The fog and mist and chill and silence made Pennsylvania feel like England or Ireland, which was appropriate given the reason for standing on a country hillside early on a Thursday morning.
Down below, somewhere, English racehorses Days Of Heaven and Sharp Rise began to gallop. They'd eaten breakfast, been knocked off and tacked up and then hacked from the barn to the bottom of the field. Two days before the $350,000 American Grand National at the Far Hills Races in New Jersey, the two geldings didn't have much serious work to do - just a canter, as they say.
To the east a cow mooed, a reminder of this land's former purpose as part of the famed King Ranch. Somewhere, a rooster crowed. Closer, the relaxed exhalation of a horse rattled damp nostrils. Visibility went about 100 yards, and faded to pale gray. Crayola might call it Dusty Charcoal or Morning Gauze.
Soon enough came the soft rumble of a dozen Thoroughbred hooves climbing the slope. Paddy Young, five-time American champion jump jockey, led the way on Meteoroid, a U.S.-based maiden looking for a breakthrough Saturday. Close behind came Marcus Foley on Sharp Rise, a winner of five English races this year for trainer Charlie Longsdon. Next charged David Fehily on Days Of Heaven, a four-time winner from the far-reaching yard of top English trainer Nicky Henderson.
They looked steady, even, fit. There's no more work to be done. The training was simply something to do before turnout, before Foley, Fehily and their American host Leslie Young (Paddy's wife and trainer of three Far Hills runners) headed to the Lancaster outlets for some shopping.
"He's fit as a flea so it's just a case of keeping him fresh and ticking him over," said Foley of Sharp Rise. "This has been brilliant. We didn't want to stay at a track somewhere and have to use the track to train. It would be too much for him. He's a forward-going horse anyway and you don't want to expose him to too much."
Days Of Heaven and Sharp Rise left England Thursday and bedded down at the Youngs' barn Saturday after quarantine in Newburgh, N.Y. West of the village of Unionville in Chester County's Cheshire Hunt territory, the farm provides an ideal base camp for the visitors. There are stalls, turnout paddocks, that straight-out-of-Lambourn galloping field plus access to veterinary care if needed and a 115-mile ship to Far Hills Saturday morning. The visitors went to Fair Hill Equine Therapy Center (in nearby Maryland) Monday for treatment in a salt vapor room and a hyperbaric chamber.
Saturday, Days Of Heaven and Sharp Rise run in the richest jump race in North America as part of a field of eight. They'll have to beat heavy favorite Rawnaq, like them a transplant. Owned by Irv Naylor and based in Maryland with trainer Cyril Murphy, Irish-bred Rawnaq is 2-for-2 this year and finished third in the 2015 Grand National. The Irish-bred denied Irish raiders Shaneshill and Nichols Canyon in the Grade 1 Iroquois in May, and will have to summon a similar effort Saturday. All-star jockey Ruby Walsh jets in for the ride, due to an injury to Jack Doyle. Irish bookmaker Paddy Power has Rawnaq at 8-11 with Sharp Rise 3-1 and Days Of Heaven 11-2. Recent American Grade 1 winner Scorpiancer is 12-1, followed by Tempt Me Alex at 20-1 and Andi'amu, Parker's Project and Martini Brother at 25-1. The Grand National is the fourth of seven races on the card, which starts at 1 p.m.
The race's recent history has been kind to imports, though not necessarily raiders. Last year's winner Dawalan, Black Jack Blues (2011) and Your Sum Man (2009) were all brought over the same year they won the big race. Percussionist (2010) flew in just for the race, as did 2015 runner-up Eshtiaal and 2009 runner-up General Ledger.
On the English handicap scale, Sharp Rise (154 over hurdles) is 18 points higher than Days Of Heaven but former Henderson trainee Dawalan came over on a 147 and won the 2015 Grand National over Rawnaq (144).
Sharp Rise looks to be in the form of his life. The Irish-bred son of Coco Rouge tore through the English handicap ranks since being purchased by Longsdon and owner Rob Aplin at Doncaster in May. In six starts, he won four (three chases and a hurdle), finished second once and lost his jockey once. He's more than paid back Aplin's £32,000 purchase price, and slid up the handicap ranks to where his English future means taking on top-class runners, giving away weight or both - for less purse money.
Instead, he goes hunting for dollars.
"It's unbelievable," said Foley while grazing the bay gelding. "He was rated 132 or something and now he's 156, basically almost Grade 1 class. In six months, he's paid for himself and more. What's left for him in England before the ground goes (soft)? We discussed (an American try) and we thought he was sort of an ideal horse to do it. We spoke to the owner and he was like, 'Let's do it,' so here we are."
Brian Hughes flies in for the ride aboard the 9-year-old gelding, who looks more like an American flat horse than an English chaser. If he runs to form, he will be near the pace early. He won a fast, 2-mile hurdle in his last start - Sept. 13 at Stratford - but also saw out a 2 1/2-mile chase win at Uttoxeter in July.
Thursday, he looked relaxed while waiting his turn in the barn and easily followed Meteoroid up the hill. Sharp Rise (who didn't run until age 6) races on or near the pace, which could make things interesting Saturday
"He's won over 2 (miles), but he stays every yard of 2 1/2 as well," said Foley. "He's got a bit more speed to him. Rawnaq is the horse to beat. He beat Nichols Canyon and all them around Nashville, but he just galloped and galloped and galloped. Nichols Canyon looked like he didn't quite stay, where this lad hopefully will. He's got a bit more speed behind him. Far Hills would be a sharper track than Nashville, they're going a shorter distance and the ground should be what we like."
Three years younger, Days Of Heaven looks the part of an English chaser at first glance. He's brawnier, more powerful. Of course, he's done some of his best work in 2-mile hurdle races - winning three in a row in 2014-15. Bred in France, the son of Saint des Saints won a Grade 2 novice hurdle at Kempton in 2015, but was well-beaten in his final start of that campaign when ninth behind Nichols Canyon at Aintree. This year, Days Of Heaven finished seventh at Musselburgh in February and was 23rd (of 26) in the Coral Cup at the Cheltenham Festival. Switched from hurdling to chasing, he won a novice at Kempton in May before selling - but staying with Henderson - to American owner Gill Johnston, also at Doncaster in May. In his first start since May, Days Of Heaven unseated Nico De Boinville late in a handicap hurdle at Worcester Sept. 23.
Like Sharp Rise, the dark bay seems to have traveled well. After training Thursday, he dragged Fehily around looking for the perfect bit of grass to pick.
"He'll walk me halfway to England if I'm not careful," said Fehily, who spent a summer at Churchill Downs working for Todd Pletcher a few years back. "He's traveled very good. Every day you feel him, he digs in straightaway and is good. I think he has a good chance. Two years ago when he was a novice over hurdles he won a Grade 2. We thought 2 miles might be a bit sharp for him, but he won it and won it well. He's a good horse. He'll suit the race."
Though Days Of Heaven has been aiming for America most of the year, Fehily didn't get the call until two weeks ago when another "lad" couldn't make the trip. A win, in a foreign country, subbing for someone else in the barn, a year after a horse Henderson sold (Dawalan) won, would be dream.
"It would mean a lot, it would mean the world," said Fehily, especially when you're out here on your own. It would be a great feeling."
The races will be live-streamed on the Far Hills Races website.