Sharp Rise, Longsdon aim high in Grand National

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Like many English National Hunt trainers, Charlie Longsdon went to Doncaster’s Goffs U.K. horses in training sale in May to scout for prospects. A 9-year-old handicapper was not on the short list, or even the long list.

Then Longsdon’s client Robert Aplin brought up Sharp Rise. The Irish-bred did not exactly shout “buy me” with five wins spread over four seasons of racing and a little more than £22,000 in earnings. Longsdon said to himself, “A 9-year-old exposed handicapper from a very clever trainer? I don’t know about this,” but went to have a look anyway.

And changed his mind about the bay gelding consigned by trainer Pauline Robson.

“I remember thinking, ‘He’s quite a nice horse, he’s an athlete,’ ” Longsdon said Thursday with a laugh while fighting traffic on the way out of Hereford Racecourse. Purchased for £32,000, Sharp Rise has won four of six starts for his new connections while rising up the handicap ranks in England and earning a shot at the big time as one of two foreign entrants expected for the $350,000 American Grand National at Far Hills Oct. 15. Sharp Rise landed in New York Thursday and was headed to a Pennsylvania barn Saturday afternoon. He’ll look to knock off heavy favorite Rawnaq in the 2 5/8-mile Grade 1, the richest jump race in the United States.

Longsdon called it all an improbable progression from the sales ring at Doncaster to a major race in the U.S.

“This wasn’t the plan. We were there to buy another horse and there were loads of reasons not to buy (Sharp Rise),” Longsdon said. “But we’ve come up with him and he’s done very well for us. We couldn’t be more pleased. The credit is down to the owner at the end of the day.”

Sharp Rise won at Worcester June 4, taking a 2-mile handicap chase (for horses rated 140 and below) by 17 lengths. Twenty-two days later at Uttoxeter, he won a 150-rated handicap chase by a half-length. At Stratford July 10, he finished second in another 150 chase. Back at Uttoxeter July 24, he stretched to 2 1/2 miles and won again. Sent hurdling at Newton Abbott in August, he lost jockey Aidan Coleman with a mistake while in contention three fences from the finish and then redeemed himself with a hurdle win at Stratford Sept. 3. Rated 154 over chase fences and 156 over hurdles, Sharp Rise is a threat to knock off the Americans.

Somewhere among all those good races, Longsdon started thinking about America. He worked for Todd Pletcher at Saratoga in 2004, knows American trainer Leslie Young well, looked into some of the English/Irish converts having success here and thought Sharp Rise might fit. Grand National contenders Rawnaq (144) and Scorpiancer (124) were at lower levels before they were imported by American owners. Last year’s Grand National winner Dawalan came over on a 147 rating. All clearly improved when they got to America, but Sharp Rise is in the discussion.

“He was rated in the mid-140s and now he’s even higher than that and I remember thinking that would be competitive in the big races in America,” Longsdon said. “At first, it was just a thought, and it became a plan when he started running so well.”

At $350,000, the Grand National offers a payday few English races can match and the competition would be far deeper.

“I’d have to run in one of the few top chases in England to find that kind of prize money,” Longsdon said. “Is he good enough for that? I have no idea. But he might be good enough for this. He likes good ground. The 2-mile, 5 (furlongs) will be fine.”

Back when he worked with Ashado, Speightstown and the other Pletcher stars, Longsdon used to watch American jump racing at Saratoga and could see some sharp 2-mile hurdler coming over for a go at the A.P. Smithwick or New York Turf Writers Cup someday.

With Sharp Rise, Longsdon mixes speed (he’s won at 2 miles) and stamina (he’s won a 3-mile Irish point-to-point). At 2 5/8 miles over good turf – weather depending – the Grand National offers a mixed medium for horses. They need to be quick, but they also need to see out the trip. Based on his running style at home, Sharp Rise (who will be ridden by Brian Hughes) will be up front early – much like Rawnaq.

“I’m slightly concerned with the way we ride our horse,” Longsdon said. “We might set things up for someone else, but there is no point changing what we know works. We are changing enough things for him just by going over there.”

Along with Pletcher, Longsdon has worked for trainers Nicky Henderson, Kim Bailey, Oliver Sherwood and Nigel Twiston-Davies so there was always plenty of jump-racing background. Before that, three-day eventing was Longsdon’s calling and he rode to the two-star level. Now based in Oxfordshire near the town of Chipping Norton about 30 miles west of Cheltenham Racecourse, Longsdon started his first runner in 2006 and has been building ever since. In the 2015-16 English jumps season, he won 62 races and has taken down six Grade 2 races in his career.

“I had my first winner in Ireland last week, which was great,” he said. “We’ve never won a Grade 1 in England and, full stop, this is a Grade 1. It might be easier to win one in America, it might not. But it’s a Grade 1 and it will be the biggest win of our career if we were able to do it. It wasn’t one of my ambitions to go and train the American Grand National winner, but it’s the one race we’ve been looking at for two months now. Horses like this one don’t come around very often.”

Longsdon assistant Marcus Foley traveled with Sharp Rise, who will have his final preps at Young’s farm in Pennsylvania. The trainer will meet his horse at Far Hills Saturday morning.

For more on Longsdon, see his website.

For more on the Far Hill nominations, see TIHR article.