Colonial Cup (version 2.0) springs into reality

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Call it Colonial Cup 2.0. Founded in 1970 to breathe life into a moribund sport, American steeplechasing’s signature autumn event crowned champions, hosted Hall of Famers and offered opportunities to generations of jumpers.

And now, after 47 runnings, it’s gone. Well, not gone but reborn as a spring race. It’s the Colonial Cup, just not as you know it.

The $150,000 race, not run in 2017, returns March 31 for its first spring running. It will be the first Grade 1 of 2018, a key launch pad for the $200,000 Iroquois in May and already a target for several stakes horses who normally wouldn’t debut until April or even May.

The Carolina Cup Racing Association abandoned its fall race meet which began, like the race, in 1970 last year. Finances drove the decision as the older and far-more-successful Carolina Cup meet in the spring could no longer carry the fall race date in terms of revenue. Given the circumstances, there weren’t many choices to be made for the Camden, S.C. fixtures.  

“If we stayed on the track we were on, we might not have any race meets here,” said John Cushman, who returned as the executive director of the CCRA last year after a lengthy retirement. “We kept the race, we kept the Carolina Cup race meet, we’ve got a future.”

A four-time champion jump jockey in the 1980s and a Camdenite, Cushman ran the CCRA during its most successful days – with massive crowds, big purses, motivated sponsors and a raucous College Park section filled with students from every university in the region. He got talked out of retirement, and into volunteering, due to the forecasts coming out of the CCRA board. Also the board vice-chair with Peggy Steinman, Cushman relishes the opportunity to give it another go and help push the reset button on a steeplechase icon.

“I did not think I’d be doing this and I’m not doing this on a long-term basis,” he said. “I’ve promised them a short window to get them through this rough patch. I could see the problem coming, a lot of people could. I have this experience and the horse part is part of it but I have good business instincts. These meets are more about business because the NSA runs the sport. It’s good that I know the players and I listen and can be part of it but our job is to prep the race course and keep the horses safe and run the rest of the event.”

To that end, Cushman helped the NSA’s Bill Gallo craft a spring race menu without precedent. Five jump races are worth $325,000 and include what might be the first U.S. hurdle race restricted to 4-year-olds. The Raymond Woolfe used to be a 3-year-old stakes at the fall meet, and has been won by the likes of Inkslinger, Café Prince, Life’s Illusion, Zaccio, Warm Spell, Flat Top and Demonstrative. In the new world, the Woolfe is for 4-year-olds. The second race honors another former race director, Dale Thiel, and will be for maidens. The third, a filly/mare stakes worth $40,000, is named for Life’s Illusion – the only distaffer to win a steeplechase championship (as a 4-year-old in 1975). Then come two major stakes, the $75,000 Carolina Cup for novices and the $150,000 Colonial Cup for open horses. Shortened to 2 3/8 miles (from its traditional 2 3/4) because of the spring date, the Colonial Cup gives stakes horses an early Grade 1 target.

The changes helped bring trainers Ricky Hendriks and Elizabeth Voss to Camden, and spurred some early action at Hall of Famer Jonathan Sheppard’s Pennsylvania barn. Sheppard plans to run All The Way Jose, who won a Grade 1 at Belmont Park last fall and just missed in the Grand National in October, at Camden.

The earlier start works for Sheppard’s top horse All The Way Jose because the horse’s final start of 2017 came in October rather than November.

“The season ended a month earlier so he still had a nice little break, and he’s coming back in the Colonial Cup,” said Sheppard, who sent horses to Camden last week. “I think it’s all going to work out fine.”

Jack Fisher won’t take his top horse Mr. Hot Stuff to Camden, mainly because the 3 miles at the Iroquois suits the veteran a bit better. Stable understudies Schoodic and Hinterland aim for the early race, however. Fisher also stuck to his traditional plan and stayed in Maryland all winter.

“Obviously, other people are making plans that I’m not,” said Fisher. “They went to Camden early. To me it adds more pressure because there are two big races down there. I’m sending horses, but I don’t want to get too ahead of myself. From where I come from, they’re not getting my No. 1 horse. I’d have to crank on him now and I can’t do that. In the fall, they got the best of the best and it gave those horses another spot to come forward from at the end of the year. I understand it, but that’s the one thing that stinks.”

Cushman knows that, but came up with the best plan he could. In February, he said early signs were positive. Sales were up in the grandstand, hospitality area and the infield. That notorious College Park scene appears to be on the way out as ticket sales have decreases substantially in that area. Times change, apparently, and the parties have moved closer to campus or somewhere other than a horse race. The tailgate area used to draw busloads of college kids who weren’t necessarily there to see the horses. The kids dressed up and partied. Sometimes they got out of hand and ran afoul of local law enforcement. They paid for a lot of tickets, however.

“This will be the last year we do that because kids just aren’t coming anymore,” Cushman said of College Park. “The signs were there three years ago that it just wasn’t as popular as it had been. I started it 20 years ago and I guess that’s not a bad run for a new business idea. I can’t really answer it.”

Cushman won’t miss the headaches, and said the College Park area will be rebranded and resold in some other form to hopefully attract new racegoers.

The Cup hosted three public workout sessions in March, and allowed horses to train on the race course itself. Cushman sees that community outreach as important, and hopes to prove the event’s worth to Camden and beyond. Springdale is many things – state-owned open space, a training center, two race meets, the National Steeplechase Museum and more – but it’s a historic community event first.

“We want people to feel like they’re part of it,” he said. “We want to educate fans so that when they come to the races they’ve got somebody to follow. We want horsemen to feel like they’re part of something big and important. We want the whole thing to work.”

The results of this reset button won’t be known until April – and probably later than that. Like everyone else, Cushman will miss the November race meet but he didn’t see many options.

“I ruffled a lot of feathers, I probably still am ruffling them,” he said. “But it’s inevitable that change is going to happen and you’ve got to embrace it. When I was riding, Rolling Rock (in western Pennsylvania) was the best race meet we had and it’s a golf course now. Things happen. We’re excited about the prospects for this race meet and we’re going to do the best we can with it. We kept the Colonial Cup as a race, we’ve improved the Carolina Cup, we’ve got a future.”

And that’s far better than not having one.

NOTES: Eight horses were nominated to the Colonial Cup: All The Way Jose, Balance The Budget, Hinterland, Lyonell, Schoodic, Show Court, Swansea Mile and Zanjabeel. The Carolina Cup attracted 10: Daneking, Ice It, Lachares, Lyonell, New Member, No Wunder, Personal Start, Red Mist, Taper Tantrum, Zio Elio. The Life’s Illusion filly/mare stakes lured eight: Down Royal, Get Ready Set Goes, Lady Yeats, Pram, Pure Deal, Sarah Joyce, Waveless and Wigwam Baby.