Far Hills Spotlight: The big one on the big day

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Rawnaq, here’s your chance. The 9-year-old Irish import, already the leader of his division this year, gets a chance to drive home the point in Saturday’s American Grand National, feature race on the Far Hills Races card. He faces seven rivals in the $350,000 classic at 2 5/8 miles.

Owned by Irv Naylor and trained by Cyril Murphy, the son of Azamour can clinch the Eclipse Award as champion steeplechaser with a win. The race promises to be tactical, and will be a battle of wills over the final mile. It’s the fourth on the day, and the best of the year.

Tempt Me Alex: Way back in May, after he won the Marcellus Frost at Nashville, Far Hills was mentioned. The massive son of Afleet Alex, bred in Pennsylvania by owner Bob Kinsley, will love the course and the trip. He will also stare down ­- by far – the best field he’s ever faced. Will benefit from some pace up front, but also can’t come from too far back. Twice a winner on the horse (in 2013 and 2014), Willie McCarthy gets back on board.

Rawnaq .Tod Marks photo
Rawnaq: Overseas with Paddy Power, he’s favored at 8-11. On course, were there any wagering, he might be even shorter. Came over last year with solid Irish/English form, including a third at the 2015 Cheltenham Festival, but wound up the understudy to stablemate Dawalan. The latter won the Grand National (Rawnaq was a length back in third), the Colonial Cup (5 lengths to the good of Rawnaq) and the championship. When Dawalan went to the shelf with an injury this spring, Rawnaq stepped up – and would have given his stablemate a massive challenge. Won the Temple Gwathmey by 15 lengths, then put on a show of guts and gallop in the Iroquois to beat Irish raiders Shaneshill (by a neck) and Nichols Canyon. Far Hills was always the next goal as Murphy skipped Saratoga and Belmont (where handicap weights would have been massive) and aimed for autumn. Lost jockey Jack Doyle to an injury but gets the world’s greatest back-up in Ruby Walsh (he’s won the English, Irish, Scottish, Welsh and Australian Grand Nationals; why not the American?). The question will be what happens. Rawnaq made basically all the running for 3 miles at Nashville. Saturday, he’ll get early company from Sharp Rise, which could help a few others, but it might not matter. Powerhouse horse looking for third consecutive win.

Sharp Rise: English shipper joined Charlie Longsdon’s in May and just keeps getting better with four wins and a second in six starts. Rose through handicap ranks so quickly that American try (and $350,000 purse) seemed like a logical move. Nine-year-old has never run against top English company, but is comparable to Dawalan, Rawnaq, Scorpiancer and some other imports. Will be forwardly placed, which will be interesting to see. Rawnaq’s jockey Ruby Walsh rode against his mount at the Iroquois so knows what he has. Brian Hughes will have to decide where he wants to be – in front of Rawnaq or behind him. Choice will be fascinating to watch unfold. Horse looked fresh and happy Thursday at Pennsylvania training yard of Leslie Young. Big-time player if he can continue improvement.

Scorpiancer. Tod Marks photo
Scorpiancer: Tried, and failed, against Rawnaq in Gwathmey and  Iroquois but went racing this summer and did not disappoint with a second, a third and a win in Grade 1 races at Saratoga and Belmont  Park. Jockey McDermott rode Rawnaq last year and knows the challenge. Will benefit from some pace up front, but might have to be first to challenge Sharp Rise and Rawnaq. Needs to step forward – again – to threaten Rawnaq and a repeat of kick shown at Belmont would help cause. Race there was better than second Saratoga run thanks to fresher turf and there’s no turf fresher than Far Hills. Makes seventh start of year for Fisher, whose horses are flying.

Days Of Heaven: Nicky Henderson sold Dawalan out of his barn last year, then watched him win this and become an American champion. The trainer bought this 6-year-old Fench-bred for American owner Gill Johnston in May and started planning for this race. Won a Grade 2 as a novice last year and has taken on some bigger names – including Nichols Canyon – over there. Prep for this got sidetracked when he lost Nico De Boinville with a jumping mistake at Worcester. Powerful horse stays the trip and won over chase fences in May. Must respect, given connections.

Andi’amu: What a cool horse. His American record consists of nine starts over jumps. He’s been first or second in seven, including a stakes win last year at Montpelier, a second in the Grade 1 New York Turf Writers Cup at Saratoga. He got in light that day and lost by a length at 21-1. Champion jockey Paddy Young rides for his wife Leslie and Ballybristol Farm, and will look for an upset, and some help. Only start against Rawnaq resulted in a lopsided defeat, but 6-year-old former Warren Greatrex runner is competitive with Scorpiancer. “We gave the Grade 1 at Saratoga a shot and he ran his race,” said Leslie Young. “Obviously you have Rawnaq but he hasn’t run all summer. If you’re going to run against him it’s now and for that kind of money. There’s nothing flashy or spectacular about him, but he runs that race no matter where we take him.”

Parker’s Project: He’s won just six this year, but you really can’t have a major jump race in the United States without Jonathan Sheppard. This is one of two for the Hall of Famer, and both come off lengthy layoffs. This 10-year-old hasn’t run since May 2015, but won a stakes that year and made three Grade 1 starts the year before – finishing second to Demonstrative in the Lonesome Glory, third to that rival in the Grand National and then sixth behind Divine Fortune in the Colonial Cup. Ross Geraghty, who won this in 2009 and 2011, takes the ride. Prep at Shawan Downs had to help, as did Friday schooling session on the farm. You know he’s as ready as he can be.

Martini Brother: Sheppard’s second runner finished second in the 2015 A.P. Smithwick at Saratoga, but has not run since. Before that, he won three consecutive starts in 2013 – a maiden at Atlanta, an allowance at Radnor and a novice stakes at Saratoga. Giving away heaps of experience, he finished third in the Grade 1 Turf Writers that year. Always considered a big talent, the son of A.P. Indy and Grade 1 flat winner Island Sand tightened for this on the flat at Shawan. You’d put him in your trifecta box, but it’s been more than three years since he won a race and he fell in his only start at Far Hills.

Drop the flag and let them run…