Steeplechase Notebook: May news and notes

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May. It’s May. It’s May? Wait, it’s May? The National Steeplechase Association’s spring schedule reached its third month and the end – didn’t we just start? – is in sight. The spring season wraps at Fair Hill May 27, a little more than four weeks from now. What’s happened so far? Plenty. TIHR covered the meets, well most of them, to this point but some news bouncing around the circuit invariably bounces past the website machine too.

Challenge Chaser: Nichols Canyon, winner of the Sun Bet Stayers’ Hurdle at the Cheltenham Festival in March for owners Andrea and Graham Wylie, trainer Willie Mullins and jockey Ruby Walsh, will aim for a $500,000 bonus in the Iroquois Steeplechase May 13. The TVV Capital Iroquois Cheltenham Challenge’s bonus is won if the victor of the Sun Bets Stayers’ Hurdle goes on to land the Calvin Houghland Iroquois Hurdle Stakes, or vice versa, within 12 months.

Nichols Canyon finished third to American champion Rawnaq in last year’s Iroquois and, when Rawnaq missed the Stayers’ Hurdle with an injury, landed that prize to trigger a new round for the bonus. In addition to his win in the Stayers’, Nichols Canyon more recenlty failed by a head to catch Unowhatimeanharry in the  Ladbrokes Champion Stayers’ Hurdle, at Punchestown, Ireland April 27.

Mullins supported the challenge in 2016, and will do so again.

“The intention is for Nichols Canyon to go for the Iroquois,” he said via press release. “He seems fine after his run at Punchestown on Thursday and plans are fairly advanced for taking him out to America – we’ll just give him a quiet few days at home. It was a good experience last year and they had a lot of water on the track so we are happy enough to travel back again.”

Nichols Canyon won’t have to deal with 2016 race winner and steeplechase champion Rawnaq, who is out with an injury but his stablemate – and 2015 champion – Dawalan makes a capable replacement. Owned by Irv Naylor and trained by Cyril Murphy, the 7-year-old French-bred won two Grade 1 stakes in 2015 but missed last year. He prepped with a win on the flat at Middleburg Point-to-Point over the weekend.

Mullins also nominated Shaneshill, who was second in last year’s Iroquois, while fellow Irishman Dermot Weld nominated Three Kingdoms. Bred by Darley, the 8-year-old son of Street Cry has won three times over hurdles and another three over chase fences.

The Iroquois, worth $200,000 on its own, drew nine nominations with the National Steeplechase Association this week. The list (with owner and trainer):

  1. Andi’amu (Ballybristol Farm, Leslie Young).
  2. Dawalan (Irv Naylor, Cyril Murphy).
  3. Hinterland (Sonny Via, Jack Fisher).
  4. Martini Brother (Bill Pape, Jonathan Sheppard).
  5. Mr. Hot Stuff (Gill Johnston, Jack Fisher).
  6. Nichols Canyon (Andrea and Graham Wylie, Willie Mullins).
  7. Scorpiancer (Bruton Street-US, Jack Fisher).
  8. Shaneshill  (Andrea and Graham Wylie, Willie Mullins).
  9. Three Kingdoms (R. Lamb, Dermot Weld).

The seven-race Iroquois card is worth $525,000 with rich targets for novice hurdlers, fillies/mares, maidens, handicappers, allowance hurdlers and timber horses. Entries are taken Monday. Other nomination lists:

Marcellus Frost Champion novice hurdle (16): Curve Of Stones, Ice It, Invocation, Laser Light, Lyonell, Macnicholson, Mercoeur, Miguel Grau, Moscato, My Afleet, Osmoz, Personal Start, Royal Caviar, Show Court, Surprising Soul, With Rhythm.

Margaret Henley filly/mare hurdle (10): Admiring Glance, Amnicalola, Ciboure, Fall Colors, For Goodness Sake, Get Ready Set Goes, Imperious, Lady Yeats, One Lucky Lady, Sarah Joyce.

Mason Houghland Memorial timber (11): Canyon Road, Careful Sailor, Class Cherokee, Cornhusker, Henry San, Puller, Spoiler Alert, Syros, Top Man Michael, Two’s Company, Worried Man.

A big loss: Longtime race chairman Henry Hooker passed away April 23. He was 84. The Nashville attorney and civic leader helped transform the Iroquois into a prominent centerpiece of Middle Tennessee culture and a million-dollar fundraiser for Vanderbilt’s Monroe Carell Jr. Children’s Hospital.

With his wife of more than 60 years, Alice Ingram Hooker, Hooker envisioned the possibilities for the racing event that started in 1941, and he brought that vision to fruition during his tenure as Iroquois’ chairman over 17 years.

Hooker and horseman George Sloan suggested Children’s Hospital as the Iroquois beneficiary in 1981. It was Hooker’s love of children that brought everything together, said people who know him well.

“He’s truly one of the giants upon whose shoulders the Iroquois has been built,” said Dwight Hall, the current Iroquois Steeplechase chairman. “When he finished his legacy, it was a world-class race that contributed during his tenure $8-million to $9-million to Children’s Hospital.”

Hooker was an enthusiastic and gifted sportsman who enjoyed tennis and foxhunting. He and his wife were invited to join the Hillsboro Hounds in 1963, and he became a long-serving master of foxhounds. He also served as the director of the Masters of Foxhounds Association of America, and his writings on foxhunting included a sporting memoir, “Fox, Fin, & Feather,” in 2002. As the Iroquois chairman, he was a steadfast advertising supporter of Steeplechase Times in its early days.

In addition to his wife, he is survived by three children, seven grandchildren, and numerous nieces and nephews.

Statistics: After what appeared to be a slow (for him) start, Jack Fisher holds command of the trainers’ race. His eight wins lead Jonathan Sheppard by two and Fisher’s purse earnings are $120,000 more than Sheppard. Fisher has gotten wins from all types of horses – from timber toppers Lemony Bay and Doc Cebu at the Manor to graded stakes competitor Scorpiancer, novice hurdle stakes horse Ice It and maiden hurdlers Moscato, With Rhythm and Wild Dynaformer.

Hall of Famer Sheppard, meanwhile, is off to a strong start with a half-dozen victories from just 25 starts. He won nine jump races, total, in 2016. Ricky Hendriks is off to a 4-for-13 start while five trainers have two wins each.

Among the jockeys, Kieran Norris is out to prove his 2016 championship was no fluke as he’s won with six of 18 mounts (with four seconds and a third). He won 14 races last year to prevail in a scramble for the championship. This year, he’s one better than Sean McDermott and Ross Geraghty. Darren Nagle won four to get off to a solid start while Jack Doyle and four others have won two apiece.

The Bruton Street-US partnership put up three wins and three seconds from eight starts (and $93,900) to take the early owners’ lead though the big purse structures at the Virginia Gold Cup and Iroquois could change everything. Bruton Street will have to hold back the coming wave of leading owner Irv Naylor’s barn, which also has three wins (with $61,650 earned) to start the season.

Addition: The Fair Hill Races received a welcome purse increase with the creation of the Iris Ann Coggins Memorial, a $50,000 stakes for fillies and mares. The race honors longtime Fair Hill volunteer Coggins, who coordinated trophies and presentations at the Maryland meet for decades. The race, funded by a donation from Coggins’ brother Peter, replaces a planned filly/mare allowance hurdle on the card.

Subtraction: In April, the Carolina Cup Racing Association made the seemingly impossible decision to abandon its fall meet at Springdale Race Course in Camden, S.C. The move further depletes a limited fall season, but helps the race meet save substantial resources – monetary and otherwise. The Carolina Cup routinely draws 50,000 spectators to its spring meet in late March or early April, but needed to do so to support the Colonial Cup’s relatively paltry attendance in November. The result was an unbalanced balance sheet, and a shaky future. Plans call for moving the Colonial Cup (an open stakes) to the spring meet, adding an early stop to the schedule for Grade 1 horses, and giving the Carolina Cup novice stakes a companion feature. For more, see Camden Chronicle-Independent coverage.