Putting wraps on 2021 steeplechase season

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It started in February, maybe even earlier knowing some horse people. Owners, trainers, jockeys – probably even horses – fretted about the next race meet on the 2021 National Steeplechase Association calendar. And now there is nothing to fret over. The season started in March with a single race on the Cheshire Point-to-Point card near Unionville, Pa., feeling half-normal and half-not considering the Covid-torpedoed 2020 version, and drew to a close Nov. 14 near Charleston, S.C.

Everybody breathe. Most jump-racing participants and enthusiasts would prefer a few more weeks or some kind of season-ending crescendo, but pretty much all appreciate the finality of a schedule with no racing in December, January or February. The season ends, and everybody is better for it. The flat side has the Breeders’ Cup, but the season never really ends – it just moves around.

At Charleston, the pre-race conversation centered on the jockey and trainer races. Both were tied – the former at 15-15 between Jack Fisher and Leslie Young, the latter at 19-19 between Tom Garner and Graham Watters. Four hurdle races would decide both championships.

Young, bidding for her first NSA title to cap a career year, sent six from her base at Hall of Fame trainer Jonathan Sheppard’s former headquarters in Pennsylvania. Fisher, a 13-time champion inducted to racing’s Hall of Fame this year, shipped two horses from Maryland. Garner would ride for Young, Watters for Fisher.

Decide it on the racetrack.

Call the first two races anti-climaxes. Lilith and Richard Boucher won the first (a maiden claimer) with Three O One, wheeling back eight days after finishing second to Twenty Years On (Fisher and Watters) at Callaway Gardens. Watters was second this time, a neck behind the winner, aboard Make A Stand for trainer Mark Beecher. Young and Garner settled for fifth with first-timer Twentyoneguns. In the second, Gearhead landed the maiden hurdle for trainer Willie Dowling and jockey Jamie Bargary – improving on a second at Montpelier eight days earlier. Young and Garner were third with Duckett’s Grove. Fisher and Watters watched.

In the third, a 110 handicap hurdle, Fisher dusted off Gostisbehere. Named for hockey player Shayne (who keeps up) now with the Arizona Coyotes, the 7-year-old hadn’t run since August while his six rivals exited October and November starts. He proved to be a handful for everybody, not just the announcer, rallying from sixth early to win by 3 1/2 lengths while Watters stood tall in the stirrups and celebrated. Young and Garner were fifth with Don’t Shout, who led early but couldn’t keep it going.

Assured of at least ties for the championships, Watters and Fisher went back to work in the fourth – the featured Alston Cup for 3-year-olds – with Ghostlighter. Young ran two, Fast Vision with Garner and Project Two with Gerard Galligan. Fast Vision took a narrow lead late, but Ghostlighter ran him down and won by 2 3/4 lengths to give Fisher and Watters solo championships.

The final numbers went Fisher 17, Young 15 and Watters 21, Garner 19. Garner won the earnings crown by about $20,000 with Keri Brion leading all trainers in purses thanks to wins in four of the five Grade 1 stakes on the year.

As usual, the year was full of stories behind the numbers but see NSA site for final standings.

Fisher won his first NSA crown in 2003 and hasn’t gone more than two years without one since. He lost the 2020 race to Sheppard, and looked destined to finish second (or maybe third) this year until winning with five of his last seven starters. City Dreamer, Twenty Years On, Queens Empire, Gostisbehere and Ghostlighter delivered the championship in November. Factoring in two flat wins at Laurel Park Oct. 28 and another there Nov. 21, Fisher’s horses have won eight of their last 11 starts. Snap Decision won major races in May and June to tie the NSA record with nine consecutive wins, but skipped the summer and then settled for second behind The Mean Queen twice in the fall. Schoodic won two timber races, but could have won three others. It wasn’t all gravy. The barn was blanked at Colonial Downs and Saratoga, going winless in jump races between June 26 and Sept. 25. Young built a big stable, leading all trainers with 103 starts, and was competitive all year. In addition to her 15 wins, she had 22 seconds and 19 thirds. She won three races at Saratoga, and trained the year’s leading timber horse Tomgarrow. She doubled at the International Gold Cup in October to take a three-win lead on Fisher, but didn’t win a race over the season’s final four stops as Fisher rallied. Brion, in her first full season as a trainer, wound up with the year’s top horse in The Mean Queen but also found success with Baltimore Bucko, Galway Kid, Iranistan and Historic Heart.

Neither Watters nor Garner had won an NSA title, so the year was going to feature a first-time champion no matter how Charleston turned out. Irishman Watters rode his first American races in 2017, endured a 4-for-72 season in 2019 and made the most out of a new first-call partnership with Fisher in 2021. Watters won a timber race with Road To Oz at My Lady’s Manor to start the season, doubled at the Queen’s Cup, Middleburg and Iroquois. He won two races each with Snap Decision, City Dreamer, Gostisbehere, Storm Team and Road To Oz. Garner led the circuit with 95 rides, 11 more than Watters. Highlights included a sweep of the Grade 1 stakes at Saratoga with Baltimore Bucko and The Mean Queen, a triple at the International Gold Cup in October and a three-win weekend in May at the Virginia Gold Cup and Winterthur. Like Watters, Garner didn’t ride his first U.S. race until 2017 and it’s been a steady climb since with four wins in 2018, seven in 2019 and eight last year before this year’s breakout season.

Other Numbers, Champs
The NSA owner championship will go to Buttonwood Farm (owner) with $456,350 in purses fueled in large part by The Mean Queen. Rod and Alice Moorhead aren’t new to jump racing and had such standouts such as All The Way Jose, but they’re new to being at the top of the leaderboard. The Mean Queen wins the Lonesome Glory Trophy as the leading earner at $303,000 and will win the official championship on the Eclipse Awards voting (or else). She also gets the Life’s Illusion Trophy as the champion filly/mare and the novice championship as the top horse who started the NSA calendar as a maiden over hurdles. Tomgarrow gets the timber crown for Young and Leipers Fork Steeplechasers. Realist wins the 3-year-old prize off a single start and win (somebody fix that scenario) at Far Hills.

It’s not an officially recognized NSA championship, but don’t tell that to the hard-working players in the TIHR handicapping challenge. Joe won the fall competition (from Shawan Downs Sept. 25 to Charleston Nov. 14) with 28 wins from 54 races. That’s 52 percent winners on top. Sean was second with 24 and Tom third with 19. First prize is supposed to be a case of beer, but nobody can remember the last time anyone paid up. Things got a little interesting at Charleston as Sean had the first two winners (Three O One and Gearhead) to pull within two of the lead. Joe and Tom countered with Gostisbehere in the third. Nobody had faith in Ghostlighter in the fourth and Joe and Tom closed with Pleasecallmeback in the training flat race.

Though nothing like 2020, the NSA weathered another Covid-impacted season with 149 races spread among 23 race meets and racetrack hosts Belmont Park, Colonial Downs and Saratoga. The purse total hit $4,035,325. All were major increases over 2020 ($1.6 million in total purses), when about half the schedule was canceled due to the pandemic, but still behind 2019 figures which included purses of nearly $5.9 million. Aiken’s two meets (spring and fall) didn’t happen, but aim to return in 2022 on a new course. Foxfield didn’t run in spring 2021, and is on the 2022 calendar for April and its September date. Fair Hill also didn’t happen in 2021, and looks to return to its late May date on the new turf course constructed in 2020.