High Action attempts to pull off a difficult double in today’s Grade I, $150,000 New York Turf Writers Cup Steeplechase. Winner of the A.P. Smithwick earlier in the meet, he tries to match the 1999 Saratoga campaign of Campanile, the last horse to take the Smithwick and Turf Writers in the same year.
Not that it will be easy.
The 2 3/8-mile test drew an evenly matched field of nine, including Dark Equation, who chased his barnmate home in the Smithwick.
“I think there are a lot of good, equal horses. I’d like to have the edge but it’s always a tough call to run back-to-back in these races,” trainer Doug Fout said Wednesday. “To me, I’m more worried about my horses. If you start worrying about the other horses you just start second-guessing yourself. It’s hard to go from the A.P. to the Turf Writers but if it falls into place it falls into place.”
Things fell into place perfectly for Carl Barnes’ High Action in the Grade II Smithwick Aug. 7. The 8-year-old sat off a solid pace set by Turf Writers entrant Salford City before pulling ahead to a 1 1/2-length win, staying perfect in his two U.S. starts since arriving from England in 2007.
High Action operated at high levels across the pond, knocking heads with the likes of Yeats as a flat campaigner. Barnes eventually elected to send the son of Theatrical to Fout in search of the firm ground rarely found in Europe. High Action made his long-awaited U.S. hurdle debut June 15 at Colonial Downs, where he drew off late to win by 4 1/2 lengths. He came to the Smithwick as a relative unknown but didn’t leave that way after getting the job done in the 2 1/16-mile stakes. Paddy Young, who scored his first career win at Saratoga in the Smithwick, has the return call at 150 pounds.
Dark Equation ran every bit as well as his more heralded stablemate in the Smithwick. Peggy Steinman’s 7-year-old was up close throughout and fought hard to earn second, bettering Salford City by 2 1/4 lengths.
The solid effort marked a return to form for Dark Equation, who was sixth, beaten more than 17 lengths, in a Grade III May 10. Last season the son of Polish Numbers aired by 5 lengths in a Saratoga allowance and has shown an affinity for flat tracks. Regular jockey Matt McCarron takes the call at 152 pounds.
Fout kept his pair on similar schedules but in different places since the Smithwick. High Action went back to the stable’s base in Middleburg, Va., while Dark Equation stayed put at Saratoga. The trainer enters with high hopes for both, while trying to walk the tight rope for fitness.
“They both had a blowout last Friday and had a school on Monday. We kept them ticking but I don’t believe in schooling them the day before they run. These old horses just need a little exercise just to keep them there before they run. You don’t need to do too much with them,” Fout said. “I’m just trying to keep them on their game and hopefully I didn’t do too much in between the two races. You have to do enough to get something out of it but not too much where it slows them down.”
Alnoff Stable’s Be Certain could have the biggest chance to deny High Action. The 4-year-old has proven a quick study for Tom Voss after running here on the flat for Roger Horgan last summer. The son of Travers winner Thunder Gulch made his hurdle debut last fall at Far Hills in the Gladstone, finishing third. He returned to take the Woolfe at Camden in November and started the 2008 season looking to avoid the dreaded 4-year-old jinx.
After a pair of seconds (one in which he got disqualified when his jockey failed to weigh in after the race), Be Certain took an allowance at Great Meadow May 3 and then shocked stablemate and reigning novice champion Planets Aligned in the Grade II National Hunt Cup at Radnor two weeks later. He prepped for the Turf Writers with a closing second to repeat winner The Price Of Love in the Jonathan Kiser here July 31. Padge Whelan has the call and Be Certain gets in at a feathery impost. In a sport where timing is everything, Voss set his alarm for today’s Grade I.
“He’s carrying 139 pounds and the others are carrying 154, that should help. Running against not that strong a field, we’re just taking a shot, distance won’t hurt him, owner’s game,” Voss said. “The other horses are older, but it’s halfway through the year, we’re just going to ride him to see how he’s going, not push him early, just see how he goes and where he takes him. You follow that group around and see where you end up. Nothing ventured, nothing gained, hopefully.”
Jonathan Sheppard has won the Turf Writers an astonishing 12 times and he returns with three chances with Luongo, Free Admission and Look At Him. Though Sheppard’s trio may not be favored, they’re a diverse group capable of pulling an upset.
“The horses this year probably aren’t the caliber of some of my other winners but they are all lightly weighted, are good jumpers with plenty of stamina so you hope they can get a piece of it,” Sheppard said. “I look at High Action as the horse to beat but winning the Smithwick and then coming back in the Turf Writers is a tough thing to do. Be Certain, you can’t throw him out. He gets in light but he’s a very nice horse and I think a 4-year-old can win this race. It’s an interesting race and you can make a case for several in there. “
Bill Pape’s Look At Him (Robbie Walsh to ride, 142 pounds) enters with the best form, based on his win in the George Sloan Novice Stakes here Aug. 14 over the Turf Writers’ 2 3/8-mile distance. The 6-year-old has been an enigma for Sheppard but is coming into his own after some mishaps earlier in the season, including throwing a shoe at Philadelphia Park and throwing his jockey here July 30.
After missing all of 2007, Look At Him returned to the races with a solid second in a Radnor allowance and may give Sheppard his best chance to win another Turf Writers.
“Look At Him is finally getting some races under him and he’s progressing. It was a bit trying with him, to get him to the races, as he’s always been a lovely looking horse,” Sheppard said. “He’ll be close to the pace. He doesn’t have a big burst of speed but he does have a big strong gallop. He might finally be turning the corner.”
Pape’s Free Admission (Danielle Hodsdon, 142), coupled in the wagering with Look At Him, makes his first start since finishing fourth in the Grade III Ferguson Memorial at Colonial Downs July 13. The 9-year-old returned from 13 months on the sidelines earlier this year at Radnor and then ran second to High Action in a Colonial allowance June 15.
Lucy Lindsay’s Luongo (Willie Dowling, 136) completes Sheppard’s triumvirate. Termed a “stayer” by the trainer, Luongo went winless in two spring starts but should benefit from his light impost. The son of Foligno won a race at 3 miles last season and owns three career wins over jumps.
Salford City made his first American start over hurdles in the Smithwick and set the pace before tiring to finish third, though he was beaten only 3 3/4 lengths by High Action.
Trained by Gordon Elliot for Fergus Galvin and Adam Lord, the 7-year-old Irish-bred should benefit from his run over the course. Salford City gave 12 pounds to High Action in the Smithwick, but the playing field levels a bit to just four pounds this time around, though the Irish horse is still the 154-pound high weight. Paul Carberry, a leading jump jockey in Ireland, flies over again for the mount and should have Salford City setting the early pace.
Four Schools (Carl Rafter to ride, 146 pounds) enters off a decisive 6 1/2-length win in the Ferguson. Trainer Richard Valentine spent $20,000 to claim the 6-year-old for Jacqueline Ohrstrom at Fair Hill May 24. Four Schools has hit the board in all three starts for his new barn but may find the water much deeper today.
Ann Stern’s Duke Of Earl was sixth in the Smithwick for Jack Fisher after winning a starter allowance and a claimer earlier in the year. The 9-year-old checked in third behind Four Schools in the Ferguson and gets in light at 136 pounds. Xavier Aizpuru, the 2007 champion jockey and Turf Writers winner, has the call.