And there it was, not three minutes into a nine-minute phone conversation with Sean McDermott late Friday afternoon.
“I don’t really have time for pressure,” the steeplechase jockey said while finishing up his evening stables in Maryland. “I haven’t thought about it. I know the horse well. I know the track pretty well. He’s straightforward.”
Due to a back injury to regular jockey Graham Watters last weekend at the Virginia Gold Cup, McDermott will ride favorite Snap Decision in Saturday’s $200,000 Iroquois Steeplechase in Nasvhille, Tenn. The first Grade 1 steeplechase of the 2023 season headlines a seven-race card which starts at 1 p.m. central time. McDermott was going for two rides, Hooroo in a handicap hurdle and Pure Courage in a maiden. Now he rides a major player in the big one.
Snap Decision won the last two Iroquois, when it was moved to June and run at 2 ¾ miles in 2021 because of the pandemic and last May at the traditional 3 miles. No horse has won the race, launched in 1941, in three consecutive years. Trained by Jack Fisher for Bruton Street-US (Mike Hankin, Charlie Fenwick, Charlie Noell), the 9-year-old opened 2023 with a comfortable win in the Temple Gwathmey at Middleburg April 22.
Watters was aboard for that, and the Kentucky-bred’s previous nine steeplechase starts. They’ve won five of those 10 starts together, with four seconds. Watters has won eight races this spring with seven seconds in 29 rides. In the finale at the Gold Cup meet May 6, Watters fell with Tapwood and left with a fractured vertebrae. The jockey will return, just not Saturday.
McDermott rode Snap Decision three times in 2020, and posted three wins – the David Semmes at Great Meadow and two novice stakes at Saratoga. The Irishman would have been aboard in more important autumn races, but the stakes calendar was wiped out by the pandemic. In the spring of 2021, McDermott went with the Fisher-trained Footpad as Watters took the first-call job and got on Snap Decision. McDermott has since blended riding with a training business that produced six wins in 2021, eight in 2022 and a flat score with Who’s Counting last week at Laurel Park.
All jump jockeys know injuries are part of the game.
“It’s very unfortunate for Graham even if it’s super to pick up the ride, but that’s how it goes sometimes,” McDrermott said. “Jack called me, and I didn’t know Graham had had a knock. Look, he’s taken it on the chin, but it just swings and roundabouts. It’s obviously very cool that it’s come around again for me, even if it’s a bit unexpected. He’ll be back on him before you know it.”
The only American-bred in the race, Snap Decision takes on seven rivals topped by Irish raider Scaramanga from the barn of Willie Mullins. Named for a Bond villain, the 8-year-old finished fourth of 26 in the Coral Cup at the Cheltenham Festival in March and was eighth in the Cesarewitch Handicap on the flat at Newmarket last October. His last win over jumps came in 2021 when part of the Paul Nicholls yard in England.
McDermott has done at least some homework.
“I know the lads like Willie’s horse, he’s only had a run in the Coral Cup at Cheltenham and ran very well,” he said. “He ran keen. He’s not being sent over here just for the fun of it. He’s lightly raced, not too exposed and there’d be no lacking in fitness.”
Mullins finished second and third with Shaneshill and Nichols Canyon in the 2016 Iroquois.
As McDermott said, Snap Decision isn’t complicated to ride though his running style has changed to being more forwardly placed in his last three starts. In last year’s Iroquois, he shadowed Pistol Whipped early, increased the tempo and took over on the final trip up the long backstretch before winning by a geared-down 7 ¼ lengths.
“I’ve ridden him off the pace and close the pace, Graham has been riding him forwardly probably more so because of the lack of pace in the races than anything else,” he said. “He’s a course and distance winner of that race and I’m a two-time winner of that race as well. We’re both getting long in the tooth. Is he the horse of old? Hopefully he is, and if he is he has a great chance of getting a third one.”
Rain in Nashville softened the course, which would play into the hands of the English- and Irish-breds. Snap Decision struggled in yielding ground at Far Hills last year, but has won on good turf three times.
“If it dries out it might be holding, tacky ground,” said McDermott. “Hopefully the humidity isn’t too bad. The combination of holding ground and really humid days can flip the form books on their head. It becomes a race of who handles it and who doesn’t.”
McDermott won the Iroquois for Fisher and Bruton Street aboard Scorpiancer in 2017 and 2019, so knows the course and the players.
“It would be huge to win it for Bruton Street and Jack again,” he said. “They’ve been a huge part in my career. It’s a real family feel amongst us all. You’d love to win it for them. The Bruton Street banner is huge. The support they give to racing here and all over the world is important. They deserve every win they get. Hopefully we can get another one.”
NOTES: In other Iroquois jockey changes, Stephen Mulqueen rides Ping Pong Champ in the first; Jamie Bargary rides Piccadilly in the second, Fits The Jill in the sixth and Queens Empire in the seventh; Tom Garner rides Cool Jet in the fourth.