And then there was steeplechasing. The sport returned with its first meet of the season, a full card at Middleburg Spring Races in Middleburg, Va., June 13. 

Surreal and serene, the 100th anniversary of the iconic meet at Glenwood Park was rescheduled from its traditional April date and took place without tailgate parties lining the outside rail, without owners watching from under the canopy of trees and without the sport’s next generation of fans climbing on the rock outcropping behind the old box seats.

With or without fans, Moscato dominated the Grade 3 Temple Gwathmey Stakes for Bruton Street-US, trainer Jack Fisher and jockey Michael Mitchell. The 9-year-old son of Hernando began last season in the same fashion, returning from 19-month layoff to hand Belisarius a 3 1/2-length defeat in the sport’s first hurdle stakes of the season. This year, the British-bred gray brushed off an eight-month layoff to dispatch Belisarius by 11 lengths. 

“It was pretty easy. I was just happy the way he was training at home he showed it on the track. I felt like he had grown in confidence and was a lot stronger and happier this year,” Mitchell said. “Coming off such a long layoff last year, winning at Middleburg and having a good rest of the year but not winning, I felt like he still had to prove himself at Middleburg this year. I made sure he put them away pretty convincingly.”

Moscato went winless in three starts after the Gwathmey last year. He closed to be third after a rough trip in the Iroquois, posted a non-threatening eighth in the Lonesome Glory and rallied late to be third in the Grand National. Far back early in those races, Mitchell made sure Moscato was a bit closer in the 2 1/2-mile hurdle stakes this time. 

“That was the plan but I wouldn’t say it was as forward as Jack would have liked. He told me I rode him too far back,” Mitchell said. “I just kept him honest really, there’s a reason he’s got the blinkers, he can switch off a little bit and do as much as he wants to do.”

Breaking from the outside in the eight-horse field, Moscato found a spot in sixth as Iranistan and Surprising Soul ripped to the front, opening a gaping margin over the rest of the field. With a circuit to go, Moscato moved into fourth. Across the back, he slipped to third before splitting Iranistan and Surprising Soul and drawing off under a hand ride. 

“It was nice there was plenty of speed on, I felt like I was just pushing them along and picking off horses one by one,” Mitchell said. “I was surprised how long the leaders lasted in front, but I suppose with the quality of horses in the race, it was more like a Grade 1 than a Grade 3.”

In a diluted season, Grade 3 stakes play like Grade 1 stakes.

“I would say he’s better this year. He’s developed, gotten stronger, his confidence, his jumping was good,” Mitchell said. “He’s got so much stamina, he’s behaving better, sometimes he can have his own way of doing things down at the start, he feels like he’s maturing. There’s a good horse underneath there and hopefully we can prove that in the upcoming season.”

As for Mitchell, he felt strong after riding 10 jump races (24 1/8 miles), his first rides since December, on the condensed and crowded card.

“I felt really good, actually. I drank a bottle of water after every race, I went through 10 bottles of water by the end of the day. Luckily there weren’t any light rides. I still came out of the day three pounds lighter,” last year’s champion jockey said. “I was happy after going six months without riding to having a 10-race card. My legs felt pretty solid, the horses finished off well and I was able to push them out. On the whole, they were good first-out runs for the season, the majority of my horses would have improved off that run and I look forward to riding them again.” 

• Tom Garner watched the six timber races of Andi’amu and called Jack Doyle on the morning of Middleburg. Doyle, 5-for-6 on the French-bred 10-year-old, kept it simple as a jockey, taking his customary long and light hold and allowing Andi’amu to run and jump. 

Garner listened and went out did his best Jack Doyle at Middleburg.

“I was just a passenger,” said Garner of his first timber win. “I was there to just point and steer and he does the rest.”

Owned by Ballybristol Farm and trained by Leslie Young, Andi’amu led every step of the 3 1/4-mile journey, easily brushing aside Doc Cebu by 3 3/4 lengths. Codrington College finished third as Schoodic, the only horse to beat Andi’amu over timber, faded to fifth. 

“He jumped off and went a furlong, he settled in my hands and I actually thought he was a bit quiet, he was just lobbing away in his own speed. I thought he was a bit quick and I didn’t think he was going to produce,” Garner said. “I sort of half gave him a squeeze going past the stands and down the hill, he went from second gear with his revs low to his revs high, he traveled all the way to the second to last and I pushed a button and he went. It was that easy. I thought I was lobbing away in second gear but watching the replay it looks like he’s going a nice speed. It’s impressive the way he can jump and travel.”

Garner has traveled the world riding races. Timber racing in America has a spot on his playlist.

“I’ve ridden the Pardubice, Merano in Italy and even lake races in Germany, but there’s nothing like timber racing, there’s nothing like it in the world,” Garner said. “It’s very different the way a horse respects the fences and shortens into them. I like it. Hopefully it suits my style of riding because I like to sit still at my fences. Of course, Andi makes it easy.”

In the condensed season, Andi’amu faces a rematch with Doc Cebu and Schoodic in the Virginia Gold Cup June 27. 

“He’s come out if well, fingers crossed he can go again,” Garner said Thursday. “I wouldn’t be 100 percent confident that the race didn’t take anything out of him but he’s come out of it great. They’re all running back, we’re all in the same boat. It’s a level playing field. I’m confident in him.”

• Gerard Galligan was the only jockey booked in all 11 races (10 jump, one flat). When his first hurdle ride, Clondaw Camp, scratched, the jockey had a bad feeling about the day. 

“My best chance scratched,” Galligan said. “I said, ‘Oh no, it’s going to be one of those days I’m not going to get a winner.’ ”

No chance.

Galligan posted a natural hat trick winning the sixth, seventh and eighth races. 

Hot Springs provided the first, breaking his maiden in his hurdle debut for Carrington Holdings and trainer Arch Kingsley. A four-time flat winner, including the Grade 3 Commonwealth at Churchill Downs in 2018, the son of Uncle Mo cost $60,000 at Keeneland November Sales three years after costing $750,000 at Keeneland September.

“Arch said he had a nice bunch of maidens so I jumped on a flight right after Warrenton Point-to-Point and lived with his family for about a month,” Galligan said. “I schooled all the maidens and got to know them, he’s got a lovely bunch of horses so I was excited to ride him Saturday.”

Hot Springs looked destined for a strong second when first-time starter French Light ran down the hill and hit the elbow with a commanding lead. 

That disappeared in a matter of strides as Hot Springs roared past to score by a length over fellow closer Lonely Weekend. French Light faded to third. 

“We thought he might need a run so I gave him a nice educational ride,” Galligan said. “I thought I was going to run into a nice second but then the horse in front of me stopped and I gathered a head of steam and kept rolling, he did it well. You’d like to think Saratoga would suit him because he has that good flat speed. The long run (to the finish) might suit him.”

Galligan made it two when Irish import Zoom Zoom Zoe bided her time off a demanding pace in the filly and mare maiden before rolling to a 5 1/4-length score over longtime pacesetter Lear Avia and High Sierra. Jonathan Sheppard trained the 4-year-old filly for Buttonwood Farm.

“She’s very straightforward, they said she was a little green which she was, she’ll come on a bunch for that. It did help there was a lot of pace and I had something to aim at, she’s definitely one for the future, she’s got of stamina and the speed as well,” Galligan said. “I’ve ridden enough races to know you can’t go that fast and keep going. I actually said it to Mikey jumping the third to last, he came to join me and I said, ‘We have this between us.’ We were still 50 lengths off the lead.”

Galligan completed his triple and Sheppard’s triple when Hyperlapse took the first division of the maiden claiming hurdle. Owned by West Grove Venture, the 5-year-old Irish-bred ran on the flat for Jimmy Day last year before being purchased and transferring to Sheppard. The son of Casamento drew off to win by 15 lengths over Be Somebody and Bobby the Boss. 

“By that time I was riding with a lot of confidence, I really could have picked it up four out, I was cruising behind the leaders, just getting a nice lead, jumped the last upsides and cruised home,” Galligan said. “There’s about 10 girls in [the ownership group], he made a lot of people happy. He’ll improve a bit from that. He’s not a world beater but he’s honest and loves jumping.”

• Richard Valentine unveiled Critical Data to win the 4-year-old maiden for Runnymore Racing. The Irish-bred pulled jockey Kieran Norris into a stalking spot, just off the leader Twenty Years On and stayed there throughout the journey, before Norris simply took his foot off the brake coming to the last hurdle. Critical Data drew off to score by 2 ¼ lengths over Another Try and Twenty Years On.

“He had been training great, his weight looked good, he schooled great,” Valentine said. “I was very confident, but I didn’t think he would be that aggressive, that’s not the way he is, he wasn’t that aggressive on the flat. I’ve never seen that side of him, he’s always been an incredibly kind horse, it was nice to see him pick up after doing all that.”

Purchased for $154,000 at Tattersalls Horses in Training Sale in 2018, the son of Battle Of Marengo ran five times on the turf last year, finishing just off the board in three stakes. 

“We bought him as a 2-year-old for the Bentleys (Pennsylvanian Greg and Caroline), they wanted something to run on the flat while they were transitioning into their homebreds, ultimately a horse that could run over hurdles eventually. He ran OK, unfortunately, he was put into some ambitious spots but he always showed up,” Valentine said. “He has a great walk, if he was a hand higher, he would be my horse all over, but he’s a neat little size, he’s a beautiful mover. I think he’s going to run on the flat now. He’s on his way back to Camden to train.” 

• Sheppard started his triple with a win in the opener with Galway Kid. The Irish-bred 5-year-old rallied from the far back to run down Brianbakescookies by a neck. Darren Nagle guided the winner for Hudson River Farm. The Hall of Fame trainer built his career predominantly on the back of American-bred flat horses. At Middleburg, he struck with three Irish-breds. Galway Kid improved his record to 2-for-3 after breaking his maiden at Callaway Gardens in November.

• Sean McDermott finished off the card with a double, guiding Storm Team to win the maiden timber and Invocation to win the Alfred M. Hunt over Glenwood’s cross-country course. McDermott picked up the ride on Storm Team after Willie McCarthy was injured from a fall earlier in the card. 

A novice hurdle stakes winner last season, Storm Team toyed with overmatched rivals in his timber debut, cruising to a 5 3/4-length win over late-running Flash Jackson and The Silent Trainer. The first three were making their debuts over timber. 

Invocation showed his versatility and resiliency yet again with a precise and polished win in the finale, handling Dapper Dan by 1 ½ lengths. Owned by Straylight Racing and trained by Mark Beecher, the French-bred, British-raced 7-year-old won his sixth race for his fourth trainer since coming to the U.S. in 2016. 

• My Own Lane took the second division of the maiden claimer for PathFinder Racing, trainer Neil Morris and jockey Graham Watters. Bred in Maryland by the late Howard Bender, the 8-year-old son of Broken Vow made his hurdle debut after a 35-race flat career. 

Download the June 20 issue of The 2020 Special