The Irish are coming, the Irish are coming, the Irish are coming. Actually, they’re here.
Saturday’s Iroquois Steeplechase in Nashville, Tenn. features Nichols Canyon and Shaneshill, two raiders from the ultra-deep barn of champion trainer Willie Mullins who will have a go at America’s best in a 3-mile race worth $200,000. They’re part of a nine-horse field in the first Grade 1 jump race of 2016, and face the likes of Eclipse Award winner Demonstrative and recent runaway Temple Gwathemy victor Rawnaq.
The two imports were lured in part by the Brown Advisory Challenge, a $500,000 bonus offered to a horse that can sweep back-to-back runnings of the Iroquois and the World Hurdle at England’s Cheltenham Festival. This year’s World Hurdle winner Thistlecrack did not make the trip, leaving the bonus to the 2016 Iroquois winner should he be able to also capture next year’s World Hurdle.
The Iroquois headlines a seven-race card (worth $450,000) which starts at 1 p.m. Saturday.
Mullins dispatched Rachel Robins and David Porter with the two horses, who left Ireland Saturday morning, flew to France, then to Chicago for 40 hours of quarantine and then finally a 12-hour van ride to Music City. They arrived at Percy Warner Park just southwest of the city Tuesday morning.
By all accounts, they’ve settled in nicely at the race-course barn and await their American peers who will begin arriving Thursday from Maryland, Pennsylvania, Virginia and South Carolina.
“They’ve had a trot and a hack around,” Robins said Wednesday morning. “They’re happy enough and had a good squeal and buck this morning. It’s a lot of traveling, but they’ve been good. They ate, drank and all seems well.”
Nichols Canyon, rated 162 on the English handicapping scale, has won seven times over hurdles including two Irish Grade 1 races last fall. At Punchestown in November, he led a 1-2-3 Mullins sweep of the Stanjames.com Morgiania. The 6-year-old handed champion hurdler Faugheen his only loss in 12 hurdle starts that day and won again the next month in the Ryanair Hurdle at Leopardstown. The son of Authorized finished third behind another Mullins star Annie Power in two major races this year – the Stan James Champion Hurdle at the Cheltenham Festival in March and the Doom Bar Aintree Hurdle April 7.
“He’s small, compact, and takes everything in his stride pretty much,” said Robins. “He managed to beat Faugheen at Punchestown, and he’s been running against Annie Power ever since. He’s had it tough.”
Bred in England by Rabbah Bloodstock Limited, Nichols Canyon began his career on the flat with John Gosden, winning three times, before selling as a jump-racing prospect. He won his hurdle debut in November 2014.
Owned by Andrea and Graham Wylie, like Nichols Canyon, Shaneshill has kept classy company much like his stablemate. The bay 7-year-old owns two hurdle wins and two chase wins, but his best performances might be defeats.
In March, at the Cheltenham Festival, he finished second when beaten just a half-length by Blaklion in the Grade 1 RSA Chase going 3 miles. Sent back over hurdles at Aintree April 9, Shaneshill chased Thistlecrack home in the Liverpool Stayers Hurdle at 3 miles. Winner of the 2016 World Hurdle at Cheltenham, Thistlecrack is the best staying hurdler in England and would have been heavily favored in the Iroquois. He stayed home while his connections ponder a move to chasing next season, but Shaneshill offers plenty of class as well despite a fall while in contention at the last hurdle at Punchestown April 28.
Rated 156 over hurdles, the son of King’s Theatre gets another chance Saturday. American fences are somewhere between English/Irish hurdles and chase fences when it comes to height and difficulty so the versatility might help.
“At Cheltenham, he wasn’t having a crack at his fences like he was over his hurdles,” said Porter. “Maybe it was lack of experience, but Willie thought the race over hurdles (at Aintree) would suit him again and we all know how good Thistlecrack is.”
Porter will leave the strategy to jockeys Ruby Walsh (Nichols Canyon) and Danny Mullins (Shaneshill), but would not expect to see either on the lead early.
“It’s a small field, they’d probably drop them in a little bit and see how things are going,” he said, “but I’d imagine they could have different ideas.”
Porter and Robins were impressed with the Iroquois course, though they haven’t been out to sample any Nashville nightlife just yet.
“Let’s get the business part taken care of first,” Porter said of racing before socializing. “It’s very picturesque, a beautiful setting for a racecourse. The ground is beautiful. You couldn’t ask for much better. It’s shame there’s only one meeting here a year.”
Seven American-based horses take on the imports. Two-time Iroquois winner Demonstrative leads the brigade for Jacqueline Ohrstrom and trainer Richard Valentine. The 9-year-old, champion steeplechaser of 2014, won the Iroquois in 2015 and 2013. He’s earned just shy of $1 million in a career with a dozen wins over jumps. He makes his 20th consecutive start in a Grade 1 dating to 2012. Darren Nagle rides the son of Elusive Quality, who prepped with a sharp second on the flat at the Queen’s Cup April 30. Darren Nagle rides at 158 pounds, like all starters
Irv Naylor and Cyril Murphy lost their stable star and likely Iroquois favorite Dawalan to an injury, but the owner and trainer will be ably represented by Rawnaq. Bred in Ireland, the 9-year-old dominated the Temple Gwathmey April 23 and placed in two Grade 1 stakes last fall. Like Shaneshill, Rawnaq won over hurdles and chase fences in his English/Irish career and reached a rating of 144 before being purchased by Naylor and Murphy. Jack Doyle, who won the 2015 Iroquois on Demonstrative, takes the ride.
Others (with trainer, jockey) include Scorpiancer (Jack Fisher, Connor Hankin), Syros (Fisher, Sean McDermott), former Iroquois winner Pierrot Lunaire (Bruce Miller, Bernie Dalton), Italian Wedding (Jonathan Sheppard, Gerard Galligan) and Tempt Me Alex (Elizabeth Voss, Gus Dahl).
NOTES: Nichols Canyon and Shaneshill are the first American runner for Mullins, whose father Paddy saddled Grabel to win the $750,000 Dueling Grounds International at what is now Kentucky Downs in 1990. It’s still the richest jump race ever held in the United States . . . The Iroquois card includes six other races. For entries (final entries and post positions drawn Thursday), see National Steeplechase Association website. See the Iroquois Steeplechase website for more details.