Grand National: Mystic Strike, Royal Ruse meet

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Get back on the horse. The National Steeplechase Association turns another page of its spring day planner and gets to the Grand National, another historic timber-only meet on the Maryland circuit and the last prep for the Maryland Hunt Cup, Saturday in Butler, Md.

Three races make up the card, headlined by the $30,000 Grand National at 3 1/4 miles. Called the “Little” Grand National in its early days and founded as something of the kid brother to the Hunt Cup in 1898 (four years after that other race), Saturday’s race stands alone as a sought-after victory for timber horses and their people. The course tests jumping with 18 stiff fences, and speed with a relatively flat layout compared to My Lady’s Manor the previous week. Serious Hunt Cup contenders have prepped at Butler for decades, even if different preparation routes happen a bit more frequently now.

Post time is 3:15 p.m., and the feature starts things off. And the fearless TIHR handicappers step into the batter’s box again. Last week, Sean and Joe came up with Road To Oz, but everybody was blanked in the other three races. Everyone is sorry they discounted Super Saturday in the finale last week – note to handicappers, if you see a horse out of a Cozzene mare in a steeplechase (any steeplechase) you could do a lot worse.

First race. $30,000 Grand National timber stakes going 3 1/4 miles. Nine turn up for the opener, and the feature. Mystic Strike, who slipped and fell early in the Manor a week ago, gets back to work. Not surprising, given what happened, but the plan did not originally involve running on back-to-back weekends. The 12-year-old Smart Strike gelding still holds firm as the horse to beat. He has won the Pennsylvania Hunt Cup (twice), the Manor and the Radnor Hunt Cup. The Grand National fits in that equation. Chris Gracie rides the Florida-bred, taking over for Gerard Galligan. A winner of the Western Run Plate at Butler (different course than the Grand National) in 2017, Mystic Strike seeks his seventh timber win. He’ll have to be ready as opponents include four-time timber winner Royal Ruse, course winner Hill Tie and stakes winners Grand Manan, Stand Down and Le Chevalier. Royal Ruse continues his progression through the timber ranks and gets a stakes test after winning three of his last four. He was third behind Curve Of Stones and Mystic Strike at Middleburg (beaten a length total) in October.

Tom: Mystic Strike, Hill Tie, Hanno.
Sean: Royal Ruse, Mystic Strike, Stand Down. 
Joe: Mystic Strike, Royal Ruse, Hill Tie.

Second race. $15,000 allowance timber (non-winners of two) going 3 1/4 miles. Basically the same course (a couple fences are different and they jump one fewer total) as the feature, the allowance drew a field of six and you’d be hard-pressed to pick a favorite. Joshua G. has taken several shots at timber stakes, but his only win came against maidens at Genesee Valley in 2014. Rocket Star Red’s lone win came by disqualification. Shootist could be on the rise, but this is not an easy course for your third timber start. Spoiler Alert (by Dyanformer out of Cox’s Ridge mare so stamina should not be an issue) won in 2018, but hasn’t beaten a horse in three starts since. Awesome Adrian won the flat twice in 2017 (after running over hurdles) and posted a timber win in 2019. The Maryland-bred opened 2021 with a second at Cheshire. Hooded is another for the pedigree experts (Juddmonte-bred by Empire Maker out of Grade 1-winning Danzig mare Yashmak) but an enigma with five seconds and three thirds over hurdles. The 10-year-old won over timber in 2018, and tuned up for this with a second at Piedmont and a win at Elkridge-Harford point-to-points.

Tom: Hooded, Awesome Adrian, Joshua G.
Sean: Hooded, Awesome Adrian, Joshua G. 
Joe: Hooded, Shootist, Joshua G.

Third race. $10,000 apprentice-jockey timber going 3 miles. The finale takes a different course entirely than the other two, and is meant to offer an opportunity for less-experienced horses and jockeys though you see plenty of crossover. Eight line up, including former flat (and hurdle) stakes horse My Afleet. He won the Dueling Grounds Derby at Kentucky Downs in 2014, and won his first two hurdle starts in 2017. It’s been a little sporadic since then, but he was third over the cross-country course at Great Meadow last fall and he tuned up for this with a second on the flat at Green Spring Valley Point-to-Point. Include It, Officer Sydney, As You Like It and Aquies also figure to be factors.

Tom: My Afleet, Include It, As You Like It.
Sean: Officer Sydney, My Afleet, Include It. 
Joe: My Afleet, Include It, Officer Sydney.

Like last week, the races are availabe on the NSA live stream (races only) with the Jump Racing USA recap show going up Monday at 7 p.m.