Jumping Around: Catching up with steeplechasers

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In about a week, it will be over. The 2015 National Steeplechase Association season will join the 120 or so before it in the past. In advance of the Colonial Cup next Saturday Nov. 21, let’s try to get caught up on the season that was.

Since Far Hills in mid-October, it’s been go, go, go for the people and horses on the circuit.

– First stop was the International Gold Cup, where Grinding Speed showcased his timber brilliance – again. The Maryland-bred won the timber stakes for the third time in four years for owner Mike Wharton, trainer Alicia Murphy and jockey Mark Beecher at Great Meadow in Virginia Oct. 24.

The win sewed up the 2015 NSA timber championship for the gray 9-year-old, who won three of five starts and earned $124,550. The story has been well told, but Grinding Speed was pretty much a total flop on the flat with one win (for a $5,000 claiming price) in seven tries, all in 2009. Murphy bought the son of Grindstone at Penn National and the rest has been a steady upward progression with a win over hurdles and eight more over timber. In 19 starts since making the conversion to timber in 2012, Grinding Speed has finished in the first three 15 times. 

Grinding Speed lost his first two starts this fall, but made up for it with another strong Gold Cup – outrunning Dakota Slew and Straight To It late in the $75,000 stakes.

“Hats off to Alicia, as he’s gotten more mature, he’s hard to train in the sense that he’s so relaxed about his training, I gallop him, for me to gallop him, he’s easy, so we need to get a couple of races into him to get ready,” Wharton said. “Fourth at Shawan, second at Middleburg, it was all part of a plan and it worked out. I have no idea why he’s better here, I can’t give you some brilliant answer to that question. I’m blessed. I’m blessed.”

Grinding Speed is the third timber champion trained by Murphy, who also sent out Joe’s OK to the crown in 1990 and Thor Thors in 2001.

– Also at the Gold Cup, Diplomat came through in the $50,000 Zeke Ferguson Memorial hurdle stakes for new owner Flying Elvis Stable, trainer Kate Dalton and jockey Bernie Dalton. The 6-year-old son of Kitten’s Joy earned back some of the $40,000 claiming price brothers Adam and Rich Newman put up in Saratoga and won for the third time this year.

The Newmans own flat horses in New York, but are steeplechase fans and regulars at Saratoga. They spotted Diplomat, who won the Carolina Cup in March and had finished sixth in the A.P. Smithwick at Saratoga, in a claimer Sept. 2 and took a chance. Diplomat won that race for owner/trainer Jimmy Day (who cleared $82,000 in winner’s purse share and claiming price), but moved to the Newmans’ trainer Charlton Baker at Belmont Park. Baker saddled his first jumper when Diplomat finished seventh in the Lonesome Glory at Belmont Park Sept. 24, and the Newmans transferred the horse to the Daltons in Camden, S.C.

“Adam was disappointed at Belmont, the horse never settled and ran like he did in the Smithwick, too keen. He called and asked me, ‘What do I have to do to get you back on the horse? If I send you the horse, will you ride and train him?’ I said, ‘Look it puts me in a funny position because I ride a lot for Jimmy.’ He said, ‘If you don’t take him, the horse is going somewhere else.’ We’re a small outfit, we can’t afford to turn business down,” Dalton said. “All credit to Jimmy Day and Charlton Baker, we’ve only had him two weeks. I got Mr. Baker to work him before he put him on the van and then I worked him last Tuesday, he worked lights out, call the fire brigade, put the scorch marks out, he worked that well. I was coming here confident.”

Diplomat lived up to that confidence, rallying from last of seven early to win by 6 1/2 lengths over Grade 1 winner Gustavian and Able Deputy. Bred in Kentucky by Ken and Sarah Ramsey, Diplomat caps his season in the Grade 1 Colonial Cup.

A $45,000 allowance hurdle at Great Meadow showcased another potential star for leading track Jack Fisher as Special Skills (Sean McDermott) scored for owners Sheila Williams and Andre Brewster. The 5-year-old Bernstein gelding fell while battling for the lead in his hurdle debut this spring, but returned in September to graduate at Suffolk Downs. He placed in stakes on the flat with trainer Alan Goldberg before joining Fisher’s barn.

Almarmooq certainly wasn’t destined for this from the start, but the 8-year-old Dynaformer gelding became a stakes winner when he outlasted five others in the $35,000 Pennsylvania Hunt Cup timber stakes Nov. 1. Racing for Irv Naylor, trainer Kathy Neilson and jockey Gerard Galligan, Almarmooq built a short lead between the final two fences and then held off a hard-charging Cornhusker to win by a neck with Aero third.

It was the veteran’s third timber score, after breaking his maiden at Genesee in 2013, winning an allowance race at the Pennsylvania Hunt Cup last fall and stepping up another level this fall. Neilson paid credit to recent wet weather and her horse’s tenacity in the 4-mile race’s late stages.

“On his day and on the right ground, he’s a pretty good timber horse,” said the trainer. “He doesn’t seem to like spring racing that much because the ground gets hard. He appreciated the cut in the ground and had been doing really, really well. If Almarmooq is happy about things, he can do anything he wants to do. He was so competitive at the last fence, I think he was angry at that other horse (Cornhusker).”

Bred in Kentucky by Stone Farm, Almarmooq sold for $950,000 as a yearling to Shadwell. Dispatched to England, he lost all three flat races for trainer John Gosden before selling to Naylor, coming back to America and switching to jump racing.

Neilson regularly foxhunts the dark bay gelding, with a big red ribbon in his tail because he’s a bit of a kicker.

“I don’t think he likes the grind of regular training, but he loves to hunt,” she said. “Luckily, the hunt seems to tolerate him.”

Almarmooq’s half-sister Dublino won the Grade 1 Del Mar Oaks and Grade 3 Wilshire Handicap while earning nearly $600,000.

Also at the Hunt Cup, Australian jockey Steve Pateman picked up his first timber win (and first American win) aboard Leffingwell Lion in the maiden timber for owner/trainer/breeder Elizabeth Korrell. The allowance timber went to Donald Reuwer’s Grand Manan (Darren Nagle) for trainer Billy Meister. 

– Late in the Zeke Ferguson Memorial at Great Meadow, the field of seven rolled won the backside the final time. Balance The Budget led and (to his inside) Overwhelming looked to hold a spot while being challenged by Gustavian and Diplomat. Then it all went kaboom. Overwhelming met the fence long and couldn’t quite handle it. He stumbled, skidded and slid on his right side – shooting jockey Sean McDermott to the turf.

Overwhelming’s first fall in 11 jump starts did little to deter the 5-year-old, who rebounded two weeks later to win the $75,000 AFLAC Supreme novice hurdle stakes at Callaway Gardens in Pine Mountain, Ga. Nov. 7.

Overwhelming again stalked the pace for McDermott, rating behind fellow Jack Fisher trainees Broxbourne and Syros early, moving to second on the final circuit and winning in a long battle with Broxbourne. The final margin was three-quarters of a length, with McDermott confidently wrapping up over the final five strides. Bred in Kentucky by Phipps Stable, Overwhelming cemented a strong season with his third win in six tries (good for $136,300). The son of Hard Spun and the Seeking The Gold mare Oh What A Windfall won every other start in 2015 – finishing second at Atlanta, winning at Saratoga, finishing fifth at Saratoga, winning at Belmont Park, falling at Great Meadow and winning at Callaway.

In other action at Callaway, Keystone Thoroughbreds’ The Duck graduated with a maiden hurdle score for trainer Todd McKenna and jockey Annie Yeager. The 4-year-old son of El Corredor continued a progression – pulling up at Far Hills, finishing third at Great Meadow and coming through with the maiden-breaker.

Bred by Dede McGehee, The Duck won twice on the flat for trainer Al Stall.

Timber races went to Black and Blue Stable’s Monstaleur (with Forrest Kelly getting his first win as a jockey) in the maiden for trainer Blythe Miller Davies and Bruton Street-US runner Ballylifen in the open for Fisher and jockey Connor Hankin.

The finale, a $25,000 flat race, went to Yeager and Tobias – a 6-year-old maiden whose career had included solid runs (but losses) in 19 races. Owned by Johnny Eason and Rae Fernandez, and trained by Fernandez, the son of Arch came into the race with a second and three thirds this year. The distance-loving gray finished fifth (beaten about 4 lengths) in the Grade 3 Kentucky Turf Cup in September and was sixth (beaten 3 lengths) in the Laurel Turf Cup in October.

– The same day as Callaway, Virginia’s Montpelier Hunt Races carded seven races ranging from a $40,000 open stakes over natural brush jumps to the jump circuit’s only dirt race.

In the feature, the Noel Laing, French-bred Andi’amu picked up his first American win in a romp – scoring by 11 1/2 lengths over Bonded with Fog Island third. Paddy Young was aboard for his wife, trainer Leslie Young, and Ballybristol Farm. The winner came into the race with just one prior jump win, in England last fall, but had finished second twice at Saratoga and again at Great Meadow.

The 5-year-old thrived in the yielding going at Montpelier, and handled the natural brush fences as well. Rated in mid-pack early, Andi’amu worked toward the front and was third with a lap to go. Never leaving the inside, the winner took over from a tired Able Deputy after the second-last and galloped home a clear winner.

“He had run over hurdles and chase fences over there and even though these fences are not chase fences, he’s a good jumper and handled them well,” said Leslie Young. “He can jump. I don’t know how fast he is and the (soft) ground did not affect him. We had not run him on soft ground, but back on his form he was either/or and we thought he would handle it.”

Andi’amu won once in four flat starts in his native France, and sold at Arqana’s 2013 horses in training sale as a jump prospect. The son of Irish-bred Walk In The Park switched to hurdling with English trainer Warren Greatrex and won at Market Rasen last year. That was his only win in 11 tries over hurdles and chase fences, however, and he was soon on a list to be sold.

Enter Leslie Young, who worked with Greatrex’s wife Tessa at Jonathan Sheppard’s barn years ago. Young was in the market for a horse, contacted Greatrex and Andi’amu wound up in America. He wasn’t going to be a top-class hurdler or chaser in England, had bled a few times and might fit U.S. racing. Andi’amu now belongs to Chicago resident Tom Collins, and has paid for himself in just four starts. His Saratoga races, seconds behind Plated and Diplomat, were good and he was just caught late by Special Skills at Great Meadow.

Collins, whose engineering firm sponsors a race at the Charleston Cup steeplechase meet in South Carolina, met Paddy Young in the winner’s circle there, and contacted Leslie about becoming an owner someday. Electro Beat (0-for-2 this spring) was first and Andi’amu is the second.

“He was at Charleston last year when Jamarjo won for us, and called and said he wanted to be involved,” said Leslie Young, who started small with Electro Beat. “You can tell someone they need to spend $100,000 or you can start a little smaller and see if you get lucky and have some fun. It’s worked out really well.”

 Clinching his fifth NSA jockey championship, Paddy Young also won aboard Mizyen in the maiden hurdle for Rosbrian Farm and trainer Ricky Hendriks. Darren Nagle won four on the day, including three over jumps – the $20,000 ratings handicap aboard Class Cherokee for Jacqueline Ohrstrom and trainer Richard Valentine, the maiden claimer aboard Skunk for Ronald Blankenship and trainer Neil Morris and the filly/mare allowance hurdle aboard Wigwam Baby for Bill Pape and trainer Jonathan Sheppard.

Grade 1 hurdle horses tuned up for the Colonial Cup in a 1 1/2-mile training flat race on the turf with Demonstrative looking as good as ever to win by 2 1/4 lengths over Bob Le Beau with Alajmal third. Nagle rode the winner, the 2014 steeplechase champion, and gets the mount in the Colonial Cup in place of the injured Robbie Walsh.

– In other late-season action, Nagle and Young finished off a big weekend by sweeping the three jump races at Charleston Nov. 8 – after sweeping the five jump races at Montpelier the previous day. Young rode Jamarjo home first in the $25,000 optional claiming hurdle at Charleston. His wife trained the winner for Irv Naylor. Nagle won a $20,000 maiden aboard Welcome Here Farm’s Second Amendment for trainer Lizzie Merryman and also won the maiden claimer with Dream Voyage for Buck Kisor and trainer Mike Berryman.

The trip didn’t start out so smoothly for Nagle, whose tack bag did not make it onto the plane to Charleston Sunday morning.

“I had to borrow gear from all the guys all day long,” he said. “It was awkward, but ti worked. It was a long weekend and I didn’t get a lot of sleep. I was back at work 5 o’clock Monday morning.”

Nagle gallops for trainer Graham Motion at Fair Hill in the mornings, and regularly rides jump races for Hall of Famer Jonathan Sheppard, but Charleston’s wins for smaller names meant plenty too.

“I was delighted for Mike (Berryman) and Lizzie (Merryman),” Nagle said. “They wouldn’t have as much success as Richard Valentine or Mr. Sheppard. It’s nice to do something like that.”

Nagle and Young swept all five jump races on their two stops over the weekend – five at Montpelier and three at Charleston.

– At Aiken Oct. 31, Virginia Lazenby’s Dreamin Fool won a maiden hurdle for trainer Doug Fout and jockey Kieran Norris while owner/trainer Dave Washer went out Takepointsandrun to win the maiden claimer with jockey Bernie Dalton. Overcreek Stable’s Barbara’s Smile won the filly/mare maiden hurdle for Julie Gomena and Mark Watts with Rosbrian Farm’s Magical Moon taking the conditioned claimer for Ricky Hendriks and Paddy Young.

Sons of Dynaformer – Almarmooq and Cornhusker – finished 1-2 in the Pennsylvania Hunt Cup . . . With one race meet to go, Leslie Young’s horses have finished first, second or third 24 times in 28 starts (10 wins, seven seconds, seven thirds). As she put it, “We picked our spots wisely.” Indeed . . . Trainer Cyril Murphy said Decoy Daddy has been retired. The 13-year-old came up with a bowed tendon two days before Montpelier’s Noel Laing (a race he’s won four times), though Murphy said they probably would not have run the veteran anyway due to soft turf. Irv Naylor’s Irish-bred made 57 starts over jumps in Ireland and the U.S., winning 14 times. His American career included 26 jump starts and 10 wins including four in the Noel Laing, three in the Temple Gwathmey and two in the National Hunt Cup at Radnor. He lost all three starts in 2015, but they were typically gallant – a second to Grade 1 winner Mr. Hot Stuff while giving away 10 pounds, another second to potential champion Bob Le Beau (while giving away 12) and a fifth in the Grade 1 Grand National (after setting the pace and getting pressured by Hunt Ball, who faded to finish eighth). Decoy Daddy retires with $482,009 in career earnings – in Ireland for owner Paddy Kehoe and partners and trainer Tony Mullins and in the U.S. for Naylor and trainers Desmond Fogarty, Tom Foley, J.W. Delozier, Brianne Slater and Murphy . . . Like everyone else, the TIHR handicappers are heading down the stretch with one day of racing to go. Last weekend there was some tigthening of the fall standings. Joe picked four winners (Tobias, Pride Of The Fleet, Class Cherokee and Express Line). Sean had three (Overwhelming, Mizyen and Express Line). Tom also had three (Overwhelming, Pride Of The Fleet and Express Line). On the season, Tom clings to a slim lead with 18 wins. Sean is one off the pace with 17 while Joe is two back with 16. Joe and Sean tied for the spring/summer crown.

If you want suspense, don’t look at the individual races for major NSA championships. They’re over, when it comes to people anyway.

Irv Naylor ($689,500) will win his fifth owner crown in six years. Right now, his horses have produced a symmetrical mark of 14 wins, 14 seconds and 14 thirds in 92 starts. He leads Gill Johnston and The Fields Stable, who each enjoyed strong seasons with smaller stables, by more than $200,000.

Jack Fisher will win his ninth training crown since 2003 with – even by his standards – a wildly strong year. With the Colonial Cup meet to go, Fisher’s horses have won 26 races and $1,1014,600. Leslie Young (10 wins) and Cyril Murphy ($472,500) hold down the second spots in each category.

With a fifth jockey title, Young (23 wins so far) moves into historic company as only Hall of Famers Joe Aitcheson and Dooley Adams (seven each) have won more. Another Hall of Famer, Jerry Fishback, also won five. Young rode his first American race in 2003 and won year-end championships in 2009, 2010, 2011 and 2013. The transplanted Irishman has won 181 American jump races, 11th all-time.

The horses are a different story. Headed to the Grade 1 Colonial Cup, the championship picture looks about as clear as a Starbuck’s latte (no matter what cup it’s in). With three stakes wins (two in Grade 1 company) and $216,250, Bob Le Beau leads the way. New challenger Dawalan, who won the Grade 1 Grand National, could make his case with a Colonial Cup win. Bob Le Beau beat Dawalan at Belmont, but skipped the Grand National. On the outside looking in, unless he can summon his spring form, is Demonstrative. The 2014 champion opened 2015 with a Grade 1 win in the Iroquois, but lost his next three. He looked good winning on the flat at Montpelier Saturday, however, and won the Colonial Cup in 2012.

Eleven horses were nominated to the Colonial Cup: Able Deputy, Alajmal, All Together, Bob Le Beau, Dawalan, Demonstrative, Diplomat, Gustavian, Lune de Caro, Rawnaq and The Nephew. All horses will carry 156 pounds in the 2 2/3-mile race. Entries close Monday. In a little bit of jockey shuffling, Darren Nagle gets on Demonstrative, Sean McDermott rides Rawnaq, Jack Doyle rides Bob Le Beau, Bernie Dalton rides Diplomat, Paddy Young rides Gustavian and Ross Geraghty rides Dawalan. Most runners will have their final works this weekend (some Monday or Tuesday), with the northerners getting on the road to Camden, S.C. Wednesday or Thursday.