Look at The Mean Queen and Snap Decision, favorites for Saturday’s Grade 1 American Grand National hurdle stakes at the Far Hills Races, really look at them and just start scribbling observations.
She’s all angles, light, active, steppy if that’s a term. A conformation expert would talk about the reach of her hips, the extension. She jumps like she loves it, with an energy and a glee. Head high, she looks for something interesting – another horse, a hurdle, a track, a truck rumbling past on the road, the water tower looming over her schooling ground at Fair Hill – anything. It must be there. And she’ll find it. She’s a chestnut mare, in every way. Force a comparison to a flat horse and you come up with Wise Dan. Not sure why. Must be the athleticism.
He’s a classic, an oil painting of a horse. Bay, muscular, reddish brown everywhere but his black lower legs, mane and long, bushy tail. He has that crease on his midsection fit horses have – from the corner of the saddle towel to his gaskin (that hind-leg muscle old-fashioned trainers talk about when listing the traits of a good steeplechaser). He acts cool, like he’s been everywhere and done everything even if he hasn’t. At a gallop, he’s about efficiency – striding, breathing, repeating. He could go all day. Force a comparison to a flat horse and you come up with Ghostzapper. Not sure why here either. Must be the build.
Whatever, they get to Saturday’s $150,000 stakes with a championship on the line.
The 2 5/8-mile race, the third of six on the card, drew a tiny field with Irish raider Chosen Mate and longshot Amschel completing the quartet. All eyes will be on the favorites, who meet again after The Mean Queen defeated Snap Decision by 2 lengths in the Grade 1 Lonesome Glory at Belmont Park Sept. 16. Under 157 pounds to his 164 in the handicap, she was sharp there, coming off two races at Saratoga since he last ran in June and just turned aside his challenge at the top of the stretch. They were 9 1/4 lengths clear of the third horse, who carried 148 – hence the lack of challengers at weight-for-age Saturday.
The win was her fifth in six starts over jumps, with the only defeat a lost jockey while well clear in the final stages of the Jonathan Kiser novice stakes at Saratoga. The loss was his first in more than two years and stopped a record-tying winning streak at nine. As good as the Lonesome Glory was, the race for the 2021 steeplechase Eclipse Award needs another stage – and gets it in the Grand National. The race didn’t happen in 2020 as Far Hills was canceled because of the coronavirus pandemic, and returns with a $150,000 purse (compared to $400,000 in 2019) but nevertheless brings a history dating to 1899 and offers an opportunity for one of the two to seize the crown.
From the inside post with Graham Watters at 156 pounds, Snap Decision is 6-5 on the morning line for Bruton Street-US and trainer Jack Fisher. One spot out, Buttonwood Farm’s The Mean Queen is the 4-5 favorite for Richie Condon and trainer Keri Brion at 148 pounds. Amschel (6-1, 156) will be ridden by Barry Foley from post three while Chosen Mate (10-1, 156) gets three-time Irish champion Davy Russell. Post time for the feature, part of America’s Day at the Races on Fox Sports 2, is 2:34 p.m.
Tuesday, The Mean Queen schooled over hurdles at Fair Hill Training Center – jumping two fences behind stablemate A Silent Player and then two head-and-head with the allowance winner. Accelerating into the second fence each time, she looked bright, happy and ready. She knows how to jump, and probably doesn’t need the practice, but enjoyed the diversion from galloping on one of Fair Hills two tracks.
“It’s to give her a day out,” said jockey Richie Condon, aboard for the school and the mare’s regular exercise rider. “She loves it, you can see, she measures her jumps and it’s so natural for her.”
Condon loves the idea of getting back aboard the daughter of Doyen in a race.
“This is exciting,” he said of the final days before Far Hills. “After Belmont, I couldn’t wait get on her and see how she felt. All roads go to here after that. I’ve been lucky to ride a few winners in between, but in the back of mind I’ve been fingers-crossed for this one.”
The day after her schooling session, The Mean Queen worked 5 furlongs in 1:01 (galloping out 6 furlongs in 1:14) on Fair Hill’s Tapeta track alongside Brion aboard Far Hills runner Galway Kid.
“I was going to take them to Rod’s farm on the hundred-acre field, but the turf got pretty firm here the last week or so,” said Brion. “She’s fit at this stage, I don’t think a couple of runs up a hill are going to make that much difference and you don’t want to risk it on firm turf.”
At Fisher’s farm 66 miles away in Butler, Md., Snap Decision went through his paces this week too. His Wednesday involved a work on Fisher’s Polytrack gallop strip. Part of a 100-acre field, the track covers just shy of a mile with a long, flat straight to start, followed by a gentle right turn and a 90-foot climb over the final half-mile. The son of Hard Spun and his workmates did it twice – much faster the second time – and then took a long, slow walk back to the barn. Besides the horses, the scene in the field leaned toward feathers with a faraway clucking chicken, cawing crows, 30-odd Canada geese taking flight and a couple of egrets (maybe snow geese) lifting off in front of the workers.
Back at the barn afterward, Snap Decision walked the courtyard on a loose rope shank, sipped water and ignored Margo the Corgi and Puck the terrier.
“Working him is easier than galloping,” said Graham Watters, Snap Decision’s jockey and exercise rider. “You can finally let go of his head a little bit. Just galloping, he changes his leads when you don’t want him to, that’s just him taking it out of you, using you like a rag doll. You know how most horses are the same every day? He changes it up depending on how you’re going to ride him. He’s always trying to get a run on you. He’s a very smart horse.”
Fisher paid credit to The Mean Queen after the Lonesome Glory, but also said Snap Decision could have been tighter. Off long layoffs in 2007 and 2008, Fisher’s champion and eventual Hall of Famer Good Night Shirt won the Belmont race but didn’t get challenged the way Snap Decision did.
“There’s a way to get him fitter, but I’m worried that in doing so I might mess him up so I’d rather go into the first race a little underfit,” he said in September after the Lonesome Glory. “I’ve gotten away with it in the past, but we ran into a really good horse. She’s good. We’ll play again at Far Hills.”
Fisher sounded the same while watching Snap Decision cool out at the barn Wednesday.
“I had him as right as I wanted to have him,” he said. “If it weren’t for The Mean Queen, he would have looked like [Good Night Shirt] did. They killed the rest of them. At the head of the stretch, he looked like a winner. Brianbakescookies (who finished sixth) did the exact same thing. He looked like he was going to be a decent third and then he hit a wall.”
Fisher likes where his horse is now.
“That was good,” he said of Wednesday’s work. “He’s done that a few more times than he had, and he got a race at Belmont.”
Saturday’s small field leaves plenty of tactical questions for Condon and Watters. Neither horse is necessarily a front-runner. Neither must come from way back either. Amschel adds blinkers so might be closer than normal, but he’s proven to be no match for The Mean Queen or Snap Decision in his last three starts. Chosen Mate is the question mark. He stayed on late to win the 2 1/16-mile Grand Annual (Grade 3) over chase fences at England’s Cheltenham Festival in March 2020 and added a flat win two starts later. He’s since lost seven times (including the 2021 Grand Annual) by double digits, with a fall and a pull-up, and hasn’t run since May. American owner Ben Griswold IV recently purchased the 8-year-old Well Chosen gelding, who is trained by Gordon Elliott.
“Snap can do whatever, he doesn’t care,” Fisher said of the tactics. “I’m going to tell Graham he can do whatever he wants. If I was Davy Russell (on Chosen Mate) I wouldn’t go to the lead just because I’d like a lead for the first couple of fences anyway. If I was Amschel, I’d hope they crawl for the first part of it.”
Condon said The Mean Queen could handle being in front.
“I’ll jump off, probably upsides something in front and if no one wants to go on I’ll be happy to dictate my own pace,” he said. “The mare herself would be just as happy to bowl away in front and set her own pace. That was the plan at Belmont. If no one was going to go forward, I was going to go on and go my own gallop.”
Despite some greenness at Saratoga, which cost her the Kiser, The Mean Queen is not a difficult ride, Condon said.
“I suppose just keeping her in a rhythm is the main challenge because she likes to go on,” he said. “She has a very big stride and she likes to use that. I want to keep her happy and in a good rhythm, her ability speaks for itself. She does the rest. Because she has so much ability and she’s so honest, it’s important that you do get into a rhythm so she saves herself and just conserves a little bit of that for the end.”
Like Fisher, Brion thinks The Mean Queen is flexible enough to be anywhere in a race. She could be in front, she could be stalking somebody. The trainer also looks forward to the 2 5/8-mile trip and the stamina-rewarding terrain at the New Jersey course. Any rain probably helps her, though Snap Decision won over the course on good ground in 2019.
“The way she’s training and knowing what she’s bred to do, I’m excited to see her at Far Hills really,” Brion said. “She’s not bred to run around a racetrack. She’s bred for places like that. I hope the two of them hook up again and it’s a race from the bottom of that hill to the finish. Hopefully we can do what we did at Belmont but if the tables are turned and she gets beaten by him he’s a fabulous horse. They’re both fabulous horses. It’s good for racing. I hope it turns into a cool race. It’s what racing needs.”
Snap Decision. B g. 7, Hard Spun-Salute, Unbridled. Bred by Phipps Stable in Kentucky. Owner: Bruton Street-US. Trainer: Jack Fisher. Jockey: Graham Watters. Jump record: 12-9-3-0, $395,400. 2021 U.S. record: 3-2-1-0, $132,000. Won Temple Gwathmey (G2) and Iroquois (G1). Second to The Mean Queen in Lonesome Glory (G1).
The Mean Queen. Ch. m. 5, Doyen-Gail Borden, Kris Kin. Bred by Kevin Purfield in Ireland. Owner: Buttonwood Farm. Trainer: Keri Brion. Jockey: Richie Condon. Jump record: 6-5-0-0, $220,031. 2021 U.S. record: 5-4-0-0, $213,000. Won allowance (NW2) hurdle, Margaret Currey Henley filly/mare stakes, Jonathan Sheppard (G1) and Lonesome Glory (G1).
Amschel. B. g. 7, Nathaniel-Darinza, Dalakhani. Bred by Newsells Stud Park in Great Britain. Onwer: Irv Naylor. Trainer: Cyril Murphy. Jockey: Barry Foley. Jump record: 11-4-2-2, $110,133. 2021 U.S. record: 3-0-1-1, $36,000. Third to Snap Decision in Temple Gwathmey (G2) and second to him in the Iroquois (G1). Fourth behind The Mean Queen and Snap Decision in Lonesome Glory (G1). Won $40,000 handicap at Montpelier in 2019. Won three Irish hurdle races in 2018.
Chosen Mate. B. g. 8, Well Chosen-Norwich Star, Norwich. Bred by M. Fogarty in Ireland. Owner: Ben Griswold IV. Trainer: Gordon Elliott. Jockey: Davy Russell. Jump record: 19-4-1-1, $144,537. 2021 record: 5-0-0-0, $1,283. Won Johnny Henderson Grand Annual chase (G3) at the 2020 Cheltenham Festival. Other wins in two Irish hurdle races and one Irish chase. Irish-based trainer returned from six-month suspension in mid-September after a photograph of him sitting astride a horse who had died while training in 2019 surfaced this year. He won the 2018 Grand National with Jury Duty.
The American Grand National (G1)
First run in 1899 at Morris Park in New York. Other hosts include Belmont Park (1905-58 and 1960, 1962 and 1968-70); Aqueduct (1959 and 1961); Saratoga (1971); Fair Hill, Md. (1972-78); Foxfield in Charlottesville, Va. (1979-87). Run at Far Hills since 1988. 2 5/8 miles over National fences. Won by Hall of Famers Good Night Shirt (2008), McDynamo (2003-07), Flatterer (1983), Zaccio (1981), Café Prince (1978), Bon Nouvel (1964), Neji (1955, 1957-58), Oedipus (1951), Elkridge (1946), Jolly Roger (1927-28); Good And Plenty (1906).