Jumping: Hunt Cup, Queen’s Cup hold court

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Two wars and a pandemic. They’re the only things to stop the Maryland Hunt Cup since America’s greatest steeplechase race launched into being in 1894. So, off a dark year, timber horses are back in the Worthington Valley for the timber classic Saturday.

Post time is 4 p.m. and the Hunt Cup gets joined by North Carolina’s Queen’s Cup Steeplechase, which makes some history of its own as the first National Steeplechase Association meet to use the new EasyFix hurdles. Six races make the program at the Mineral Springs fixture with a first post of 12:30.

And…the TIHR handicappers try again after getting blanked in three races at the Grand National (hey, we’re a bit rusty too). So Sean and Joe are tied at 1-1 with Tom biding his time.

Start with the Hunt Cup. The first and only race is a $60,000 timber stakes going 4 miles. The race attracted 10 entries and for the first time since 2011 the field includes no previous winners. Drift Society (four previous starts), Joshua G. (five) and Jeffery G. (one) are the only runners to attempt the 4-mile, 22-fence odyssey. Drift Society’s starts have resulted in two seconds and two thirds. The Bruton Street-US/Jack Fisher runner reunites with jockey Connor Hankin, third aboard the Irish-bred in 2016. Joshua G. owns a second, a third and a fourth in his Hunt Cup starts. Skylar McKenna rides the 15-year-old for Armata Stable and trainer Kathy Neilson. His 14-year-old half-brother Jeffery G. finished fourth in 2019.

Grand National winner Le Chevalier would probably take the role of betting favorite. The 12-year-old handled big fences last week and is a proven commodity with four timber wins and two placings in the 4-mile Virginia Gold Cup. Trainer Julie Gomena and jockey McLane Hendriks seek their first Hunt Cup wins. My Lady’s Manor winner Vintage Vinnie got some help when Schoodic fell late and could be the likely pacesetter. Irish jockey Dan Nevin flies in for the ride for Armata Stable and trainer Joe Davies.

Second to Le Chevalier, Royal Ruse will try to go one better with the added mile. Chris Gracie, aboard Vintage Vinnie at the Manor, gets the ride for Charlie Fenwick and trainer Sanna Neilson. Hooded, Sideling Hill, Preseli Rock and Rocket Star Red fill out the field. As usual, the horses will compete but the course will have its say.

Tom: Vintage Vinnie, Royal Ruse, Preseli Rock.
Sean: Le Chevalier, Royal Ruse, Drift Society.
Joe: Le Chevalier, Royal Ruse, Drift Society.

Queen’s Cup. One of the most picturesque stops on the circuit, the sprawling facility technically hosts no spectators this year though a few owners are expected to be on hand. The meet will feature a full livestream show with Megan Connolly and Mark Johnson. Post time is 12:30 p.m.

First race. $10,000 maiden claiming hurdle going 2 miles. Seven go in the opener. Gostisbehere (named for the Flyers defenseman) flashed promise in 2019, but missed all of last year. Four-year-old Lap Of The Gods finished second in the 3-year-old race at Charleston to end 2020, and switches from Jonathan Sheppard’s barn to Sanne Neilson’s. Western Crusader leads the way with five hurdle starts. Good or bad, you decide. Lemon Again finished second at this level last year at Charleston.

Tom: Gostisbehere, Lemon Again, Ismusbemyluckyday.
Sean: Gostisbehere, Western Crusader, Oceanographer.
Joe: Gostisbehere, Western Crusader, Lap Of The Gods.

Second race. $20,000 maiden hurdle going 2 1/8 miles. Another nine show up here, and they’re a mixed bag. First-timers Market Bubble (twice a flat winner for Alan Goldberg and Jorge Duarte after costing $375,000 as a 2-year-old), Hayabusa One (who placed in two Grade 2 turf stakes in California), Channel Island (an English Channel gelding from Mike Maker’s barn) and Kilronan (second on the turf at Belmont last fall) will attract plenty of attention. They’ll have to deal with more-experienced foes Compass Zone (third twice last year), Koko Star (fourth twice last year), Sea Mast (third last summer) and Cause For Pardon (third last fall).

Tom: Market Bubble, Koko Star, Kilronan.
Sean: Market Bubble, Hayabusa One, Kilronan.
Joe: Hayabusa One, Market Bubble, Cause For Pardon.

Third race. $30,000 Queen’s Cup MPC Chase novice hurdle going 2 3/8 miles. The first hurdle stakes of 2021 lured 10 runners. As usual, they come from all directions. City Dreamer won a novice stakes at the Iroquois in 2019. Irish-bred Gowiththeflow makes his American debut after winning twice in England. Chief Justice is overdue for a breakthrough. Arch My Boy finished 2 lengths behind stakes star Snap Decision in 2019, but didn’t run last year. Bodes Well was just 2 lengths behind Snap Decision last summer at Saratoga. Sportswear won two in a row to start his jump career in 2019, but hasn’t’ gotten close in four starts since. Like some of the others, Family Tree will be happy to not face off with Snap Decision. Brianbakescookies, Anticipating and The Happy Giant are all capable.

Tom: Chief Justice, Bodes Well, City Dreamer.
Sean: Chief Justice, City Dreamer, Arch My Boy.
Joe: Arch My Boy, Gowiththeflow, City Dreamer.

Fourth race. $20,000 handicap hurdle (115 and below) going 2 1/4 miles. Emerald Rocket sure looked good winning a maiden at Great Meadow last June (over French Light and Lemonade Thursday). Of course, he finished 37 lengths behind Fast Car in his next start. The 6-year-old get another chance here as the co-highweight in a field of nine. Also at the top of the handicap are Mr. Bridger, who won a maiden at Middleburg last fall, and veteran Orchestra Leader (though he gets 10 pounds off with apprentice jockey Mell Boucher) and three-time winner Ebullience (who gets 7 pounds off with apprentice Parker Hendriks). Pretty even race, the way it should be.

Tom: Emerald Rocket, Prayer Hope, Screen Image.
Sean: Emerald Rocket, Prayer Hope, Down Royal.
Joe: Emerald Rocket, Mr. Bridger, Ebullience.

Fifth race. $15,000 allowance (NW2) timber going 3 miles. Five get on the road to North Carolina. Storm Team is the only starter with a timber win (last June at Middleburg) but he failed to finish his next two including a fall in October. Still, he’s the class.

Tom: Storm Team, Tiepolo, Motivational.
Sean: Storm Team, Motivational, Tiepolo.
Joe: Storm Team, Tiepolo, Highway Prince.

Sixth race. Training flat going 1 1/4 miles. Trainers Arch Kingsley and Lilith Boucher could have held this race at Springdale Training Center as they’ve got all eight entries (four each). Hypnotist won at Colonial Downs last summer. Maccabee is a solid hurdler. Hurtgen Forest represents the home team of Carrington Holdings. McSteamy goes out for the Grey’s Anatomy fans, off a win at Presque Isle Downs in October.

Tom: Show Court, McSteamy, Maccabee.
Sean: Hurtgen Forest, Hypnotist, Do The Floss. 
Joe: Hypnotist, Maccabee, McSteamy.