One more stop on the steeplechase train. The 2021 National Steeplechase Association season ends Sunday with the Charleston Steeplechase just outside Charleston, S.C., and there are plenty of reasons to pay attention.
For starters, the races for champion trainer and jockey are jeans-just-out-of-the-dryer tight.
Jack Fisher and Leslie Young lead the trainers with 15 wins each, with Keri Brion third with 13. Inducted to Thoroughbred racing’s Hall of Fame this year, Fisher has won 13 NSA crowns. A championship would be the first for Young or Brion, who look to join Janet Elliot and Sanna Neilson as the only women to win an NSA title. Fisher, Young and Brion have runners at Charleston. Young empties the barn with nine runners, six in the day’s four jump races. Brion counters with six, five over jumps. Fisher brings two, both over jumps. Young led by three after a big day at the International Gold Cup Oct. 23, but Fisher tripled last weekend to get back in the race.
Tom Garner or Graham Watters will win his first jockey championship as they head to Charleston tied with 19 wins each. A week ago, Garner was up three but Watters doubled at Callaway Gardens Saturday and added a win at the Pennsylvania Hunt Cup Sunday to force the tie. Each has three rides Sunday. Check the standings here.
The two jockeys have been close on the leaderboard all year and a few weeks ago, we talked to Watters about the battle. He mentioned Twenty Years On (who won Saturday at Callaway Gardens) as a potential winner, but also talked about Garner's numbers over the final weeks of the season. Garner rides mainly for Young. Watters mainly for Fisher.
“It’s fierce competition, when we’re racing we’re racing hard and going for it,” he said, “but we're good friends and it’s great fun to have a laugh about it with him too. Most days we go racing in the same car. [At Virginia Fall in October], I had two winners and he had one and he claimed foul on me as well and then he had to drive me home. People would cut him off on the highway and I kept asking ‘Oh are you going to claim foul on them too?’
“I think it’s going to be close, very close. Leslie still has a big barn of horses. We’ll be trying our hardest. I think it’ll go to the last day.”
And, in a race of a different sort, the TIHR handicapping challenge, Joe leads by four with five races to go. He put up 10 wins last weekend (from 17 races) to reach 26 for the autumn season. Joe’s winners came with Iranistan, Eve’s City, Queens Empire, Sea Mast and Yankee Doodle Boy at Montpelier; Global Freedom, Twenty Years On and City Dreamer at Callaway Gardens; and Road To Oz and Freddy Flintshire at the Pennsylvania Hunt Cup. Sean and Tom had seven wins apiece last weekend. The season race reads Joe 26, Sean 22, Tom 17 from 49 races.
First race. $15,000 maiden claiming hurdle going 2 3/8 miles. Eight horses give it a go and come from everywhere. Young’s Twentyoneguns makes his first start (off two training flat races). Turbo Drive and The Kid Rocks run for the sixth time over jumps. Make A Stand exits two October flat starts at Laurel. Three O One finished second last week at Callaway. The Kid Rocks did the same at Montpelier. Brion’s runner Homerhayes finished fourth behind Three O One. Watters rides Make A Stand. Garner rides Twentyoneguns.
Joe: The Kid Rocks, Homerhayes, Three O One.
Sean: Turbo Drive, Three O One, The Kid Rocks.
Tom: Twentyoneguns, Turbo Drive, Homerhayes.
Second race. $25,000 maiden hurdle going 2 3/8 miles. Last chance to graduate for another field of eight, including five who ran last week. Westerland and Lap Of The Gods have been getting close all year. Brion’s Seville Barber was third at Colonial Downs in August and fifth at Shawan Downs in September. Young’s Duckett’s Grove (Garner) pulled up at Montpelier and her Bee Major makes his hurdle debut after being claimed from Kelly Breen at the Meadowlands Oct. 9. Watters watches from the sidelines. Of the quick returnees, Gearhead was a good second at Montpelier while Profiteer was third (also at Montpelier) after leading early. Lap Of The Gods improved to be third behind Merry Maker and next-out winner Frontline Citizen at Great Meadow Oct. 23.
Joe: Lap Of The Gods, Seville Barber, Gearhead.
Sean: Gearhead, Lap Of The Gods, Seville Barber.
Tom: Lap Of The Gods, Bee Major, Gearhead.
Third race. $20,000 Handicap hurdle (110 and below) going 2 3/8 miles. The Fisher barn brings its first runner of the day to the paddock in Gostisbehere, whose namesake now plays for the Arizona Coyotes. He has two goals and nine assists so far this year, putting him among the league leaders for defensemen. As for the horse, he makes his first start since August. Watters rides the 7-year-old Gio Ponti gelding (rated 106). Young’s Don’t Shout, second at Montpelier and fourth at Middleburg this fall, carries 158 pounds as the field’s highest-rated runner (110). Garner rides the 7-year-old Irish import. Island Nation (109) makes his first American start. Bernie “98 wins” Dalton gets on Mr. Sarinana (106), who won over the course last year. Argentic (105) figures, so does Shaka (105). Brion runs lightweight Peat Moss (94), who ought to be better than the distant fourth in his U.S. debut Oct. 30. Good race and a good example of the handicap system at work. Every horse in the race has won a single race over jumps and might otherwise be looking at a start in the claiming ranks.
Joe: Gostisbehere, Don’t Shout, Peat Moss.
Sean: Don’t Shout, Gostisbehere, Island Nation.
Tom: Gostisbehere, Don’t Shout, Island Nation.
Fourth race. $25,000 Alston Cup 3-year-old hurdle going 2 /16 miles. The day’s feature showcases 3-year-old hurdlers, and drew another field of eight (sounds healthy). Circus is the only winner among the group. The Runhappy gelding rolled in his debut at Shawan, but lost jockey Eddie Keating while tiring late at Far Hills. Parish Delight finished second in that race for Brion, and looks to go one better here. The barn also runs first-timer Freddy Flintshire, who won a training flat at the Pennsylvania Hunt Cup and makes a quick conversion from flat to jump (he ran Oct. 13 at Keeneland for Brendan Walsh). Young’s Project Two was third at Far Hills and brings a second and third from Ireland. The Young stable also runs Fast Vision, who was fourth in that Far Hills race. Fisher’s Ghostlighter (Watters) was fifth at Shawan and Far Hills. The Far Hills form looks strange as Realist drew off to win by 28 lengths while only a few lengths separated the others. Criticize exits a third against older at Montpelier for Neil Morris. Arch Kingsley’s first-timers always seem to run well, and Hurtgen Forest could make an impact here.
Joe: Criticize, Ghostligher, Parish Delight.
Sean: Parish Delight, Hurtgen Forest, Project Two.
Tom: Hurtgen Forest, Parish Delight, Project Two.
Fifth race. Training flat going 1 1/2 miles. This one won’t figure in the standings, but offers a chance for some new jockeys to have a spin while offering a glimpse at some horses for 2022. Pleasecallmeback won at Woodbine in October. Court Ruler’s jump form will make him competitive. The jockey roster showcases several from the next generation of U.S. jump racing as Virginia Korrell, Taylor Kingsley, Mell Boucher and Eliza Edwards have mounts along with Parker Hendriks, Stefan Tobin and Gwendolyn Ghrist.
Joe: Pleasecallmeback, Drewscourt, High Mounte.
Sean: High Mounte, Pleasecallmeback, Court Ruler.
Tom: Pleasecallmeback, High Mounte, Court Ruler.