Hello left lane. The 2017 steeplechase season picks up even more speed Saturday as three meets go to the post in Georgia, Virginia and Maryland. There’s a little something for everyone.

Atlanta gets squeezed for horses, a little, but still comes up with a four-race card and is a big part of the southern circuit. It wasn’t all that long ago, Warm Spell, Good Night Shirt, Sur La Tete and some other stars were putting their names on the Georgia Cup and it would be nice to see a rebound. If you've never been, get there. Fun day in the country.

Glenwood Park, host of the Middleburg Spring Races, is as much a part of steeplechasing as Wrigley Field is a part of baseball. The 2017 version hosts the historic Temple Gwathmey Stakes, a  key prep for the Grade 1 Iroquois next month. There’s also a 120 handicap, a timber stakes, a solid maiden hurdle, a maiden claimer and the always entertaining Alfred Hunt over the cross-country course.

Maryland’s Grand National is nothing like the one at Aintree or the one at Far Hills, but is still a must for timber fans. The $30,000 stakes is THE prep for the Maryland Hunt Cup next Saturday and drew a field of 12.

The TIHR handicappers sharpen their pencils and get to work, again. Tom was the winner with three winners last week – Lemony Bay and Doc Cebu at My Lady’s Manor (which is funny because the man has never actually seen a timber race) and Top Striker at Tryon. Joe and Sean had two each – Balistes at Tryon and Doc Cebu. Sean leads the season series with nine, followed by Tom with seven and Joe with six after 27 races.

ATLANTA STEEPLECHASE
Post time for the four-race card at Kingston Downs in Kingston, Ga. is 1:30 p.m. For more, see Atlanta Steeplechase website.

First race. $25,000 maiden hurdle going 2 miles. Five tangle in this headed by Hooded (nine starts, four seconds, two thirds). He missed by a neck in this race last year. Though he’s been the subject of many “I’m never picking him again” pronouncements, maybe today’s the day. He must deal with the Jack Fisher-trained With Rhythm plus Woodfield Springs, Buck Benny and Travel True. The latter has won twice on the flat at Presque Isle Downs, but is 0-for-2 over jumps.

Joe: Hooded, Travel True, With Rhythm.
Sean: Hooded, Woodfield Springs, With Rhythm.
Tom: Hooded, With Rhythm, Buck Benny.

Second race. $20,000 Filly/mare maiden hurdle going 2 miles. Just four go here and it’s a pretty even group. Admiring Glance (by Flatter out of Seducing) was third at Camden, a nose ahead of Atlanta rival Amnicalola. Quiet Virtue lost by 34 lengths in that race.

Joe: Amnicalola, Admiring Glance, Quiet Virtue.
Sean: Amnicalola, Admiring Glance, Finally Perked.
Tom: Amnicalola, Admiring Glance, Finally Perked.

Third race. $35,000 optional claiming hurdle going 2 miles. Four runners, loads of form. Martini Brother placed in a Grade 1 back in 2013. Diplomat is a stakes winner who prepped with a flat win at Camden. Alajmal is a Grade 1 winner, who has been rattling chains at Fair Hill. Selection Sunday gets off the bench for Fisher after posting three wins and three seconds in his first nine jump starts in 2014-15.

Joe: Diplomat, Selection Sunday, Martini Brother.
Sean: Diplomat, Selection Sunday, Martini Brother.
Tom: Selection Sunday, Martini Brother, Diplomat.

Fourth race. Training flat going 1 1/8 miles. Timber horse, a claimer and a More Than Ready newcomer making his American debut after winning three of 10 in England.

Joe: Ocean Ready, Divined, Ebanour.
Sean: Ocean Ready, Ebanour, Divined. 
Tom: Ocean Ready, Divined, Ebanour.

 

MIDDLEBURG SPRING RACES
A seven-race card gets started at 1 p.m. and should be a treat. Find a rock on the hill, have a seat and watch it all unfold. For more, see Middleburg Spring website.

First race. Training flat going 1 1/2 miles. You can call him Al, because that’s his name. The English import’s name is simply that, Al, and he looks like an intriguing import to the Elizabeth Voss barn. He’ll have to beat Our Emerald Forest from Jimmy Day’s barn in a field of seven prepping for bigger things.

Joe: Our Emerald Forest, Al, Sarah Joyce.
Sean: Our Emerald Forest, Enjoy The Show, Al.
Tom: Our Emerald Forest, Al, Secret Reward.

Second race. $30,000 hurdle handicap (120 and lower) going 2 1/8 miles. Nine run here and include veterans Absolum, Manacor, Perfect Union and Polstar. They face younger (or at least less experienced) guns Easy Exit, Lyonell, Signature Look, Osmoz and Dai Bando.

Joe: Polstar, Lyonell, Perfect Union.
Sean: Perfect Union, Lyonell, Polstar.
Tom: Osmoz, Dai Bando, Polstar.

Third race. $30,000 Middleburg Hunt Cup timber stakes going 3 1/4 miles. Five tangle here with eyes on the Virginia Gold Cup in two weeks. Last year’s timber champion Two’s Company takes top billing but will have to outrun multiple stakes winner Cornhusker (who won this in 2015) and 2014 timber champion Hot Rize plus dual winner Canyon Road and capable veteran Puller.

Joe: Two’s Company, Cornhusker, Canyon Road.
Sean: Two's Company, Cornhusker, Puller.
Tom: Two’s Company, Puller, Cornhusker.

Fourth race. $50,000 Temple Gwathmey hurdle stakes going 2 1/2 miles. Named in memory two prominent figures in American jump racing – Temple Gwathmey and his son Temple Jr. – the race has a long history with previous winners including Flatterer, Zaccio, Warm Spell, Lonesome Glory, Rowdy Irishman, Fairmount, Neji, Benguala, Bon Nouvel and Amber Diver. See if you can get close to the trophy. And here’s a bit more history from a story in 2013:

First of all, it’s not a church. The Temple Gwathmey is a steeplechase horse race with a big trophy and a history dating back to 1924. Aqueduct, Belmont Park and Pennsylvania’s famed Rolling Rock meet hosted runnings. Middleburg now plays host. The race takes its name from two men with long pasts in American racing. James Temple Gwathmey Sr. was an owner and amateur jockey in the late 1800s and early 1900s. He raced in a partnership called Mr. Cotton, named for Gwathmey’s business interests in the cotton industry. Gwathmey became president of the New York Cotton Exchange. The race was created as a memorial to Gwathmey, but it took on special meaning eight years later. Gwathmey's son James Temple Jr. also became a jockey and died in a fall at the 1932 Monmouth County Hunt Races in New Jersey. He was just 23.

Back to today. The 2017 race drew six runners, including four from the Fisher barn – Mr. Hot Stuff, Schoodic, Scorpiancer and Hinterland. Ricky Hendriks (off to a great start this year) sends out Swansea Mile while Voss counters with Portrade. Several are prepping for the Grade 1 Iroquois in Nashville, Tenn. May 13. Mr. Hot Stuff won the 2015 Gwathmey and was beaten a neck in that year’s Iroquois. The former Kentucky Derby starter has won five over jumps and will be difficult to handle. His stablemate Scorpiancer battled Rawnaq all last year (including a second in the Gwathmey) and shoulders high weight of 158 (up to 20 more than his rivals). Good race. How soft will the ground be?

Joe: Mr. Hot Stuff, Scorpiancer, Swansea Mile.
Sean: Scorpiancer, Mr. Hot Stuff, Portrade. 
Tom: Mr. Hot Stuff, Hinterland, Scorpiancer.

Fifth race. $30,000 maiden hurdle going 2 1/8 miles. Everybody wants to run at Middleburg. Twelve passed the entry box, but the field is limited to 10 so two will have to watch. No Wunder makes his jump debut after winning three on the flat for Voss. Other Cheek was second over the course last fall for Fisher. Show King was second twice last fall and gets Glenwood expert Paddy Young (worth 5 lengths around there). Bishop’s Castle fell while in front in the Nashville maiden last year. Once part of the Shadwell/Kiaran McLaughlin barn, French import Mutin debuts for Richard Valentine. Virginia-bred Cryptos’ Holiday brings solid flat form for Doug Fout. Popcastle got close as a 3-year-old last year. Barnacle Bill adds blinkers after standing at the start last week at Tryon (seems like he should be least preferred off that performance, but…). And Biedermeier and Wild Dynaformer are on the outside looking in. Fascinating maiden race.

Joe: Show King, No Wunder, Bishop’s Castle.
Sean: Other Cheek, Cryptos' Holiday, Show King.
Tom: No Wunder, Show King, Cryptos’ Holiday. 

Sixth race. $20,000 maiden claiming hurdle going 2 1/8 miles. Nine (starting for a $25,000 tag) meet here. Street Passage comes off a narrow loss at Charleston April 8 and retains jockey Jack Doyle. Quite A Journey, bred in California (really), was second at Atlanta last year in his career debut. Last Farewell warmed up at Aiken and towers over field with eight prior hurdle starts. Mythmaker had two runs as a 3-year-old last year.

Joe: Street Passage, Quite A Journey, Mythmaker.
Sean: Quite A Journey, Street Passage, Mythmaker.
Tom: Quite A Journey, Mythmaker, Last Farewell.

Seventh race. $15,000 Alfred Hunt Steeplechase going 2 5/8 miles over the cross-country course. Specialist Saluda Sam makes his 12-year-old debut and SIXTH consecutive start in this race. Pick against him if you dare. Fisher drops in Dye Fore, a 6-year-old who won twice over hurdles in 2015 but couldn’t crack the top three in eight starts last year. Neil Morris counters with Cognashene, second at Aiken over hurdles.

Joe: Saluda Sam, Dye Fore, Cognashene.
Sean: Saluda Sam, Dye Fore, Cognashene.
Tom: Cognashene, Worried Man, Saluda Sam.

  

GRAND NATIONAL RACES
Started as an answer to its stately neighbor the Maryland Hunt Cup (first run in 1894), the “Little” Grand National came to be in 1898. The 3 1/4-mile timber test tunes up Hunt Cup contenders and offers its own challenge of speed, stamina and jumping ability. Former winners Fort Devon, Ben Nevis, Dosdi, Buck Jakes, Welter Weight, Mountain Dew (six times), Jay Trump, Pine Pep, Winton, Billy Barton, Landslide and Princeton add gravity. Lovely venue, fun race, great tradition. For more, see Grand National Races website.

First race. $30,000 Grand National timber stakes going 3 1/4 miles. The Maryland Hunt Cup’s popularity is in no danger of waning. A dozen runners square off here and include big names Senior Senator, Raven’s Choice, Serene Harbor, Imperial Way and And The Eagle Flys. They’ve faced off so many times that you wonder if they recognize each other.

Joe: Senior Senator, Old Timer, Raven’s Choice.
Sean: Senior Senator, Raven's Choice, Old Timer. 
Tom: Super Saturday, Senior Senator, Serene Harbor.

Second race. $20,000 allowance timber going 3 1/4 miles. You thought 12 was a big field? How does 15 grab you? The non-winners of two is crowded. Battle Array won at Genesee Valley last fall. Church Music won over this course last spring. Imperial Way is still a maiden, despite several quality performances. Rodriguez won at Middleburg last fall. Prime Prospector prepped at the Manor. De Chera once set a track record at Laurel and is Da’ Tara’s brother but it’s been a long time between drinks (like six years) though he was second to Senior Senator at a point-to-point April 8. Anybody can win and anybody can lose.

Joe: De Chera, Church Music, Prime Prospector.
Sean: De Chera, Rodriguez, Prime Prospector. 
Tom: Battle Aray, Imperial Way, Rodriguez. 

Third race. $15,000 allowance timber going 3 miles. Nine square off in this, technically an allowance but also traditionally the spot for owner/riders, apprentices and other newcomers. Class Indian won a race with the same conditions at the Manor last week. Can he summon another quality start? Terko Service is capable. Where’s The Beef could be any kind. Rodriguez is in with a chance if he opts for this. Hill Tie shares a name with a former Virginia Gold Cup winner. Mystic Strike romped at Winterthur last spring.

Joe: Mystic Strike, Where’s The Beef, Rodriguez.
Sean: Mystic Strike, Where's The Beef, Class Indian.
Tom: Spoiler Alert, Class Indian, Mystic Strike.