It's come to this. The final stop on the 2016 National Steeplechase Association calendar occurs Saturday at Springdale Race Course in Camden, S.C. Seven races, lots of prize money, big fields, great day (how does 72 degrees and sun sound?) and some championships on the line.
Oh, and the TIHR handicappers are tied - TIED.
The $150,000 Colonial Cup gets most of the attention, and rightly so with a field of 10 including the year's top horse in Rawnaq. If Irv Naylor's Irish-bred is not the Eclipse Award winner then we'll take Ivanka Trump and Chelsea Clinton to lunch at Fair Hill Pizza in January. He's undefeated in three starts, has taken on all comers in the two biggest races of the year - and beaten Irish and English raiders - and gets one more chance to shine Saturday before heading to England for the famed Cheltenham Festival in March.
They still have to run the race though, and he meets nine capable runners who all hope the favorite has an off day. The other main component to Saturday's card is the race for the jockey championship. Kieran Norris (13 wins) seeks his first title with a one-win cushion on five-time champion Paddy Young. Sean McDermott (11) lurks just off the pace and if you want to go four deep, Ross Geraghty has 10. All have live mounts all day, which will be fun to watch.
On the other end of the spectrum, all three TIHR handicappers have 16 wins this fall (from 55 races). The percentage should be better but at least it's close. Joe and Tom had five winners each last week to force the tie, while Sean had three. There's supposed to be a case of Guinness on the line but nobody seems to pay up.
Now, on to Saturday - where post time is 11:30 a.m. to accommodate the card and the daylight. We'll try to keep up on Twitter via @joeclancy65 and/or @saratogaspecial.
First race. $30,000 maiden hurdle going 2 1/8 miles. A full field of 10 has contenders all over the place. Mr. Jenney looks live, as do Alcazar de Maram, Bugle Blues, Hooded and Aflutter. And Tricky Hat is overdue to show that big kick he had on the flat. Beware of Giza getting in off the AE list.
Joe: Alcazar de Maram, Mr. Jenney, Bugle Blues.
Sean: Mr. Jenney, Hooded, Bugle Blues.
Tom: Mr. Jenney, Hooded, Bugle Blues.
Second race. $30,000 maiden hurdle going 2 1/8 miles. Ten more maidens. This one doesn't feel quite as deep for some reason. Wild Dyanformer looks like a heavy favorite, but his best races have come at 2 1/2 miles. He better bring his track shoes for this. Misfortune (a Massachusetts bred of all things) could be a player.
Joe: Wild Dynaformer, Really Ready, Misfortune.
Sean: Wild Dynaformer, Show King, Strongbox.
Tom: Wild Dynaformer, Show King, Strongbox.
Third race. $25,000 Raymond Woolfe 3-year-old hurdle going 2 miles. Officer's Oath has won both 3-year-old races this year and looks tough again though he carries at least 8 more pounds than everyone. Invocation makes his second U.S. start. Mythmaker could improve and Popcastle has done nothing wrong in two seconds behind the favorite.
Joe: Officer's Oath, Invocation, Popcastle.
Sean: Officer's Oath, Popcastle, Mythmaker.
Tom: Officer's Oath, Popcastle, Mythmaker.
Fourth race. $30,000 filly and mare hurdle going 2 1/8 miles. Just six in here, but it'll be fun to see One Lucky Lady and Ivy Mills square off again. The latter prevailed in this race last year. Willow U can improve, as can Lady Yeats, Dino Mite and Sarah Joyce. The ladies are usually pretty competitive.
Joe: Ivy Mills, One Lucky Lady, Willow U.
Sean: One Lucky Lady, Lady Yeats, Ivy Mills.
Tom: One Lucky Lady, Ivy Mills, Sarah Joyce.
Fifth race. $150,000 Colonial Cup Grade 1 hurdle stakes going 2 3/4 miles. They've been running this race since 1970. None of the 17 fences is jumped twice and the race unfolds on the sprawling course. Rawnaq was second here last year and hasn't lost since. He's the horse to beat and most likely winner, but comes off a fairly hard race at Far Hills and there's a reason they post the results after the race. Martini Brother (blinkers on) and Parker's Project are as tough as they come. Jamarjo has never been worse than third in 11 starts over jumps. Portrade won a Grade 1 at Saratoga. Tempt Me Alex can run all day. Charminster led late in the Grade 1 Lonesome Glory at Belmont. Diplomat and Top Striker are the locals and are good enough to grab a share or pull an upset if Rawnaq has an off day. Days Of Heaven runs for Nicky Henderson. You need another reason to like him?
Joe: Rawnaq, Martini Brother, Days Of Heaven.
Sean: Rawnaq, Top Striker, Jamarjo.
Tom: Rawnaq, Top Striker, Portrade.
Sixth race. $25,000 hurdle handicap (120-100) going 2 5/16 miles. Love that this race (and the seventh) are named in memory of longtime Carolina/Colonial Cup director and Camden fixture Dale Thiel. He's mised. Big field, wide open.
Joe: Castle Hill, Second Amendment, Ack Feisty.
Sean: Castle Hill, Blue Atlantic, Ack Feisty.
Tom: Castle Hill, Perfect Union, Second Amendment.
Seventh race. $25,000 hurdle handicap (120-100) going 2 5/16 miles. Another one that anyone could win.
Joe: Formidable Heart, Yellow Mountain, Dye Fore.
Sean: Formidable Heart, Yellow Mountain, Canadian Gold.
Tom: Yellow Mountain, Orchestra Leader, Stormy Alex.
Full Disclosure: Joe posted this so saw everyone's picks, which may or may not be an advantage, and made late changes in the first and the fifth so there could at least be some suspense on the day.