. Nobody takes the claiming option so it’s a field of just five. Pretty wide open. Harrods Creek exited a standout flat career to try jumping in 2014. He won a maiden in July and finished second at Saratoga. He missed last year entirely, but may have a class edge. Jack Doyle returns from Ireland for the ride for owners Dr. David Richardson and Dick Knapp and trainer Arch Kingsley. Is the 9-year-old ready? He’ll have to deal with tough veteran Orchestra Leader – 23 starts, three wins – from the barn of Jimmy Day. Front-runner Dreamin Fool won a maiden over the course last fall. So Outspoken is plenty capable if he rediscovers his form from last spring – where he won a maiden and defeated Overwhelming in a handicap in a span of two weeks. Former champion jockey Danielle Hodsdon gets back in the saddle aboard Odi Et Amo.

Joe: Orchestra Leader, Harrods Creek, So Outspoken.
Sean: Orchestra Leader, Harrods Creek, Dreamin Fool. 
Tom: Harrods Creek, Orchestra Leader, Dreamin Fool.

Fifth Race. $20,000 ratings handicap hurdle (110-90) at 2 miles. Only five show up, but the sixth race conflicts and is essentially a split of this – with a claiming price. Complete Dyno and Mr. Lickety are the only two-time winners in the field and are the two highest-rated horses.

Joe: Complete Dyno, Mr. Lickety, In Todd We Trust.
Sean: Mr. Lickety, Complete Dyno, In Todd We Trust.
Tom: Mr. Lickety, Complete Dyno, Barbara’s Smile.

Sixth Race. $20,000 conditioned claimer (NW2 for $15,000) going 2 miles. Another field of five. Takepointsandrun won over the course in the fall. Ryvit’s run at Camden in November would put him in the mix. Cognashene was highly regarded as a maiden. Ricky Hendriks runs Soul Of The Moon and Hooping, maiden-claimer winners last year.

Joe: Ryvit, Hooping, Takepointsandrun.
Sean: Ryvit, Hooping, Cognashene.
Tom: Cognashene, Hooping, Ryvit.

For more, see Aiken Steeplechase website.