Grand National at Far Hills anybody’s race

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Paddy Young and Willie McCarthy ride in Saturday’s Grand National, a $250,000 Grade 1 steeplechase, headliner of the card at the Far Hills Races and the richest jump race in North America. And came up with the same conclusion.

Young: “I could name seven horses and still one of the others could come and win . . . Demonstrative has to hit form at some stage. He’s got to run his best race again sometime.”

McCarthy: “You could pick out anybody in the race, make a case for any of them . . . if Demonstrative comes back to form, I suppose he’d be the big one.”

Such is the reach of the Jacqueline Ohrstrom’s 6-year-old gelding, a three-time Grade 1 winner and everybody’s choice as the country’s best steeplechaser on his best day. Of course, neither of Demonstrative’s two races since May’s win in the Iroquois has been his best day.

He got a cough and missed the A.P. Smithwick at Saratoga, then tried to make up for lost time and flubbed the New York Turf Writers Cup late in the meet. Trainer Richard Valentine put his stable star back on the van and went to Belmont Park in September, and Demonstrative settled for fourth, a little more than 4 lengths behind Gustavian in the Lonesome Glory.

Now comes Far Hills and a wide open Grand National. Valentine likes what he sees at home and takes his horse back to New Jersey where he finished fourth in soft ground last year.

“I’m happy. The only thing he doesn’t seem to run his best races around Far Hills,” Valentine said. “I think it’s the ground, the ground should be in his favor this year. His coat looks great, his top line looks good, he’s put on condition and muscled up since Saratoga. He was not beaten that far, considering he was giving weight away in the Lonesome Glory. I think he’s very good. Do horses mentally remember places? I don’t know. I’m very happy with him.”

All the names are part of the 11-horse field. Demonstrative, Divine Fortune, Pierrot Lunaire, Gustavian, Italian Wedding, Martini Brother, All Together, Barnstorming, Hunt Ball, Spy In The Sky. It’s the fifth race at Far Hills, with post time of about 3:20 p.m.

Major contenders fill every slot, with McCarthy and Young holding big chances with Pierrot Lunaire and Gustavian, respectively. The former collected the big payday in the 2012 Grand National, less than a month after upsetting the Lonesome Glory. The Grade 1 double halted a nine-race, three-year losing streak and pushed the son of War Chant to the Eclipse Award as champion steeplechaser – in a photo over Demonstrative.

Idle since winning at Far Hills in 2012, the 9-year-old had a flat tune-up at Shawan Downs late last month and feels good according to McCarthy.

“I’ve schooled him a few times now and the horse feels super,” said McCarthy. “He felt great that day at Shawan and that will put him as straight as you’d think he would be. I’m very happy with him.”

Owned by Mary Ann  Houghland, Pierrot Lunaire is the fresh horse in the field, taking on several from the Lonesome Glory plus two whose last starts came at Saratoga. McCarthy picked up the ride when Bernie Dalton opted to stick with Italian Wedding, whose three starts this year have yielded a win, a second and a third (all Grade 1).

“The sun’s been shining down on me,” said McCarthy. “I don’t have a big horse to ride and Bernie had a hard decision. I wouldn’t have wanted to make it.”

Young had no decision, as he will partner once again with Gustavian, who is trained by his wife Leslie for Maggie Bryant. The 7-year-old has been worse than third just once in a dozen steeplechase starts and comes off a win in the Lonesome Glory over Saturday rivals All Together, Italian Wedding, Demonstrative, Hunt Ball, Divine Fortune and Spy In The Sky. The son of Giant’s Causeway finished second in the novice at Far Hills last year in a solid effort.

“With him there’s no shock, he runs the same race,” said the jockey. “As long as they don’t go crazy he’ll sit in the first three. You have to hope the ones that are going on go long enough that you don’t hit the front too soon. He’s simple to ride, there’s no trick to him bar not hitting the front too soon. He ran well last year and that helps. The leaders just came back a little bit sooner than I thought they were going to.”

Timing matters with Gustavian, and Young has managed to win races by a nose, a half-length and three-quarters of a length on the Kentucky-bred whose dam Mossflower won a Grade 1 on the flat. After the Lonesome Glory, Gustavian went to Maui Meadow Farm for a swimming program (a frequent spot for him) to stay of the firm turf, then got back to galloping once the rains came to Pennsylvania.

“He needs to step up again, on what he has done, to get the job done,” Young said. “Every race he’s run in there’s been good horses in there but this is a good race. There are 12 serious horses in this, no real dropouts. It will be more about getting a good trip on him, hoping he does his thing, hoping he doesn’t make any mistakes. He deserves to be in there and he’s got a good a chance as any horse in the race.”

Grand National Notes

– Veteran Left Unsaid makes his first start since finishing fourth in the 2012 Grand National and could deliver a win for one the race meet’s biggest fans in Betty Merck. She and her son Laddie own the 9-year-old (co-bred by Bobby Frankel), whose on-again, off-again 11-start jump career includes eight finishes in the exacta. Sean McDermott rides the son of Dynaformer, who won over the course in 2009, for trainer Tom Voss.

– The race will, as usual, factor in the Eclipse Award voting. Four Grade 1 races have produced four winners so far this year and three are in this race. Demonstrative won the Iroquois in May. Italian Wedding won the Turf Writers at Saratoga. Gustavian won the Lonesome Glory. Only Smithwick winner Mr. Hot Stuff bypasses the Grand National. Only November’s Colonial Cup remains after Far Hills in terms of Grade 1 jump races.

– Divine Fortune makes his 15th start in a Grade 1 steeplechase, and looks for his first win. He’s been second five times, including a game effort in the 2012 Grand National, where he led throughout and was run down by Pierrot Lunaire in the stretch. The veteran lost a shoe in his last start, and drifted out badly in the stretch. He gets firmer turf than last year and could take the field a long way Saturday for jockey Darren Nagle and trainer Jonathan Sheppard.

– Eight-time English winner Hunt Ball gets to run on a course that should suit him, but does not get the soft turf Far Hills is known for. The 8-year-old is still seeking a decent American finish in his short career on this side of the Atlantic. Far Hills will suit him, but pressing the pace has not worked thus far.

– Veteran Danzig gelding All Together comes off back-to-back runner-up efforts in Grade 1 stakes, after dropping to the claiming ranks back in May. The 8-year-old won at Saratoga, then pushed Italian Wedding in the Turf Writers and Gustavian in the Lonesome Glory despite a blunder at the last fence.

Watch the Loneseome Glory.

Watch the Turf Writers.