Aqueduct hosts The Mean Queen, more

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The Mean Queen makes her first start since October 2021 in Thursday’s Lonesome Glory at Aqueduct. Tod Marks photo

Jump racing goes to the big city. For the first time in 48 years, New York’s Aqueduct Racetrack hosts a steeplechase race – two actually – as construction at Belmont Park shifted NYRA’s fall racing dates a few miles southeast to the Big A. Thursday is Opening Day and, as happened at Belmont, steeplechasers will go to the post for stakes.

The races lured the two biggest names in the sport as The Mean Queen and Snap Decision make the program, though they’ll be in different spots. Post time for the first, the $75,000 Willian Entenmann Memorial at 2 3/8 miles, is 1 p.m. The second, the $150,000 Grade 1 Lonesome Glory at 2 1/2 miles, goes at 1:32.

Irish-bred mare The Mean Queen won the steeplechase Eclipse Award as division champion last year on the strength of three Grade 1 wins – two over Snap Decision. She makes her first start since October 2021 in the opener. She’s 1-2 on the morning line among a field of seven for Buttonwood Farm, Keri Brion and Parker Hendriks.

American-bred Snap Decision transitioned from flat racing for breeder Phipps Stable and Hall of Fame trainer Shug McGaughey after the 2018 season. The son of Hard Spun finished second in his first two starts over jumps in 2019, then won nine a row through June 2021. Seconds to The Mean Queen in the Lonesome Glory (at Belmont) and the American Grand National. He’s righted the ship this year with Grade 1 wins in the Iroquois in May and the Jonathan Sheppard at Saratoga, and tries for his 12th win in his 17th start over jumps at 2-5 in a field of eight for Bruton Street-US, Jack Fisher and Graham Watters. Read more about Snap Decision here.

Together but apart, the two stars are the main attractions – along with the venue – and could be headed for a meet-up in the $250,000 Grade 1 Grand National at Far Hills, N.J., Oct. 15.

The Queen Returns
A maiden winner at Ireland’s Wexford Racecourse in April 2021, The Mean Queen soon joined Brion’s barn at Fair Hill Training Center and went about finding a spot at the top of the sport. She beat males in a first-level allowance in May, won a filly/mare stakes in late June, lost her jockey with some greenness while en route to a win at Saratoga in July, then won three in a row – the Jonathan Sheppard at Saratoga, the Lonesome Glory and the Grand National while piling up $303,000 in U.S. earnings. She won the 2021 Eclipse title, the first filly/mare to be champion since 1975, and was prepping for a start against Snap Decision in the Iroquois this spring when sidelined by an injury.

She’s been playing catch-up ever since. Brion skipped Saratoga and aimed for the fall. The Lonesome Glory would have been the goal, other than she’s eligible for the restricted novice condition (non-winners over jumps before March 1, 2021). Brion, like any trainer, likes the easier spot coming off an 11-month layoff. The daughter of Doyen has never raced on the flat, never been in a starting gate, which ruled out a tightener before Thursday. Instead, it’s been gallops and breezes over the tracks and fields at Fair Hill Training Center in Maryland plus two trips to trainer Michael Dickinson’s Tapeta Farm for two turf breezes.

Brion sees a ready horse, even if training The Mean Queen is a balancing act.

“I find it harder with a good horse because they con you a little bit,” Brion said. “They’re doing it so easily that maybe they’re not coming around. Usually, you can see a horse get tired, and say they’ll come on for it. It’s hard to get her to do that. You worry about doing too much because you don’t get that same feeling.”

As an example, the trainer recalled a 2-mile gallop on the dirt at Fair Hill about six weeks ago.

“They pulled up and I walked over to her and there was nothing, she wasn’t blowing, she wasn’t anything, she walked off the track like she could go and do it again,” Brion said. “Everything I’ve ever been taught is they get tired and they get fitter for it. It’s hard to get her off the bridle on the tracks because everything is so easy for her.”

Brion typically mixes in uphill gallops in the fields at Fair Hill, but that was difficult this summer because of a lack of rain (until the last week or so). She asked Dickinson about using his irrigated, uphill turf gallop and The Mean Queen took the short van ride to North East from Fair Hill twice in September.

“It’s a 6-furlong work strip and you finish uphill and they get a lot out of it,” Brion said. “I wanted to get that kind of work into her coming off the layoff. You can get her off the bridle without overdoing it.”

The Mean Queen probably has no idea she’s headed to New York City at 3 a.m. Thursday, but she has an idea something is different as she spent Wednesday harassing Brion, Hendriks and anyone who came by her stall.

“She’s in rare form,” Brion said. “The vet dropped off some supplies and went to say hi to her and she charged the screen. I think it’s the training pattern. Seven to 10 days out [from a race] she gets that much more difficult to deal with. She’s good to train, that part’s fine, but she knows something is up and she’s trouble in the stall and to work around. It took 15 minutes to tack her up the other day.”

She breaks from post one going 2 3/8 miles over nine fences. Hendriks rides for the first time in a race, though he’s been on her plenty in the morning, at 158 pounds. The high weight assignment means she gives between two and nine pounds to her rivals, but she’d be carrying 165 without the filly/mare allowance and would be giving away far more if she’d run in the Lonesome Glory.

Like any steeplechase fan, Brion would like to see The Mean Queen and Snap Decision compete in the same race – not just on the same day – but balances that with trying to get her horse to peak form for a bigger assignment in October.

“Whether Snap Decision was in the Grade 1 or not, I didn’t want to come back in that race,” she said. “First time off the layoff, without the luxury of running her on the flat, going that far and giving 20 pounds to horses . . . I want to see them run against each other too, but it would be stupid. If you have the condition, you should use the condition. The other option was training flat races to Far Hills and that’s not the best option or the best way to get a horse ready either, especially against a horse like Snap Decision.”

The Mean Queen’s six rivals have one thing going for them – recent form – but otherwise look overmatched on paper. Brion-trained Irish-bred Howyabud is undefeated in three starts over hurdles – an Irish maiden in December and two U.S. starts this year. Barry Foley takes the return call off a win in the Jonathan Kiser novice stakes at Saratoga Aug. 3 at 4-1. A third Brion trainee, Going Country, exits a 13 1/4-length loss to Snap Decision in the Sheppard so gets class relief but he’s lost four in a row since winning his first two in April. The 6-year-old makes his seventh start of 2022 with visiting Irish jockey Danny Mullins at 6-1.

Four-year-old Proven Innocent exits a Saratoga allowance win, where he ran down Thursday rival Bandua in the final yards of a 2 3/8-mile race for Fisher and Bruton Street. The son of Blame is 10-1 and gets Jamie Bargary, who has won with six of his last 10 mounts. Bandua makes his fourth jump start after a flat career that includes a Grade 3 win and a third in the 2019 Arlington Million. Trained by Neil Morris, who won this race last year with Ritzy A.P., the 7-year-old made the lead at Saratoga before getting caught by Proven Innocent. Gerard Galligan rides again at 12-1. Booby Trap finished second in this race last year and was beaten a long way in his only start of 2022 (in May). Sam Twiston-Davies flies over for the ride at 20-1. State Of Affair blasted allowance foes at Saratoga Aug. 10 and would need to improve on that race to handle The Mean Queen, but has the speed to be a factor early. The 6-year-old Giant’s Causeway gelding made his hurdle debut in 2020 and holds an experience edge on the field. Tom Garner takes the ride for trainer Todd Wyatt at 20-1 from the outside post.

Brion and Hendriks hope to let The Mean Queen, who eyes her seventh win in eight tries over jumps, run her race.

“There will be enough horses handy that she’ll be in behind a couple,” Brion said. “We’re not going to overcomplicate it. Parker talked to (2021 jockey) Richie Condon about her. She is the best horse in the race. She’s training really well. Howaybud is doing really well too, and could be a horse to challenge her. He’s fit and in form. I’m just not sure he’s as good as she is.”

Watch NYRA’s America’s Day at the Races show on Fox Sports 2 starting at 1 p.m.