Lions. Absolute lions. Or at least lion-hearted. As Saturday’s Iroquois Steeplechase reached its crescendo, Surprising Soul and Scorpiancer turned the final corner, and squared up two fences and a quarter-mile of uphill straightaway.
Neither cracked. But one had to win.
Ultimately, Scorpiancer – champion steeplechaser and Iroquois winner of 2017 – turned back time and prevailed in the $150,000 Grade 1 by a length for Bruton Street-US, trainer Jack Fisher and jockey Sean McDermott. Surprising Soul, racing for Wendy and Ricky Hendriks and ridden by Ross Geraghty, lost nothing in defeat. Moscato, another Bruton Street-Fisher runner, rallied late to grab third a nose behind the runner-up in the feature race at the meet at Percy Warner Park in Nashville, Tenn.
“That guy has such a heart, he wants to do it,” McDermott said of Scorpianer. “The way he jumped today is probably the best he’s ever jumped. He’s never been the most scopy horse, but he did very well and jumped brilliantly today. Look, I’m over the moon.”
For everybody – himself, Fisher, owners Mike Hankin, Charlie Noell and Charlie Fenwick – but mostly the horse.
“He just wants to win,” said the jockey. “He’s your top student in your class that wants to do it. He wants to please.”
The Iroquois attracted a select field of six, four from the Fisher barn. English-bred Moscato, fresh off a win in the Temple Gwathmey last month at Middleburg, assumed the favorite’s role. The gray won over the course in 2017, en route to a novice championship, but missed last season with an injury. His off-the-bench effort at Middleburg signaled his readiness for Grade 1 competition. Irish-bred Gibralfaro stepped up the ladder, off a $100,000 novice win at the Queen’s Cup two weeks earlier. German-bred Jaleo was third in the Gwathmey. Irish-bred 10-year-old Scopriancer was superb two seasons ago, but didn’t inspire much confidence after pulling up in the Gwathmey – his first start since winning the 2017 Iroquois. Beyond the four Fishers, Surprising Soul came in off a fourth in the Carolina Cup handicap hurdle March 30 and veteran All The Way Jose looked to find his best form off eight consecutive defeats dating to 2017.
Jaleo (Willie McCarthy) made the early running as the field started in front of the stands for two laps of the demanding course. Surprising Soul and All The Way Jose were also strong early and the trio briefly matched strides after racing down the hill and making the first turn. All The Way Jose (Tom Garner) took over soon enough and bounded clear by 5 lengths at the midway point. Behind them, the others bided time. Surprising Soul (Ross Geraghty) sat third early, and moved to second when Jaleo dropped back. Just behind them, Scorpiancer stayed on hold – jumping well and shifting out to fresh turf on the track’s long straights.
“I went wide everywhere for the better ground,” McDermott said. “I noticed all the guys stuck down on the inner and I was surprised none of them followed me but there was a big difference from where six races had been to where I was. I came in on the turns and when I switched out wide he just traveled and jumped.”
As it always does, the final half-mile told the tale. It’s the same in every Iroquois. The climb starts to make its impact, stamina comes to the fore, the jumps get more important and horses are either staying on or hanging on.
All The Way Jose took them over the third-last, but only barely as Surprising Soul ranged alongside. To his outside loomed Scorpiancer – engaged, traveling, threatening. Fourth at the top of the stretch, Moscato (Mikey Mitchell) briefly rallied on the inside as All The Way Jose backed out of it but switched to the outside when the hole tightened – losing ground just as Surprising Soul and Scorpiancer went on.
At the second-last, Surprising Soul took off with a slim lead, but was soon matched by Scorpiancer and they headed to the last as a team. They landed together, with Scorpiancer putting his head in front a few strides after touching down and seeing it through while edging away by a length in the final strides as McDermott raised his whip in triumph and threw several right-handed punches in the air. Moscato made up 4 lengths in deep stretch, but settled for third – a nose away from a 1-2 finish for owner and trainer. All The Way Jose was fourth, followed by Jaleo and Gibralfaro.
“He has a massive heart but I said it here before, he’s a marathon runner,” said McDermott. “He’s not fast. I’d beat him myself up the gallop in a piece of work. He wasn’t suited to it the day he won the Grade 1 with me at Belmont (in 2016). That was tough for him because he just doesn’t have the pace for those flat tracks. But he gets to these country tracks, he has a lot of heart – big lungs.”
And loads of try.
With four runners in the season’s first Grade 1, and a barn full of stars, Fisher doesn’t play favorites. However . . .
“That’s the horse I wanted to win,” he said before meeting Scorpiancer in the winner’s circle.
It’s easy to see why.
Bred in Ireland by Mary O’Connor, Scorpiancer won an Irish Point-to-Point as a 5-year-old in 2014, added a maiden hurdle at England’s Ludlow Racecourse in 2015 and placed in three more hurdle starts before being purchased by Bruton Street-US and Fisher. He won both American jump starts in 2015, captured the Grade 1 Lonesome Glory in 2016 (a year that included four stakes placings and a fourth in the Iroquois), and took the seasonal championship with wins in the Gwathmey and the Iroquois – his only two starts – in 2017. Shelved with an injury while prepping for a fall campaign that year, Scorpiancer missed 2018 entirely. His 2019 started with a 10th (of 12) in a flat race at Green Spring Valley Point-to-Point and then the pull up in the Gwathmey. Neither was particularly inspiring, but that didn’t matter at the Iroquois.
“If you go to run a 10K race and you pull up after six and were unable to finish, that’s what he felt like, he was struggling,” said McDermott. “I’m going to ride every horse to the best of their ability every day and If they’re good enough they’ll win but I just felt his run was too bad to be true in Middleburg. That’s OK if you have three months or two months to the next race, but it’s such a short window I was amazed he could come back here and win today.
“They’re amazing animals.”
Scorpiancer became the 20th horse to win the Iroquois twice (there’s been one three-time winner, Uncle Edwin, in 78 runnings) and improved to 7-for-18 over jumps. The $90,000 payday pushed his earnings to $543,090.
Other Iroquois Action
• Trainer Jonathan Sheppard got on the board early when KMSN Stable’s Sportswear (Gerard Galligan) improved to 2-for-2 over hurdles with a half-length win over Whitman’s Poetry in the opener, a $50,000 allowance hurdle. Repeat Repeat was third. Bred in England by Will Farish, the winner is a son of Frankel and the Red Ransom mare Casual Look. Sportswear lost all five flat starts for trainers Chad Brown and Neil Howard before being purchased for $30,000 at Keeneland November last year. The 4-year-old won his hurdle debut at Middleburg last month and has now earned $48,000 in his new career.
• Lord Justice (Mikey Mitchell) won the 3-mile 125 handicap hurdle for Fisher and Bruton Street, rallying from off the pace to win by 4 1/2 lengths over Irish raider Stooshie from the Gordon Elliott barn with Motivational third. Bred in Ireland, the winner collected his second American hurdle score after winning an allowance race over the course last year.
• Riverdee Stable’s City Dreamer (McDermott) got up in the final yards to win the $100,000 Marcellus Frost novice stakes by a neck over Help From Heaven with Winston C third. Five horses – the first three home plus Chief Justice and Barnacle Bill – jumped the last with chances. Trained by Fisher, the winner captured his first American score after winning twice over hurdles in England in 2017. The Irish-bred son of Casamento was fourth two weeks earlier at the Queen’s Cup.
• Sheppard won the $50,000 Margaret Henley filly and mare hurdle stakes as the owner and trainer of Wigwam Baby (Aaron Sinnott), who put an experience edge to work while winning by 1 1/4 lengths over Down Royal with Sarah Joyce third. The latter was bidding for a third consecutive win in the race. Bred by Sheppard and Bill Pape, Wigwam Baby came into the race with 15 career starts over jumps. Among 11 starters, only Sarah Joyce (with 16) had more than seven prior starts. Wigwam Baby halted a losing streak dating to April 23, 2016.
• Rosbrian Farm and the Half Married Syndicate’s Markhan ran away with the $40,000 maiden hurdle for the Irish. Davy Russell rode the winner for trainer Gordon Elliott. Bred in Kentucky, the son of Birdstone sold for $13,000 at Keeneland September in 2014 and came into Saturday with five wins in 37 starts in Ireland and England. The 6-year-old had placed in three of four hurdle starts last year and came into Saturday off a 2-mile flat win on the all-weather at Dundalk in March. Snap Decision rallied late to be second with Archanova third.
• The four-horse allowance timber turned into a three-horse race as Satish lost Sinnott at the first fence. Dolly Fisher’s Schoodic (Hadden Frost) improved to 2-for-2 over timber with a 16 3/4-length win over Mercoeur, who set a crawling pace. Codrington College was even farther back in third. Schoodic won stakes over hurdles before converting this year and winning a maiden timber at My Lady’s Manor in April.
• Fisher’s four wins gave him 17 on the year, 10 more than his nearest rival (Sheppard).