Jack Fisher was aerating and seeding on his Maryland farm Wednesday afternoon and had plenty of time to talk while driving the tractor. Much of what he said was sarcastic. Some was unprintable. But plenty more was pure horse-training gold. North America’s six-time defending champion steeplechase trainer runs 15 horses at Saturday’s Far Hills Races in New Jersey, a number so big he recruited Hogan Horse Transportation’s tractor trailer rig to help.
“We don’t have that many vans,” Fisher said. “But why not run? Far Hills has the money, they put on a good show, owners like to go there. You’ve got to run there.”
Fisher and Ricky Hendriks are knotted at the top of the 2018 standings with 15 wins each, so Far Hills carries plenty of importance beyond its $900,000 in purses.
“I said in June I had Ricky right where I wanted him,” said Fisher, who didn’t (Hendriks led 7-2 in May). “We’re not worried. We can roll off five wins in a day, so we’ll see. I did everything like I usually do this spring, we just didn’t win as many races as we normally do, and I’m doing everything like I usually do now. When I start changing stuff up, I do worse – horses get hurt, they don’t win and it just doesn’t work.”
Fisher’s Far Hills squad includes two runners in the day’s feature – the $450,000 Grand National – which the barn won with Mr. Hot Stuff in 2017 and Good Night Shirt in 2008.
English-based Days Of Heaven represents Mr. Hot Stuff’s owner Gillian Johnston and makes his first start for Fisher. For trainer Nicky Henderson, the 8-year-old has won seven times including three handicap steeplechases last year. He made two American starts in 2016, a frantic fifth in the Grand National and a solid third in the Colonial Cup. The French-bred son of Saint des Saints has a reputation for bad behavior as evidenced by comments such as “Taken down early,” “Gave problems beforehand,” “Kept away from others,” and “Very unruly start” on his chart.
Days Of Heaven arrived in Fisher’s barn this summer, off a dull 11th at Market Rasen July 21, and skipped a potential prep at Belmont last month.
“I thought about running him there, but didn’t want to look stupid,” Fisher said. “The biggest problem with him is before the race and they have to go through that tunnel and stuff at Belmont. He might not have liked that. He’s got the talent. I think he’s kind of one speed, which can work there.”
Danny Mullins, who rode Mr. Hot Stuff to victory last year, comes over for the ride on the 10-1 shot.
Fisher’s second runner, Hinterland, represents Good Night Shirt’s owner Sonny Via and seeks his first win since December 2013. The gap seems extreme, but along the way the French-bred son of Poliglote has finished third to English star Dodging Bullets in the 2014 Tingle Creek and second to American stars Bob Le Beau, Scorpiancer and Zanjabeel (at 33-1 in September) since then. The 10-year-old makes his first start at Far Hills, and perplexes his trainer.
“He’s as good as ever, but I don’t know if that’s good enough,” Fisher said. “To be honest, Belmont shocked me. That horse was half fit. I had stopped on him and gave him a week off, then he didn’t have a problem and he went back in training.”
Hinterland raced with blinkers at Belmont due to a miscommunication with the racing office. Fisher wanted to put a hood on the horse, not blinkers, but the entry was made with blinkers so Hinterland raced with a pair of mild blinkers. He’ll go with just the hood Saturday. Sean McDermott rides at 10-1 on the morning line.
A spin through Fisher’s other runners.
First race (3-year-old hurdle): Knockholt was fourth at Shawan Downs and should move forward in his second try over jumps. The son of Temple City won his debut at Tampa Bay Downs, then lost three in a row on the flat.
Second race (maiden hurdle): Highly Prized makes his hurdle debut for Signal Hill Farm after winning five on the flat. Bred by Juddmonte Farm, the son of Manduro won on the turf at Fair Grounds in November for trainer Mike Stidham. “He’s got the flat form to do well and if he’s fit enough.” Riverdee Stable’s Motivational has placed three times in five hurdle tries, including two seconds and a third this year. Special Relation makes his third American jump start (and second for Fisher) after finishing third at Shawan Downs. The Irish-bred son of Casamento won once on the flat and made three hurdle starts in England.
Third race (handicap hurdle): With Rhythm seeks his second hurdle win for Johnston after a four-win flat career with Andre Fabre and Christophe Clement. The gray son of Thewayouare refused to start in a jump race at Shawan, but returned to finish second in a training flat race at Foxfield the next week. He was second over the course in 2016.
Fourth race (first division of Foxbrok novice): City Dreamer makes his second U.S. start for Riverdee after finishing fifth at Belmont. He was up close early that day and faded in his first start since May. “I think he needed that,” Fisher said. Woodslane Farm’s Pik Em steps up to stakes company off back-to-back wins in a maiden claimer in May and a handicap last month at High Hope. The son of Tapit cost $350,000 as a yearling and won once on the flat (by disqualification) for trainer Alan Goldberg. Notjudginjustsayin won a maiden at Fair Hill in May and got back to work with a fourth in allowance company (behind stablemate All For Us) at Shawan in late September. Owned by Northwoods Stable and Sheila Williams, the 4-year-old gets in light. “I’m hoping they all go too fast early. They could be cooking, which should help my horses.”
Fifth race (second division of Foxbrook novice): Clairborne-bred Cite has run just twice over jumps, an easy second and an easy win. Owned by Johnston, the 5-year-old son of Blame. “We went to High Hope for a run, but I scratched him when it rained and the turf came up so soft. That wouldn’t have been fair. He’s good and he’s going to be running in races like this. I wish he had another race or two.” Gibralfaro is the opposite of Cite with 14 starts over jumps. He won his U.S. debut in April, finished second to Iranistan in May and was a dull sixth at Belmont last month. Fisher thinks the Irish-bred will move forward, but he will need to. Like Gibralfaro, Ice It brings plenty of experience (17 prior starts) and has been second in this race twice – editorial comment: the novice condition might need a tweak. The 6-year-old Tapit gelding, who races for DASH Stable, has been second seven times over jumps including last time out at Belmont. “Will he be second again? Probably. But that’s all right. The purse is good and I know he’ll run well.” All For Us makes it four – in a field of nine – in the race for the Fisher barn. Duodecim Stable’s 7-year-old Tiz Wonderful gelding returned from a nearly two-year layoff to win at Shawan and has been third or better in all seven jump starts. “He’s good enough to win. He had a tendon and missed all that time.”
Sixth race (the Grand National, see above).
Seventh race (timber stakes): The barn staff gets a break here with just one runner to cap what may, or may not, be a big day. Two’s Company represents Bruton Street-US and looks for a return to the 2016 form that included four timber wins. He was third in his most recent two starts, the last at Middleburg a week ago.
He didn’t want to, but we made Fisher – who won two races at Far Hills last year, singled in 2016 and took three in 2015 – answer a few questions about his Far Hills runners:
Most likely winner? “No, I don’t do that . . . Hinterland (in the Grand National), because I like saying his name. I don’t know. They’re all doing well.”
Best ride? “Ice It (in the Foxbrook novice). We call him The Monkey because he bucks and turns and spins and does all that sort of crap.”
Best eater? “Hinterland. For real. He is.”
Weirdest? “Notjudginjustsayin (one of four Fisher runners in the fifth race). Everybody knows it.”