Breakout time. Three steeplechase meets - Montpelier, Callaway Gardens and Pennsylvania Hunt Cup - could make or break the season for horsemen and handicappers. After this extravaganza, it's down to the Colonial Cup meet and then a winter's nap.
Irv Naylor, Jack Fisher, Rawnaq and Two's Company have clinched their respective titles, but the jockeys, oh the jockeys, will battle to a gladiatorial end. Red-hot Kieran Norris leads with 13 wins over Jack Doyle (who's mending from a broken pelvis). Sean McDermott and Ross Geraghty lurk with 10 wins apiece. Upstart Gerard Galligan, nine wins, and veteran Paddy Young, eight, are still sniffing with a possible 15 remaining opportunities.
For the weekend, Norris heads to Georgia with four rides, (Enuff Alex, Zanclus, Spoiler Alert, Formidable Heart). McDermott rides the card as well (Syros, Lemony Bay, Other Cheek, Ice It). Geraghty is a little lighter with three rides (Ryvit, Surprising Soul, Hisaabaat). In Virginia, Young and Galligan try to do cannonballs into Norris' picnic. Young, who has five championship titles already, rides five (Doc Cebu, Baumer, Mercoeur, Hedonemewrongsong, Cul Baire) and Galligan counters with four (Powerofone, Ohthgift, Giza, Parker's Project).
Analyzing their bookings, Norris could easily win the timber aboard Zanclus and is certainly live in the novice with Formidable Heart. McDermott could win four - Syros, Other Cheek and Ice It would probably be favorites. Geraghty holds a strong chance with Surprising Soul but it's a deep maiden field. Young has chances all day, with Mercoeur and Baumer leading the charge. Galligan has bullets as well, Ohthgift and Giza could easily win and veterans Powerofone and Parker's Project shouldn't be discounted.
Ride like the wind, boys.
As for the TIHR Handicappers, well, it's still windy. Last week, Sean "Little League" Clancy picked two winners (Green Lazer, Pram) at Aiken, Joe "Breeders' Cup" Clancy countered with two (Green Lazer, Longing To Travel) and Tom "Am I Still on the Bourbon Chase?" Law rallied with three (Green Lazer, Longing To Travel, Pram).
For the season, Sean leads with 13 wins (from 49 races), but did earn a head-shaking emoji with the pick of Hard Spun Lover over Longing To Travel at Aiken (are there demerits in this competition?). Joe and Tom, with 11 wins apiece, loom larger than California Chrome on Arrogate's shoulder at the quarter pole in the Breeders' Cup Classic. Of course, brothers will be brothers, Joe and Sean differ on just four races over three cards while "Pink Sheet" Tom throws darts from the bleachers in a few.
The Montpelier Hunt Races. Montpelier Station, Va. First race, 12:30 p.m. Saturday
Race 1. The Montpelier Foundation Cup. Virginia-bred or Sired Training Flat. 1 mile on the dirt.
The only dirt race on the circuit, five show up here, led by Neil Morris entry Brindabella and Akubra. The former, bred by Mr. and Mrs. Matthew Cahir, earned a 55 Beyer Figure at Laurel in April.
- Sean: Brindabella, Life's Fortune, Akubra.
- Joe: Brindabella, Virginia Rose, Indian Ambush.
- Tom: Brindabella, Virginia Rose, Indian Ambush.
Race 2. The Madison Plate. Ratings Hurdle (115-95). $20,000. 2 3/8 miles.
Don't forget to salute the fourth president of the United States, James Madison, as you drive into Montpelier. Another deep and competitive ratings race, Kingofalldiamonds just missed at Virginia Fall while Tubal sports eight on-the-board finishes in his nine-race career. Debut maiden breakers True To Form and Doc Cebu take their first strokes into deeper water.
- Sean: Kingofalldiamonds, Tubal, Naturally Won.
- Joe: Kingofalldiamonds, Class Cherokee, True To Form.
- Tom: True To Form, Kingofalldiamonds, Longing To Travel.
Race 3. The Battleship. Maiden Claiming Hurdle. $15,000. 2 3/8 miles.
Don't forget to salute Battleship, a legend of a racehorse. Baumer takes the most important drop in racing, going from a maiden to a maiden claimer. Ohthgift and Perkup hit the board on recent forays to Aiken.
- Sean: Ohthgift, Baumer, Perkup.
- Joe: Ohthgift, Baumer, Balistes.
- Tom: Perkup, Last Farewell, Ohthgift.
Race 4. The Constitution Hurdle. Maiden Hurdle. $20,000. 2 3/8 miles.
Graduation Day. Mercoeur has chased decent maidens in four tries, earning checks in each start, but missed all summer and most of the fall. Giza improved in his fifth hurdle start, finishing third behind next-out winner Formidable Heart. Make sure you hit Mary McGlothlin with a bucket of water if Woodfield Springs wins.
- Sean: Woodfield Springs, Giza, Mercoeur.
- Joe: Mercoeur, Giza, Woodfield Springs.
- Tom: Mercoeur, Giza, Atherton.
Race 5. The Montpelier Cup. Filly & Mare Allowance Hurdle. $25,000. 2 3/8 miles.
Interesting spot for distaff jumpers, taking advantage of the non-winners-of-two condition while staying with their own gender. The Grange has been confusing this fall, refusing at Far Hills but finishing fourth on the flat at Aiken. Sarah Joyce ran OK in her stateside debut at Far Hills. Remember when we cashed on Hedonemewrongsong at Saratoga in 2012?
- Sean: The Grange, Sarah Joyce, Pure Deal.
- Joe: The Grange, Hedonemewrongsong, So Far Away.
- Tom: So Far Away, The Grange, Pure Deal.
Race 6. The Noel Laing. Hurdle Handicap. $35,000. 2 1/2 miles.
Classic hurdle stakes attracts an eclectic group over the classic Montpelier brush course. We've been around so long, we remember when all the races were run over the natural brush course.
Wow, what a discrepancy in accomplishments. Parker's Project and Martini Brother carry 156 and 154, Swansea Mile carries 148 and the rest tote a feathery 140. Saluda Sam will certainly like the hedges, but can he escape from Sheppard's pair of hurdle veterans?
- Sean: Martini Brother, Parker's Project, Cul Baire.
- Joe: Martini Brother, Cul Baire, Orchestra Leader.
- Tom: Orchestra Leader, Swansea Mile, Martini Brother
Race 7. The Liberty Cup. Training Flat. 1 1/2 miles on the flat.
This is where titles are won and lost - well, handicapping titles. High-profile hurdlers Jamarjo, Tempt Me Alex and Cocodimama prep for bigger things.
- Sean: Jamarjo, Any Given Royal, Tempt Me Alex.
- Joe: Tempt Me Alex, Jamarjo, Disobedience.
- Tom: Jamarjo, Tempt Me Alex, Cocodimama.
The Steeplechase at Callaway. Pine Mountain, Ga. First race, 1:00 p.m. Saturday
Race 1. The W.C. Bradley. Maiden Timber. $15,000. 3 1/8 miles.
The Last Chance Saloon. Jack Fisher was the first trainer to switch young hurdle horses to the timber game. It worked with the likes of Saluter, Call Louis, South Of Java and many others. He's double fisted here with Syros and Sharp Numbers. If you're wondering about Enuff Alex's jumping, watch the video of his leap in front of the stands at the International Gold Cup, the Maryland Hunt Cup could be within his scope.
- Sean: Syros, Sharp Numbers, Duc de Savoie.
- Joe: Syros, Duc de Savoie, Ryvit.
- Tom: Sharp Numbers, Syros Duc de Savoie.
Race 2. The C B & T Cup. Open Timber. $25,000. 3 1/8 miles.
A competitive group of timber toppers reach for one last pick off the tree for 2016. Zanclus dominated at Great Meadow while Le Chevalier dominated at Far Hills. Hard to fault Top Man Michael, Rodriguez and Lemony Bay.
- Sean: Le Chevalier, Zanclus, Lemony Bay.
- Joe: Le Chevalier, Lemony Bay, Zanclus.
- Tom: Zanclus, Lemony Bay, Rodriguez.
Race 3. The Crown Royal. Sport of Kings Maiden Hurdle. $30,000. 2 1/4 miles.
The maiden races aren't getting any easier.
It's hard to believe that Surprising Soul, Meteoroid, Hooded, Spoiler Alert, Other Cheek and Signature Look have combined to go 0-for-36 in their hurdle careers. All are talented horses and should be bolstering the allowance ranks instead of clashing in the maiden division.
Editorial note: The sport needs to somehow create more maiden opportunities.
- Sean: Other Cheek, Surprising Soul, Hooded.
- Joe: Other Cheek, Hooded, Signature Look.
- Tom: Other Cheek, Signature Look, Hooded.
Race 4. The AFLAC Supreme Hurdle. Novice Hurdle Stakes. $75,000. 2 1/4 miles.
Special Skills and Ice It converged at the wire at Far Hills. They could converge again in the competitive feature. Willie McCarthy benefitted the most by the double meets, he picks up a key ride on Special Skills. Free-running All That Rules could make it interesting.
- Sean: Ice It, Special Skills, All That Rules.
- Joe: Ice It, Special Skills, Formidable Heart.
- Tom: All That Rules, Special Skills, Ice It.
Race 5. The Standard Concrete. Allowance Flat. $25,000. 1 1/2 miles.
A cool $25,000 up for grabs in the finale. Nice to see flat trainer Ben Colebrook show up in the owner's column.
- Sean: Mutasaawy, Winter House, Buck Benny.
- Joe: Mutasaawy, Winter House, Gumper.
- Tom: Winter House, Mutasaawy, Archiboldo.
The Pennsylvania Hunt Cup. Unionville, Pa. First race, 1:30 p.m. Sunday
Race 1. The Lewis C. Ledyard. Maiden Timber. $15,000. 3-miles.
Ten maidens line up for the winter feed fund. Surf Classic has performed well in two starts this fall and must be a good thing in here, but don't tell trainer Eddie Graham we wrote that, he'll think we jinxed him.
- Sean: Surf Classic, De Chera, Derwins Prospector.
- Joe: Surf Classic, De Chera, Henry San.
- Tom: Durer, Derwins Prospector, Surf Classic.
Race 2. The Arthur O. Choate Jr. Memorial. Allowance Timber. $20,000. 3 miles.
Take a moment and remember Choate, Ledyard and the patrons of our game.
Prime Prospector certainly won't face the likes of Grand Manan and Two's Company here. Can Young claw his way back to the top? This one is key.
- Sean: Prime Prospector, Battle Aray, Canyon Road.
- Joe: West Is Best, Battle Aray, Prime Prospector.
- Tom: Prime Prospector, Canyon Road, Battle Aray.
Race 3. The Pennsylvania Hunt Cup. Timber Stakes. $35,000. 4 miles.
Eighty-two years and counting, the iconic timber stakes attracts a stellar group, led by former timber champion Grinding Speed, Virginia Gold Cup winner Ebanour and Bruton Street-US' pair Ballylifen and Drift Society. Talent, moxie, precision, boldness - they'll need all and then some.
- Sean: Ebanour, Drift Society, Grinding Speed.
- Joe: Ebanour, Drift Society, Grinding Speed.
- Tom: Ebanour, Drift Society, Grinding Speed.
Race 4. The Athenian Idol. Apprentice Jockey Training Flat Race. 1 3/8-miles.
It's always fun to see apprentices get an opportunity and the Athenian Idol has always provided one. Wonder how many future champion jockeys rode in this race?
- Sean: J. S. Wildar, Spirit Of Shankly, It's Nothing.
- Joe: Lawn Ranger, Officer Sydney, J. S. Wildar.
- Tom: Spirit Of Shankly, Officer Sydney, Mogaz.