Hard Road: Grand National to Maryland Hunt Cup

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The Grand National and the Maryland Hunt Cup ­- seven and a quarter miles in seven days. And flat trainers fret when they have to drag a horse from the Kentucky Derby to the Preakness…that’s two and seven sixteenths miles in 14 days. Child’s play.

Whether trainers choose the allowance timber or the timber stakes on Butler Road on the second-to-last Saturday of April, the stakes are the same. Run well, jump well, come back and well and it’s Tufton Avenue a week later. In a rapidly changing world, the Maryland timber season doesn’t change – seven-plus miles in seven days.

This year’s Grand National – part of a three-race card that starts at 3:15 Saturday afternoon – is the same as last year’s Grand National and the same as Jay Trump’s Grand National and Winton’s Grand National…get around, show you’re brave, get a blow, but leave enough in the tank.

Connor Hankin rides Delta Park in the Grand National and Lion’s Double in the allowance race. Both trained by Jack Fisher, they’re coming from different dug outs. Delta Park has plenty of ability but fell in the Maryland Hunt Cup last year. Lion’s Double, also has plenty of ability, he’s never tried anything like the Grand National or the Maryland Hunt Cup.

Hankin knows the score.

“Lion’s Double has loads of scope, he’s a pretty cool jumper, I hunted him, rode him at Old Dominion. I rode Delta in the Grand National last year, I’m confident in his ability, he’s a cool horse, even at 11, he’s feeling as good as he ever has. Lion’s Double has a ton of talent but who knows how he’ll run, I’d like to think he’d run well but it’s a different jumping test for him,” Hankin said. “We’d like to get through this weekend, they’re both nominated to the Hunt Cup. Delta Park, you’d think if he jumped around great, then he certainly deserves another shot, a lot of people will tell you horses will learn a lot the first time, they’ve at least seen it before. Lion’s Double, I’d have to get off and think, ‘That was flawless, he has to go.’ Jack has expressed a similar thing.”

Hankin and Fisher won’t be alone in assessing Saturday’s performance and deciding on next Saturday’s prospects.

The Grand National. 

Almarmooq. Embarking on his third season of timber racing, the son of Dynaformer has rounded into a quality performer for Kathy Neilson and Irv Naylor. Finished second in the allowance race over the course last year, he’s jumped around Unionville’s course twice. James Slater, who has ridden him eight times, reunites. If he jumps around, he’ll earn a ticket to the Hunt Cup.

Twill Do. Two-time Maryland Hunt Cup winner has run at the Grand National every year since 2007. The 15-year-old makes his first start since finishing fourth in last year’s Hunt Cup for Lucy Goelet, Billy Meister and James Stierhoff. Meister will keep the instructions simple, “You know what to do, both of you have been here before. Sit out the back, pop around, see how he’s going and let him run a little at the end. It’s all about next week.”

Don’t Tell Sailor. Irish-bred has plenty of experience while chasing in England, ran well in three starts over timber last year and faces his biggest jumping task here for Rosbrian Farm, Paddy Neilson and Martin Rohan. Nine-year-old must prove he can run with these horses and jump these fences. If he does, he could go next week, but he needs to be faultless.

Delta Park. Winner of the Pennsylvania Hunt Cup last year, he’s proven his stamina. Winner of the New Jersey Hunt Cup in 2011, he’s proven his ability. Third in the Grand National last year, he’s proven over these fences. He’s unproven at the Maryland Hunt Cup fences, with a fall early last year. Arcadia Stable, Jack Fisher and Hankin want to win here and worry about next week next week.

Serene Harbor. Loyal servant in productive flat career when winning Pennsylvania-bred stakes, he missed two full seasons and returned as a timber horse for Todd McKenna in 2012, then missed all of 2013. Managed two wins last year but has yet to try this category. Faces an acid test over the fences and against the quality of this field. Having said that, class is class. Any inclination about the Hunt Cup must wait until he passes this barrier.

Raven’s Choice. Homebred blitzed around the course to win the allowance here last year, then connections skipped the Hunt Cup, thinking it was a year too soon for the Maryland-bred. Well, it’s a year later. Many would have gone last year and now it’s time to see if conservative thinking pays off. A repeat of last year’s performance stamps him as a contender for this race and for next week.

Imperial Way. For wont of a nose…missed the Hunt Cup in a photo last year and returns with his sights clearly on the same assignment this year. Trainer Elizabeth Voss cross-entered the 10-year-old veteran in the allowance as well. Doesn’t need to do anything to advance, simply jump around, sharpen the machine.

Guts For Garters. You don’t see this very often, Irish-bred finished 23 lengths behind Raven’s Choice and Almarmooq last year, then returned seven days later to win the Hunt Cup. Trainer Sanna Neilson cross-entered in the allowance as well and has opted to go there. Just like Imperial Way, needs to do nothing but sharpen the machine. Class horse, proven, don’t ask for spots at his fences or much at the end. The goal is next week.

Brother Sy. He’s 10, but still just a novice in this sphere, after learning the game last year. Two conservative spots reaped two wins last spring, then ran hard in three placed efforts in the fall. Too far out of it at the Manor, wheels right back in seven days. Lia McGuirk picks up the ride for Armata Stable and Todd Wyatt. Faces a big enough question here, all questions about next week are firmly on hold, he would have to run and jump and force his trainer’s hand. 

Snow Blizzard. Irish-bred made his seventh timber start last week, winning by a neck for Bethany Baumgardner, who also rides Imperial Way. Love the easy prep last week, now faces his sternest test to date. Trainer Nancy Knox has taken her time and now it’s time. As for next week, well, he’s still got to prove it.

Senior Senator. The youngest, least experienced and possibly best horse of the group – not a sentence typed very often when it comes to timber racing. Blythe Davies tabs Eric Poretz for the return ride. Oiled the engine for the entire journey last week and hard to see him far off the heat here. Nearly lost Poretz at one fence at the Manor but then cleared some of them by two feet. Could trainer Blythe Davies really be thinking Hunt Cup? Seems a year, two, maybe three years too soon. The unknown.

Brands Hatch. Fourteen-year-old veteran hasn’t been out since last spring and is cross-entered as well. Adair Stifel returns for her first NSA ride of the season. Son of A.P. Indy has tried the Hunt Cup twice, losing his jockey on both attempts. Looks hard-pressed to win this, looking for a confidence boost for owner, trainer, jockey and horse. 

As for the allowance, the same questions/thoughts/hopes/dreams apply for Spencer Road, Lion’s Double, Wildcatter, Wingo Star, Class Brahms, Terko Service, Mr Tack, Sovereign Fund and Classy Rascal.