Steeplechase schedule set for spring

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In two months, actually less, the National Steeplechase Association season will have jumped into gear with the Aiken Spring Races in Aiken, S.C. The traditional opener, Saturday, March 25, starts a spring season with 18 individual stops in nine states.

The schedule gets two major changes, both early, with the Steeplechase of Charleston (S.C.) hosting its first spring date April 8 and the Block House Races moving to a new course (and a new date) in Tryon, N.C. April 15. The new meets offer purses of $90,000 and $150,000, respectively and fit well into the early spring schedule while strengthening the southern circuit.

Charleston, run at a course used off and on for 20 years in Hollywood, S.C., will be managed by the Bruno Event Team, a Birmingham, Ala.-based sports marketing company with experience in a variety of events. Bruno has managed the U.S. Senior Open Championships golf tournament, other PGA Tour events, LPGA events, an Indy Car race and others.

“We are honored to have the opportunity to manage the Steeplechase of Charleston at Stono Ferry,” said Gene Hallman, president and CEO of Bruno. “This is an exciting and new opportunity for our company and we are thrilled to host this steeplechase event.”

Last year, Bruno discussed starting a meet in Alabama with the NSA but shelved that plan when a suitable course could not be built. Charleston’s course, owned by the Stono Ferry Homeowners Association, hosted its first meet in 1986 but has struggled to find a foothold – and a consistent appearance on the schedule – in recent years. A fall meet nearly happened last year, but organizers opted for waiting until 2017 and slide into a date formerly occupied by North Carolina’s Stoneybrook Steeplechase.

The new meet brings the potential for a consistent presence in the growing Charleston area, and connects the NSA to a proven sports-marketing company.

“On many Saturdays in the spring and fall, steeplechase races attract the biggest crowds in Thoroughbred racing,” said NSA president Guy Torsilieri. “With the Bruno Event Team’s well-established expertise in event management and marketing, we hope to work together to leverage our popularity into a successful meet at Charleston and growth for all of steeplechase racing.”

Charleston cards a similar program to the season opener at Aiken with $90,000 in purses spread through four hurdle races and two training flat races. The feature will be a $30,000 optional claiming hurdle.

A week later, Tryon unveils a new course at the Tryon International Equestrian Center – already home to horse shows, eventing competitions and other equine events. The Block House Races have been a fixture in Tryon for 70 years, and move to a new course while shifting to a less-competitive date (April 15 is shared only with the timber-only My Lady’s Manor in Maryland). Tryon’s five races will be worth $150,000, led by a new $40,000 open hurdle stakes going 2 1/4 miles.

Both meets add significant increases to the total spring purse structure of $2.8 million, which is $300,000 ahead of last year’s spring total.

“It’s all a very positive statement as it relates to growth and how we’re doing,” said NSA director of racing Bill Gallo. “Things are moving upward, our race meets are energized and our horsemen are going to benefit. Coming off a record 2016 (with more than $6 million in purses), We’re excited about 2017.”

The rest of the spring calendar looks fairly familiar with the Carolina Cup occupying its traditional spot a week after Aiken. The April 1 card is worth $145,000, headed by the $75,000 Carolina Cup novice hurdle stakes. The schedule gets busy in mid-April with Tryon and the Manor April 15 and three meets – Atlanta, Middleburg and the Grand National sharing April 22. Middleburg cards the $50,000 Temple Gwathmey hurdle stakes, a key prep for the Grade 1 Iroquois in May.

The Maryland Hunt Cup, Foxfield and the Queen’s Cup share April 29. The Hunt Cup will again be worth $100,000 as the oldest and co-richest timber race in the world. The Charlotte area’s Queen’s Cup cards a $75,000 novice hurdle to headline a five-race card.

Timber horses get to run for six figures in the $100,000 Virginia Gold Cup May 6. The full day of racing is worth $425,000 including a $75,000 open hurdle stakes, a $50,000 open turf stakes. Delaware’s only meet, Winterthur, occupies May 7 and you might even see former Vice President Joe Biden now that he’s got more time on his hands.

At $525,000, the Iroquois Steeplechase holds the slot as the spring’s richest stop May 13. The day includes the $200,000 Grade 1 feature, a $100,000 novice hurdle stakes (increased from $75,000), a new $50,000 allowance hurdle for non-winners of two and a $50,000 timber stakes. The feature will again be part of an international challenge with a $500,000 bonus awaiting the horse who can win the Nashville race and England’s Stayers Hurdle at the Cheltenham Festival.

Pennsylvania’s Willowdale meet celebrates its 25th anniversary with six races May 14. The feature has been elevated to a $35,000 timber stakes and also includes a $100,000 bonus scheme with the Pennsylvania Hunt Cup in the fall. Win both races in 2017, and you get a big check.

The schedule stays in the Keystone State with the Radnor Races May 20. Stakes over timber ($30,000) and hurdles ($50,000) headline a card worth $190,000. Kentucky’s High Hope Races are set for May 21 at the Kentucky Horse Park. The day is worth $90,000, headed by a $30,000 optional claimer.

The spring finale happens at Fair Hill in Maryland with eight races  (flat, hurdle and timber) May 27. A $40,000 handicap hurdle for horses rated 130 and below is the feature.

Full NSA Schedule with links to individual race meets.

What Else is Going On?
• The NSA presented owner, trainer and former amateur jockey, race meet director and NSA president Randy Rouse with the F. Ambrose Clark Award for distinguished contributions to American steeplechasing. Rouse, who turned 100 in December, was  president of the NSA in the early 1970s – guiding the sport through several challenging years when the focus shifted away from racing at New York’s racetracks to one-day race meets in the Mid-Atlantic and Midwest. Rouse was instrumental in introducing the National Fence (in 1974), a variation of which is still used in hurdle races. Still active as a trainer, he sent Hishi Soar out to a win last spring.

• Torsilieri was reelected to another term as president of the NSA. Chairman of New Jersey’s Far Hills Races, Torsilieri led a slate of officers that includes chairman Peggy Steinman, vice president Doug Fout, secretary Pat Butterfield and treasurer Dwight Hall (who replaces Charley Strittmatter, who died in January).

• The injury to champion Rawnaq shows how temporary success can be, but also leaves the door wide open to others at the top of the division. Dawalan, the 2015 steeplechase champion and Rawnaq’s stablemate in the Irv Naylor/Cyril Murphy barn, looks to return to action after missing last year with a tendon injury. The gray French-bred son of Azamour won two of his three American starts in 2015 and prepped in a flat race for the Grade 1 Iroquois only to be sidelined for the year. Now 7, he gets a chance to give the barn its third consecutive Eclipse Award.