Picks & Preview for jump triple header

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Veteran hurdler Iranistan looks to repeat in Saturday’s Noel Laing over the brush course at Montpelier. Tod Marks photo

The leaves have changed, the sun sets before 6 p.m., the horses might even be starting to grow winter coats – yes, the steeplechase calendar has reached its thin days and the second-last weekend of the year features three meets in Georgia, Virginia and Pennsylvania.

The crowded schedule – two meets Saturday, one Sunday – produced small fields at Callaway Gardens but that’s the price you pay with small inventories of horses and jockeys, and competing races. Callaway features a $75,000 novice hurdle stakes while Montpelier showcases a $50,000 filly/mare hurdle stakes and the $60,000 Noel Laing Stakes over the traditional brush fences.

As usual, you can watch the NSA livestream via Mandolin. Also as usual, the TIHR handicappers try to salvage some semblance of order after getting blanked at Aiken last week. With 16 races, there ought to be some movement. Joe leads the way with 12 wins followed by Sean (11) and Tom (9).

And in a race people actually care about, Leslie Young (31 wins) leads Keri Brion (27) in the race for champion trainer.

Montpelier Hunt Races. First of all, yes it is the former home of President James Madison. The place also used to belong to Marion du Pont Scott, one of American jump racing’s most influential people. She campaigned champions on the flat (Proud Delta, Mongo, etc.) and over jumps (Soothsayer), won the Aintree Grand National with Battleship, bred three-time jump champion and Hall of Famer Neji, stood stallions, founded the Colonial Cup. Oh, and her brother Willie du Pont founded Fair Hill.

The meet at Montpelier dates to 1937 and features the Noel Laing, run in memory of the former trainer and amateur jockey who won the 1932 Maryland Hunt Cup aboard Trouble Maker. It’s the last U.S. jump race run over a course of natural hedge fences. Previous Laing winners include the great Tingle Creek (before he went to England and became a legend), Hall of Famer Zaccio, champion Soothsayer and Hall of Famer Tuscalee. More recently, Decoy Daddy won it four times in five years (with a second) and Mon Villez won three in a row. You can read about Triple Dip’s upset of the 2008 Noel Laing in our Steeplechase Times archives.

Post time Saturday is 12:45 p.m.

First race. Training flat going 1 mile on the dirt. Yes dirt. Montpelier has a dirt training track, so naturally hosts a dirt flat race. Get ready jockeys. Seven runners, with a variety of form. Uncle Jerome has won three times on the dirt this year. Bellarmine Hall is winless in eight this year but has won six times. Grunion makes his debut at age 6. He’s a brother to jump winners Balistes, Eryx and Zanclus.

Joe: Uncle Jerome, Ken Loves Kitten, Bellarmine Hall.
Sean: Bellarmine Hall, Uncle Jerome, Ken Loves Kitten.
Tom: Uncle Jerome, Shootin The Breeze, Rum Bobby.

Second race. $30,000 handicap (115) hurdle going 2 3/8 miles. Seven runners, led by multiple winners He’ll Do and Mr. Bridger, line up in the first jump race of the day. Queens Empire won over the course last year. Four-year-olds Top Brass and Project Two get weight breaks. The race goes through the two multiple winners though. Mr. Bridger won at Foxfield in April off the bench, was second at Colonial and second again to Welshman at Virginia Fall. He’ll Do found the good ground at Foxfield to get up late. Competitive group.

Joe: Mr. Bridger, Queens Empire, Top Brass.
Sean: Mr. Bridger, He’ll Do, Project Two. 
Tom: Queens Empire, Top Brass, Senor Seville.

Third race. $15,000 maiden claiming hurdle going 2 3/8 miles. A full field of 10. Young runs two – Hard Spun 4-year-old Arrowheart and Irish-bred 7-year-old Plenty In The Tank. The latter was second in the Nasvhille maiden in 2021, then didn’t run again until last month at Great Meadow. Arrowheart was prominent early in two maiden special efforts in October. Brion shows up with 3-year-old filly Feminsta. They’ll have to deal with Daddy’s Cozy, second in May and a flat winner in July plus first-timer Refi (a training flat winner at Shawan). Hero’s Return is on the also-eligible list for what would be his 11th start over jumps.

Joe: Refi, Plenty In The Tank, Daddy’s Cozy.
Sean: Refi, Eye Of Gunfighter, Daddy’s Cozy.
Tom: Daddy’s Cozy, Arrowheart, Refi.

Fourth race. $30,000 maiden hurdle going 2 3/8 miles. Eight contest this one. Modus Operandi fell at the first at Great Meadow, his hurdle debut after tackling graded turf company for flat trainer Brendan Walsh. The Frankel gelding sold for $900,000 as a yearling. Mission Brief was beaten a length when third at Virginia Fall. Webb looked OK at Foxfield, not so OK when he fell at Great Meadow. Talk Or Listen won stakes a stakes on the flat.

Joe: Mission Brief, Modus Operandi, Lightning Rod.
Sean: Lightning Rod, Modus Operandi, Mission Brief. 
Tom: Mission Brief, Modus Operandi, Talk Or Listen.

Fifth race. $30,000 maiden hurdle going 2 3/8 miles. Seven turn up for a second maiden hurdle. This looks like the deeper version with Pure Courage (second at Far Hills, third at Shawan), Quid (fourth at Shawan), South Mountain (third at Great Meadow) and Seismic Wave (fourth at Virginia Fall and Great Meadow) on board. Brion unveils Hilliard, a Temple City 4-year-old owned by Jordan Wycoff.

Joe: Pure Courage, South Mountain, Hilliard.
Sean: Pure Courage, Quid, South Mountain.
Tom: South Mountain, Pure Courage, Quid.

Sixth race. $50,000 Montpelier Cup filly/mare stakes going 2 3/8 miles. Nine distaffers meet here. Molly Fantasy won a 115 handicap at Great Meadow. Our Bab won the $100,000 (wow) Randy Rouse at Colonial Downs. Eve’s City won at Montpelier in 2019 and 2021 – the only wins of her career. Soramond blitzed 110 handicappers at Aiken.  Saigon won the Foxfield maiden and returned to finish fourth in a solid allowance hurdle at Great Meadow.

Joe: Eve’s City, Molly Fantasy, Saigon.
Sean: Molly Fantasy, Our Bab, Saigon.
Tom: Soramond, Speed Alert, Saigon.

Seventh race. $60,000 Noel Laing hurdle stakes going 2 1/2 miles. They jump the big brush fences, which changes things a little. They’re not necessarily any more difficult to jump but they look bigger and ask a different question than the standard National Fences. Ask Paddington drops out of two thirds in Grade 1 company. Bodes Well has been ripping it up in cross-country races, but he was pretty solid over hurdles too with a Saratoga novice run. The 144-pound assignment will help. Another at 144, Duc de Meran is another cross-country runner who won at Virginia Fall and was second to Bodes Well at Great Meadow. Song For Someone’s three U.S. starts have all been OK after an English career dotted with major scores at Kempton, Ascot and Cheltenham. Young adds blinkers. City Dreamer finished third at Great Meadow, his first start since May. His best races have come when held up for a late run. Can he handle the fences? Iranistan won this race last year, opened 2022 with a win over Snap Decision and then struggled in his next three. The veteran gets back on Lasix, which will help, and he gets eight pounds from Ask Paddington. Solid group. In the old days, the winner would be a player for the Colonial Cup in a couple weeks.

Joe: Ask Paddington, City Dreamer, Iranistan.
Sean: Ask Paddington, Iranistan, City Dreamer.
Tom: City Dreamer, Bodes Well, Dec de Meran.

Step To The Bar exits a win at Shawan Downs to try the novice stakes at Callaway Gardens. Tod Marks photo

Callaway Gardens. The Pine Mountain, Georgia stop includes five races and just 24 horses. Again, this is what you get when you mix two meets on the same day, limited supplies of horses and jockeys and so on. Post time is 12:45 p.m. If it’s your first time, Callaway is right-handed with a sharp downhill run to the backstretch and a stiff uphill climb to the finish.

First race. $20,000 allowance (NW2) timber going 3 1/2 miles. They actually jump a little bit of everything here so . . . Court Ruler won two handicap hurdles this spring, then finished third over timber at Virginia Fall. Stooshie won that maiden timber at Virginia Fall. Shootin The Breeze and Chosen Mate need to improve.

Joe: Court Ruler, Stooshie, Chosen Mate.
Sean: Court Ruler, Stooshie, Chosen Mate.
Tom: Stooshie, Court Ruler, Chosen Mate.

Second race. $15,000 handicap (120) hurdle for apprentice or amateur jockeys going 2 3/8 miles. Another field of four. Freddie Procter (14 wins) is the second leading jockey on the circuit but gets to ride here as an amateur. Procter gets on Booby Trap, third in the novice at Far Hills but winless in his last six after winning two in a row last summer. Spring Heeled Jim won his debut in April, but it’s been uphill sledding since. High Mounte gets off the bench for Arch Kingsley and jockey Jack Gilligan (not the Jack Gilligan who rode him on the flat at Fair Grounds in 2019). Mell Boucher and Three O One, owned by Callaway chairman Mason Lampton, look to go one better than their second last time at Great Meadow. They get 20 pounds from Booby Trap.

Joe: Three O One, High Mounte, Booby Trap.
Sean: Spring Heeled Jim, Booby Trap, Three O One.
Tom: High Mounte, Booby Trap, Three O One.

Third race. $30,000 maiden hurdle going 2 3/8 miles. Four more. Uco Valley has been close three times this year. Mystical Man makes his jump debut after a fourth on the flat at Far Hills. Girl Dad makes his debut, less than a month removed from a flat career. Thai Terrier was a solid third at Virginia Fall and fifth at Great Meadow.

Joe: Mystical Man, Girl Dad, Uco Valley.
Sean: Mystical Man, Uco Valley, Thai Terrier.
Tom: Girl Dad, Mystical Man, Uco Valley.

Fourth race. $75,000 AFLAC novice hurdle stakes going 2 3/8 miles. Six contest the feature. Theocrat exits a second in handicap company at Far Hills and shoulders 162 pounds thanks to four hurdle wins. Merry Maker shook off some rust at Great Meadow. Step To The Bar tries to prove he can win somewhere that’s not Shawan Downs (another right-handed course by the way). Four-year-olds Ljay and Fast Vision meet for the third time. Fast Vision won both, but Ljay has won two stakes in the age group. Another 4-year-old, Welshman, steps out of a handicap win at Virginia Fall.

Joe: Theocrat, Welshman, Ljay.
Sean: Theocrat, Ljay, Fast Vision.
Tom: Ljay, Fast Vision, Theocrat.

Fifth race. $20,000 maiden claiming hurdle going 2 3/8 miles. Six meet in the finale. Hey Teacher nearly won two back at Foxfield. Thomond Park, third in that Foxfield race, has had lots of chances. Seizing The Dream was fourth at Great Meadow in his hurdle debut. His dam Unbelievable Dream did her best work making late (really late) runs in turf races. Stolen Shoes drops into the claiming ranks for the first time. Real Factor will probably be in front early.

Joe: Seizing The Dream, Stolen Shoes, Thomond Park.
Sean: Hey Teacher, Seizing The Dream, Lizzy.
Tom: Hey Teacher, Seizing The Dream, Lizzy.

Timber veteran Mystic Strike tries to win his third
Pennsylvania Hunt Cup Sunday. Tod Marks photo

Pennsylvania Hunt Cup. You still here? The third stop on the weekend goes north to Unionville, Pa., and the Pennsylvania Hunt Cup timber meet on Sunday. Forgotten fact, there used to be hurdle racing there too. Now it’s just timber, headed by the 4-mile feature which isn’t quite it’s Maryland compatriot but is a stiff test. The day starts at 1:30 p.m. (don’t forget to move your clocks) includes four races, great autumn scenery and – if the weather holds – a fun day out on the last timber stop of the season.

First race. $15,000 maiden timber going 3 miles. Five take one more swing at graduation day. Lonely Weekend finished second at Virginia Fall and will be tough to handle if he repeats that effort. The 7-year-old Tiznow gelding mustered a single hurdle win in June 2020, then didn’t run again for almost two years. Great Road’s timber record includes a second and two thirds over three seasons. He was third at Genesee. Tiepolo finished second at Willowdale and should appreciate the tightener at Shawan.

Joe: Lonely Weekend, Great Road, Tiepolo.
Sean: Lonely Weekend, Mr. Fine Threads, Great Road.
Tom: Lonely Weekend, Great Road, Tiepolo.

Second race. $30,000 allowance (NW2) timber going 3 miles. Four runners. Boutonniere got Young’s season started back in April with a win at the Grand National. The Istan gelding was a solid second to Cracker Factory at Virginia Fall. Notjudginjustsayin won at Genesee. Stablemate Our Legend won the maiden at Foxfield in April and was fourth at Shawan. Pocket Talk won over the course in 2020.

Joe: Boutonniere, Nutjudginjustsayin, Our Legend.
Sean: Boutonniere, Our Legend, Notjudginjustsayin.
Tom: Notjudginjustsayin, Boutonniere, Our Legend.

Third race. $35,000 Pennsylvania Hunt Cup timber stakes going 4 miles. Again, it’s not quite Maryland but this race dates to 1921 and used to be run at a course in Whitemarsh before moving to its current home in 1964. Previous winners include timber stars Haffaday, Jacko, Fort Devon (yes, that Fort Devon), Dosdi, Von Csadek, Buck Jakes and Cancottage. This year, Mystic Strike – whose career began on the flat at Calder in 2012 (!!!) with trainer Phil Gleaves – makes his fourth start in the race. He won in 2019 and 2020, and was second last year. Can the 13-year-old summon another big effort? The Smart Strike gelding was second at the Manor in April and fourth (beaten a length) at Virginia Fall last month. Royal Ruse won at the course in 2019 and 2020, but has never won a timber stakes. Mercoeur has done his best work on cross-country courses and will get tested. He looked like a winner last time at Genesee before going off course. Mystic Strike’s stablemate Shootist could be ready to break through. Another Smart Strike gelding, the 8-year-old was second to timber champion Andi’amu last time at Genesee and won at the Grand National in April.

Joe: Mystic Strike, Shootist, Royal Ruse.
Sean: Mystic Strike, Mercoeur, Royal Ruse. 
Tom: Mystic Strike, Shootist, Mercoeur.

Fourth race. Training flat for apprentice jockeys going 1 3/8 miles. Trivia question: Anybody know the significance of the race’s namesake Athenian Idol (see below for answer*)? A dozen run. Even rider Jennie Brannigan gets a leg up on Topped Off. Flat trainer Carl Doran dusts off the tack to ride Boffo Kid. Flat trainer Michael Dickinson shows up with Search For Truth, fourth behind Maryland Million Turf winner Wicked Prankster at Laurel Oct. 16. Race sponsor Keri Brion runs Summer Anthem, another Jordan Wycoff recruit. Godolphin-bred 3-year-old Quidditch makes his NSA debut. Greg and Caroline Bentley’s Runnymoore Racing will be represented by homebred Aerial Assault from trainer Michael Matz’s barn.

Joe: Aerial Assault, Search For Truth, Summer Anthem.
Sean: Aerial Assault, Summer Anthem, Search For Truth.
Tom: Quidditch, Aerial Assault, The Region.

*Athenian Idol was Hall of Fame trainer Jonathan Sheppard’s first steeplechase champion. Owned by Bill Pape, the 5-year-old won five races in 1973 – allowance races at Atlanta and Tryon in the spring, a $7,000 claiming score at Saratoga, a $10,000 handicap at Saratoga and the Temple Gwathmey over the brush course at Rolling Rock. Bred by Harbor View Farm, the chestnut finished fourth in the Colonial Cup to cap that season and was fatally injured in a fall at the Carolina Cup the following spring. Sheppard went on to train the winners of 12 more steeplechase championships.