An American steeplechase season like no other reaches its final fence Sunday with a five-race card at the Steeplechase at Charleston in South Carolina. Back in March, when race meets were canceling and the coronavirus pandemic was surging, nobody knew where any of this was going.
Now we know.
The pandemic wiped out the entire spring season, though two meets (Middleburg and the Virginia Gold Cup) raced in June as a way to salvage some opportunity for horses and horsemen. There were no spectators at either venue. Summer featured nine races at Saratoga and a handful at Colonial Downs (before that track had to close early due to the virus). Though not quite as limited as the spring, the autumn season took its hits as several meets canceled including the lucrative Far Hills Races in New Jersey.
A few soldiered on. There were no hurdle stakes at Foxfield, Virginia Fall, International Gold Cup, Pennsylvania Hunt Cup and Callaway Gardens. The meets limited access to essential horsemen and owners, though Callaway hosted some fans and Charleston will as well. Shawan Downs and Willowdale carded point-to-point versions, and two other Virginia point-to-points went on. It’s all a bit disconcerting and makes 2021 seem like a long way off though it will be here soon enough and decisions will have to be made. Here’s to going racing like normal again, someday.
And on to Charleston. Post time Sunday is 1 p.m. In addition to the horses, all eyes will be on the jockeys as Michael Mitchell and Gerard Galligan compete for the NSA championship. Mitchell leads the way with 11 wins, but Galligan’s double last week gave him 10. Each rides five Sunday. The trainers’ crown will go to Hall of Famer Jonathan Sheppard, who adds a 25th championship to his storied career thanks to a strong crop of new horses. Jack Fisher, who had won the last eight titles, was hurt by the limited schedule (and a stable that was light on newcomers but heavy on stakes competitors) will have to settle for second.
The TIHR handicappers are also trotting to the finish line. Joe and Sean had two winners (Officer Sydney and Adjutant) last week while Tom had one (Officer Sydney). That makes the scoreboard Sean 17, Joe 15, Tom 15. The winner buys a round at Henry Street Taproom if we ever get there again.
First race. $7,500 maiden claiming hurdle going 2 1/4 miles. A field of seven goes in the opener and covers all bases – 12-year-old first-time starter Missing Sandal to 4-year-old first timer Lemon Again. Galligan rides High Sierra, who was third at Callaway. Mitchell takes the reins on Lemon Again. Trainer Neil Morris won both maiden claimers last weekend and could hold a strong hand again.
Sean: Western Crusader, High Sierra, Vincent Van Gogo.
Joe: Western Crusader, Vincent Van Gogo, High Sierra.
Tom: High Sierra, Lemon Again, Vincent Van Gogo.
Second race. $7,500 maiden claiming hurdle going 2 1/4 miles. This one ended up with eight, who also come from every angle but might not be quite as deep as the first group. Morris runs two, Over To You and Argentic. Galligan rides Penitence, whose brothers Bet The Pot and Lap Of The Gods run later in the card, for Sheppard. She was fourth at the Gold Cup. Mitchell gets on Bowled Over for Willie Dowling. Yankee Doodle Boy was second at the Gold Cup. Choklitcoverdonut was third at Callaway and should benefit for the run. Argentic will be sharp off three seconds on the flat. Over To You won her last at Mountaineer.
Sean: Bowled Over, Yankee Doodle Boy, Choklitcoverdonut.
Joe: Argentic, Choklitcoverdonut, Sim Card.
Tom: Argentic, Bowled Over, Over To You.
Third race. $20,000 maiden hurdle going 2 1/4 miles. This drew a decent field of seven. It’s late in the year, but all could be promising horses for next year. Thomas Cubitt was a strong second at Middleburg. Sherkali (who represents hometown owner Pierre Manigault’s Hurricana Farm) was second at Colonial in August. Bet The Pot also comes off a second, to Mr. Bridger at Middleburg. Compass Zone has run well in his last two. Galligan rides Bet The Pot for Sheppard. Mitchell is on Thomas Cubitt for Leslie Young.
Sean: Thomas Cubitt, Bet The Pot, Sherkali.
Joe: Thomas Cubitt, Bet The Pot, Compass Zone.
Tom: Bet The Pot, Sherkali, Thomas Cubitt.
Fourth race. $15,000 handicap hurdle (110 and below) going 2 1/4 miles. Six go here and the race showcases the return of 4-year-old filly Zoom Zoom Zoe. She won her debut at Middleburg, finished third in a Saratoga allowance and as second last time at Foxfield. She’ll be tough to handle today, but gets tested by more seasoned rivals Notjudginjustsayin, Junonia, Animal Kingston, Undisclosed and Mighty Mark. Galigan rides Zoom Zoom Zoe for Sheppard. Mitchell takes the call on Notjudginjustsayin (who was second in apprentice hurdle at the Gold Cup) for Fisher.
Sean: Notjudginjustsayin, Zoom Zoom Zoe, Junonia.
Joe: Zoom Zoom Zoe, Notjudginjustsayin, Animal Kingston.
Tom: Zoom Zoom Zoe, Animal Kingston, Notjudginjustsayin.
Fifth race. $15,000 maiden hurdle for 3-year-olds going 2 1/4 miles. The finale of the day – and the year – drew seven. Koko Star exits a fourth at Middleburg while Lap Of The Gods was fourth at Foxfield. Mr. Sarinana finished seventh in the Foxfield race. The filly Canudothetwist was pulled up in a filly/mare hurdle at Foxfield. Galligan rides Lap Of The Gods while Mitchell gets on first-timer Cloudbased. Former Phipps/McGaughey stablemates turned sires Mr. Speaker (Mr. Sarinana), Imagining (Bogey’s Image) and Orb (Cloudbased) have hurdle runners.
Sean: Koko Star, Lap Of The Gods, Cainudothetwist.
Joe: Bogey’s Image, Lap Of The Gods, Koko Star.
Tom: Cloudbased, Lap Of The Gods, Koko Star.