When the fall National Steeplechase Association revs up this weekend, horsemen will be hitting the road to Lexington, Ky. for Sunday’s recently moved High Hope Steeplechase at the Kentucky Horse Park.
Usually a spring fixture, High Hope didn’t go anywhere. But organizers made the bold but risky decision to move the meet to mid-September instead of staying in its traditional spot on the calendar on Preakness Weekend in May. For High Hope executive director Kim Morris, the move made sense for a variety of reasons.
“The move was two-fold,” she said. “One was the interference with other Horse Park happenings and September worked better with the steeplechase calendar and other events being held within Lexington such as the Keeneland yearling sales and Keeneland race meet. The meet is important to Lexington because it’s now the last meet left in Kentucky, so for people to be exposed to steepelechasing this is the one and only chance [each year].”
Racing director Michelle Primm was initially leery about moving the meet but those worries were alleviated as soon as entries opened. A record-breaking amount of entries poured in, even forcing High Hope to split one of the races into two divisions.
“I’ve been amazed at our response,” Primm said. “I have to say I had some trepidations about changing the date and we did it for several reasons. But we have the most entries in the history of High Hope for this meet. The NSA works hard to accommodate all race meets and especially the smaller ones. They really try to help us to grow. They were very will to help us come up with purse money and divide up the entries. It was a breeze and we were so grateful for the response from the owners and trainers to have that many entries that we were certainly glad to do it.”
Fifty-eight Thoroughbreds were entered in NSA-sanctioned races, including a training flat race. Another 25 young riders – many sons and daughters of prominent horsemen in flat racing and steeplechasing – have signed up to take part in four pony races on the card with two sidesaddle races also spread throughout the day.
While some spectators were disappointed in the date change, Primm said many tickets for the different venues around the course are already close to selling out. Horsemen have universally been happy with the changes as well with many of them planning to use the meet to see where their horses are this season.
“Being one of the first meets of the fall, we offer maiden races,” Primm said. “It’s a good opportunity to see what you have and where you’re headed in the next few months with your horse. We’re a great location so it’s not hard to get to. It serves a purpose for horsemen in that it lets them see what they’ve got and helps make a plan for the coming season.”
For trainer Jimmy Day, the move to fall has allowed his stable to think about the meet for more horses. This year, he has three horses headed to the meet including two maidens.
“Moving to the fall has opened it up to bigger entries, which is great,” said Day, who is based in Virginia. “It’s a nice start to the fall. For [my entries] the maiden Foxhall Drive has been running very well, he will be hard to beat. He’s One Wild Dude is a very consistent horse on the flat, he’ll be a little green but has a great chance.”
But it’s Day-trainee Orchestra Leader running in the first division of the Oxmoor Steeplechase going 2 1/8 miles over hurdles that may prove to be the most interesting.
The 9-year-old gelding owned by Team Ollie has the most experience at High Hope of any horse entered with four starts over the course. Coming into this race off a third in a flat race at Penn National Aug. 31, he has three on-the-board finishes at High Hope including a win last year. He’ll again be ridden by Keri Brion, who was aboard the gelding for last year’s victory.
“High Hope is unique in its own way, like a lot of hunt meets. It’s up and down hills with lots of turns and horses seem to like that,” Day said. “Orchestra Leader loves High Hope, he always runs well there.”
Orchestra Leader was one of 17 horses entered in the handicap hurdle (for horses rated 120 and below), which prompted the split into two races worth $25,000 each. Orchestra Leader is rated 120, but will have to deal with Swellelegent (119), Unsinkable (117), Ocean Ready (116) and Cheers To Us (115) in a field of eight.
A race later, the second division lured perhaps the year’s best maiden winner in Cite. Rated 116, he dominated at Nashville but skipped rich summer opportunities for trainer Jack Fisher and owner Gill Johnston. Others in the deep group include L’Aigle Royal, Dapper Dan, Sail Ahoy and capable veteran Perfect Union. Five-year-old geldings Sail Ahoy and Cite probably grew up together at Claiborne. The former (a maiden winner this was bred by the Phipps Stable and placed in a Grade 3 stakes as a 2-year-old for trainer Shug McGaughey before selling to Rosbrian Farm and Ricky Hendriks. The latter, bred by Claiborne and Adele Dilschneider, won three times on the flat while with Bill Mott before selling as a steeplechase prospect last year. Both are 1-for-2 since making their debuts over jumps this year.
High Hope’s timber race drew a field of nine including Winterthur winner Rudyard K while the training flat race attracted seven entries including Team Colors for owner Brad Grady and trainer/jockey Joe Sharp. Yes, you read that right. Sharp will ride the Grade 3-placed son of Street Cry.
A major fundraiser for the area, High Hope has raised $500,000 for Lexington charities over the last 50 years with the first High Hope event of the weekend taking place at Buck Pond Farm in Versailles, Ky. on Saturday night with the High Hope Chaser’s Eve gala.
Gates open at 10 a.m. the next morning for a day of races starting with a UAE Pony Cup qualifier at 11:30 and the first steeplechase of the day scheduled to take place an hour and a half later during a historic day of racing in Lexington.