A.P. Smithwick preview: Tough Lady

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Mimi Voss sat outside her husband’s barn at the Oklahoma annex and waited for Guelph, whom she bred, to be taken out of her stall for some early morning exercise.

The diminutive chestnut appeared, paid little attention to her surroundings, and was led the length of the shedrow.

“There she is, isn’t she tiny?” Mimi Voss asked proudly as Guelph surveyed her surroundings.

“There’s nothing tiny about her,” quipped Mimi’s husband and the mare’s trainer, Tom Voss, as if Guelph nudged him to speak for her.

Two points of view representing different ends of the teeter-totter, meeting in the middle to create the perfect balance.

Delicate, petite, lady-like to a visitor. Tough-as-nails, iron-willed, tenacious to her competitors.

That’s Guelph and she’s the horse to beat in today’s Grade II A.P. Smithwick Memorial Steeplechase. A traditional prep for the Grade I New York Turf Writers Cup here Aug. 28, the 2 1/16-mile stakes offers an $80,000 purse and nine hurdles to a wide-open field.

With Eclipse Award winner Good Night Shirt resting up for a fall campaign and morning-line choice and defending Smithwick champ Mixed Up scratched, the door is ajar for someone in the nine-horse field.

Enter Guelph, who has done all she can do against her own sex. Having won all five distaff stakes on the National Steeplechase Association’s calendar, the 7-year-old mare takes on the boys for the first time since her maiden jump outing back in 2005.

Owned by The Fields Stable, the Sky Classic mare has gone flag-to-wire in both starts this season – stakes wins in the Margaret Henley at Nashville and the Valentine Memorial at Fair Hill.

A six-time winner from 11 career hurdle starts, the 2005 novice and filly/mare champion holds a special place in the Voss barn, having battled back from a fractured withers incurred in a pre-race accident two years ago. While being saddled for the 2006 Valentine she flipped over and landed on her back, but was deemed healthy enough to race that day; she certainly seemed fine, finishing second by a neck while spotting the winner 21 pounds.

“She ran great – just got beat carrying 160 pounds – so you couldn’t think anything was wrong with her,” said Voss earlier this year. “The next day, it swelled up and we had it X-rayed. She fractured it in 16 places.”

After missing the remainder of 2006 season, Guelph returned to the races with three off-the-board efforts last fall. Voss regrouped and pointed Guelph to Nashville, where she dominated an overmatched field by 3 1/2 lengths. She did much the same in the Valentine, scoring a measured 2 1/2-length win over Smithwick rival Class Shadow.

The Smithwick itself is the least of Tom Voss’ concerns. Getting Guelph safely to starter Barry Watson is what kept her trainer up last night.

“I’m just hoping she doesn’t get nervous when she gets over there. She’s very difficult to saddle and this is probably not the best environment for that,” he said. “The paddock here is probably the worst in terms of people. She already hurt herself once doing that so we have Todd Wyatt, my former assistant, coming in. He seems to hold the key to it and knows what to do; I can’t move as he can anymore. She’s going to get there on her toes and hot, then it’s just a matter of how she reacts when she’s there. If we can get the tack on her quickly she seems to be OK. We schooled her in the paddock (Wednesday) and she was fine but race day is a completely different story. There might be a thousand people running around there on Thursday. I don’t know if that’s what bothers her so much or if it’s the anticipation of it all that does it. I don’t know why – she wins and comes back and she knows she’s good. The whole thing is when you walk through that path to get to the paddock; that’s when they can start to lose it. So the question is how much do they have left when they get there?”

Guelph has proven a dominant force on the front end in both starts this year and should again make the running under stable jockey Padge Whelan, who rides the mare for first time. With a light impost (142 pounds) and a high cruising speed, Voss isn’t about to change tactics.

“Heading to the front is really the only way she runs, so we’re not going to take her out of her game. She’ll just go over and drop her head and go,” Voss said. “She’s going to go out there and run her heart out, she leaves it out on the racetrack every time. She’s a special filly, especially against her own kind. We’re going in and taking a shot.”

Guelph’s main challenge could come from the other side of the Atlantic. Fergus Galvin and Adam Lord’s Salford City invades from Ireland, though the 7-year-old is hardly a newcomer to the United States. The Desert Sun gelding started his career in England before being purchased by Michael Tabor and sent to trainer Patrick Biancone’s barn in Southern California. Irish-bred Salford City made eight U.S. starts under Biancone’s care and knocked heads with heavyweights Artie Schiller, Shakespeare, and English Channel before Galvin purchased him for a campaign in Ireland in 2006.

Salford City ran on the flat once in August 2006 and made his hurdle debut the next May, finishing third in a 15-horse field. He notched his first score over jumps two races later and enters the Smithwick with five wins from 17 career jump starts for trainer Gordon Elliot. Used to toting up to 166 pounds, Salford City was assigned 154 pounds under the allowance conditions and regular rider Paul Carberry, one of the best jump jockeys in Ireland, makes the trip Stateside.

Galvin, whose Hunter Valley Farm sold the second-highest yearling on opening night of the Fasig-Tipton Selected Sale Monday, is excited to see his star test some of the best stakes horses in the States.

“I think it’s a good sporting gesture to bring him over here for the Smithwick and then the Turf Writers in a few weeks as well. The prize money in America makes it well worth it and these are both very prestigious races,” said Galvin, who lives in Lexington, Ky. “One of the main reasons we brought him over is because he’ll get some faster turf to run on over here. In Ireland he just doesn’t get the firm ground he needs. They tend to water the turf a lot over there and oftentimes the courses are yielding and that’s just not the best surface for him.”

Salford City arrived in Saratoga Springs Tuesday night from quarantine in Newburgh, and will be racing hard on the heels of a cross-Atlantic flight. Galvin’s charge has earned a plethora of frequent-flyer miles over the years, however, and should be well accustomed to running right off the plane.

“This horse has no problem shipping, so that made the decision a lot easier as well,” Galvin said. “He’s traveled so often in his career it doesn’t bother him. He’s so laid back and has such a good temperament that it won’t be an issue.”

Salford City and Guelph schooled separately over two American hurdles in the Oklahoma infield Wednesday morning as a final sharpener for the Smithwick.

Trainer Doug Fout starts two, led by Carl Barnes’ High Action, who enters off a decisive win in a Colonial Downs allowance/optional claimer June 15. Settling in third under Paddy Young, the 8-year-old Theatrical gelding split horses in mid-stretch and drew off to a 4 1/2-length victory in his first American start over hurdles.

In 2006, Barnes sent High Action to Fout after a flat career in Great Britain, which included a fourth to the legendary Yeats in the Grade I Ascot Gold Cup. High Action got hurt soon after and missed all of 2007 before returning to win a training flat race at Fair Hill May 24. He prepped with another training flat outing at Saratoga Open House, running third to Dark Equation. Young has the return call at 142 pounds.

“When I got him and he got off the plane he had a tendon injury. He wasn’t in my barn 13 hours and we had to stop on him. When he came back this year I didn’t know what I had but I think he’s a pretty serious horse,” Fout said. “I know he was only third here against Dark Equation (in a training flat race July 20), but he won really easily at Colonial. With High Action the farther they go the better but the main thing is that he can’t stand the wet going over there, so that’s why they sent him here.”

Peggy Steinman’s Dark Equation is another hoping to stay out of the rain. The 7-year-old impressed with a win in an allowance hurdle here last summer, defeating an over-matched field by 5 lengths. This spring he struggled in two assignments and was last seen over hurdles at Nashville, finishing a distant sixth in the Grade III Marcellus Frost. Dark Equation underwent a myectomy after the Frost and came back to romp on the flat at Open House over a field that included stablemate High Action. Matt McCarron rides at 150 pounds.

“He ran huge at Open House – we couldn’t pull him up. He hasn’t missed a day since the flat track race up here,” Fout said. “Matt and I both always loved this horse but he was so disappointing in the Iroquois and that was really disappointing. Matt said he came up totally empty going to the last so we knew something was wrong. He’s always better when he’s close to the front, but Matt said he just dragged him the whole way (at the Open House). That was a good field in there, I don’t care what anyone says. That’s a serious race before the A.P. and everybody tries in there. You’ve got to get some kind of fitness out of it. What I like is the horse that was fourth (The Price Of Love) won here the other day, so it shows there’s some kind of form coming out of there.”

Class Shadow ran well against males in her last assignment, a second in the Grade III Zeke Ferguson at Colonial Downs. The 4-year-old filly gets in light at 131 pounds, two less than Footlights carried to victory in the 2007 Turf Writers. Trained by Lilith Boucher for Star Ten Stable, Class Shadow has chased Guelph twice this season to no avail.

In her stakes debut she finished third, beaten 4 lengths in Henley and then closed the gap to finish second, beaten 2 1/2 lengths, in the Valentine. She looms an intriguing stretch danger if the pace is heated. Richard Boucher has the return call.

Calvin Houghland’s Meneef (Carl Rafter to ride, 146 pounds) has two wins from two starts this season: a non-sanctioned race in Florida on March 9, and an entry-level allowance at Aiken on March 22.

The Kathy McKenna-trainee is in career form after struggling in 2006 and 2007 and should be on or near the lead in the Smithwick.

Duke Of Earl (Xavier Aizpuru, 146) closed to be third in the Ferguson – a nose behind runner-up Class Shadow. Ann Stern’s 9-year-old has been a consistent performer over the past two seasons for champion trainer Jack Fisher, scoring four wins in allowance and claiming races. But the son of Ali-Royal has struggled to make the transition to stakes company and will have to step up his game to score on Thursday.

Fisher also sends out Gil Johnston’s Orpington (Willie Dowling, 146), an allowance winner at Middleburg earlier in the year. The son of Breeders’ Cup Mile winner Cozzene enters off a second to the improving Red Letter Day at Philadelphia Park July 6 and makes his stakes debut against open company in the Smithwick.

Spy In The Sky has made giant strides this season for Jimmy Day and rates a longshot look with a light impost of 135 pounds including Liam McVicar. The 4-year-old son of Kentucky Derby winner Thunder Gulch broke his jump maiden with an 11-length win at Middleburg April 19 and tested open foes in the Frost, where he rallied late to finish only three-quarters of a length behind the winner. He prepped for the Smithwick with a flat run at Colonial June 11, beaten a head in an entry-level allowance.

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The Smithwick lost morning-line favorite and defending champion Mixed Up when Hall of Fame trainer Jonathan Sheppard was forced to scratch Bill Pape’s 9-year-old Wednesday morning due to a recurring issue.

“It’s been sort of a nagging problem,” said Sheppard of the high suspensory ligament injury. “When he had that fast work (5 furlongs in 1:00 2/5) the other day it flared up again. We had it scanned and they said ‘if you like this horse you probably shouldn’t run.’ Well, we like him so we’ll give him some time.”

Sheppard said Mixed Up, a dual Grade I winner of more than $450,000 over jumps, will miss the rest of 2008 but could return for his 10-year-old season in 2009.

Bred by Sheppard and owner Bill Pape, the son of Carnivalay has won 14 races (six flat, eight jump) and earned $563,766 in his career. At Saratoga, he won the 2007 Smithwick and 2006 New York Turf Writers Cup (Gr. I).