The Grand National. It’s not Aintree, but the name does conjure images of all-time greats, history, a gold trophy, big names, big money and big pressure. That’s all here for this year’s renewal, the fourth race of seven on the Far Hills card Saturday. The $250,000 stakes attracted eight entrants, including the main players in the 2014 open stakes division – though a few choose to wait for next weekend’s Zeke Ferguson.
Demonstrative and Divine Fortune are part of the field, which must mean it’s a Grade 1 jump race. They’ve danced most of the dances over the past three seasons and meet again going 2 5/8 miles.
1. Parker’s Project: The 8-year-old returned off a more than two-year layoff with a vengeance, finishing second at a huge price in the Lonesome Glory last month. Demonstrative won by a length, and appeared to always have this guy measured, but it was a huge effort. One of four trained by Jonathan Sheppard. The Pennsylvania-bred son of Parker’s Storm Cat (also the sire of turf sprint star Ben’s Cat) gets Far Hills ace Ross Geraghty in the saddle, picks up 16 pounds in the weight-for-age conditions and must bring his best to be a factor.
2. Dr. Skip: You going to pick against a trainer hitting at 73 percent? Eddie Graham has won everything this year – from spring timber races to the Arlington Million – so why not this? Six-year-old son of Eddington, whose trainer Mark Hennig is a Far Hills regular, was always highly regarded and won his first two jump starts in 2013. Unlucky with back-to-back DNFs when losing his jockey late last year, he returned from 11 months away from the races to finish third in a novice hurdle at Belmont Park last month. That had to help loads, but of course he gets a stern test today vs. the toughest group he’s ever faced. Champion Paddy Young rides, which is interesting. He’s a player at what would be a square price.
3. Barnstorming: Really expected a better try last time, when fifth behind Demonstrative and Parker’s Project in the Lonesome Glory. He looked to be riding a perfect set-up off two runs at Saratoga, including a second to Demonstrative. Eight-year-old Thunder Gulch gelding got in light and had proven his class with a second in the Colonial Cup last fall. One of Sheppard’s four. Capable, but inconsistent too.
4. Inti: Bred in Uruguay, he makes his Grade 1 debut for trainer Cyril Murphy. Nine-year-old ought to like the trip, the turf conditions and the flow. Just not sure he’s quite up to the competition level. Beaten by classy Decoy Daddy twice this spring. Nice horse, potential for a share.
5. Bluegrass Summer: Around the barn they say he’s as grouchy as ever – he just looks happier. Gray 6-year-old won over the course last year, which is always a plus at Far Hills. His 2014 has been iffy at best with a third, a fourth and a sixth – all since July 24. The later run came in the Lonesome Glory, his first start out of the novice ranks. Love the win over the course. Don’t really love his form this year. Needs to step forward.
6. Divine Fortune: Veteran of 38 jump starts (10 wins) goes back to the mine for another shift. He won this in a knockout last year – gliding home by 5 1/2 after leading throughout and jumping like the proverbial stag. Son of Royal Anthem won the Iroquois in similar fashion this spring, then fell on hard times (literally) with a pull-up at Saratoga and a hard fall at Belmont. The last looked bad, but barely caused a change in step for the Pennylvania-bred. Champion steeplechaser of 2013, he needs to win this to have a chance at a repeat. Darren Nagle rides and I doubt he’ll even try to slow it down much. Just go to the front, find a rhythm and see how happy the horse can get. He looked great Thursday on the farm. One more time for the old pro?
7. Demonstrative: Off back-to-back Grade 1 wins, and three consecutive standout efforts, the race goes through him. The questions center on whether he can throw another good effort and whether he’ll handle soft (ish) turf. He’s won 10 of 26 lifetime over jumps, but has never won at Far Hills – in four tries. To be fair, his jockey was knocked off at the start in one of those. He was fourth in the 2012 Grand National and third last year. The son of Elusive Quality is the best horse in the race, he returns to level weights after giving away heaps (and winning anyway) in the Lonesome Glory. Hoping for sun and wind on the course Friday. Squarely the horse to beat.
8. Bob Le Beau: Like Dr. Skip, this Irish-bred is interesting. He’ll be fine on the ground, he represents hometown owner Betty Merck, he looked like a decent horse at Saratoga and he’s run well in his last two – a training flat win at Shawan Sept. 27 and a second to veteran All Together over hurdles at Middleburg Oct. 4. Can he step all the way up and challenge the best in the game? Probably not, but he could run into a piece or grab it all if the favorites falter.