Steeplechase season jumps to life

- -

Ready or not steeplechase fans, it’s time to jump. The 2015 season starts for real Saturday with the 49th annual Aiken Spring Races in Aiken, S.C. The first of six races starts at 1 p.m., but gates open early if you’re planning to be there.

The TIHR team will be back with picks and a little more of a news preview, but hometown owner Dogwood Stable could be tough in the $50,000 Budweiser Imperial Cup hurdle stakes with Street Fight. He was second in the race last year, just his third start over jumps, and won at Aiken in 2013. The son of Street Sense raced on the flat with Gary Contessa, winning twice. The Canadian-bred takes on veteran Class Bopper (a five-time winner over jumps), plus Absolum and Balance The Budget in a field of just four thanks in part to the effect of winter weather on steeplechase training schedules. Other highlights on the card include the 4-year-old debut of stakes winner Handsome Hoyt in the fourth race, an optional claimer. Event rider Jennie Brannigan makes her racing debut aboard Where’s The Beef in the opener, a 1 1/4-mile training flat race. Aiken Entries.

If you can’t make it to Aiken, well, there are point-to-points in Virginia, a team race in Maryland and horses training all over the place. We heard the set list at Jonathan Sheppard’s Pennsylvania farm included 30 workers Monday. Central Entry point-to-point entries.

Saturday’s Piedmont Point-to-Point in Virginia drew a big group from trainer Richard Valentine among others and 11 entries in the maiden timber. Sunday’s Foxhall Farm Cup team race in Maryland lured timber names Raven’s Choice Brother Sy, Tax Ruling, Straight To It, Almarmooq, Guts For Garters, Delta Park, Fort Henry, Spencer Road, Grinding Speed, Cornhusker and others. Entries were light for Sunday’s Blue Ridge Point-to-Point in Virginia, though five hurdle races were carded.

Next weekend includes Cheshire, Green Spring Valley and Orange County on the point-to-point docket and the Carolina Cup on the NSA schedule. Here we go.

When we left you last November, Divine Fortune was winning the Colonial Cup but settled for second in the championship race to Demonstrative’s three Grade 1 victories for Jacqueline Ohrstrom and trainer Richard Valentine. Both Grade 1 stars return for the 2015 season and appear on a collision course for the $150,000 Iroquois in Nashville May 9. 

The two biggest names in the game might be the only constants in an off-season of change.

Pressing Business
In response to declining participation numbers, the National Steeplechase Association created a task force, which put forth several initiatives designed to move the needle in terms of horses and owners. The task force launched a website, which will be an educational/promotional platform, while also creating a symposium/sale set for April 12 in Maryland.

The sale already has 11 steeplechase prospects on board and available in various forms – outright purchases, leases, shares, etc. – and will be the biggest news of the spring season away from the course. Ready-made steeplechase runners will be available for purchase, a rare thing for the American industry where nearly all steeplechasers come from the flat track. The sale day, at Shawan Downs racecourse in suburban Baltimore, also includes a symposium for new owners, the schooling/working of sales prospects and a gathering of industry players. Dogwood Stable’s Cot Campbell, a pioneer in Thoroughbred racing partnerships, will speak along with Hall of Fame trainer Jonathan Shepaprd, owner Mike Wharton and others.

“It’s a great place for someone to get exposed to jump racing in America,” said Bill Price, chair of the task force. “We’re hoping for a good turnout, and we’re counting on some of our existing owners to bring some friends. We’re very excited about the sales lineup, and the momentum we’re seeing.”

Sheppard put stakes horse Barnstorming in the sale and hopes to sell a 49-percent lease in the 9-year-old Thunder Gulch gelding for the 2015 season. A Saratoga stakes winner in 2013, Barnstorming has placed in three Grade 1 stakes including a second behind Divine Fortune in the 2014 Colonial Cup.

Irish-bred North Star Boy recently joined the sales lineup for trainer Niall Saville. The 6-year-old is billed as a hurdle prospect, but brings nearly $270,000 in flat earnings to the ring and started in Grade 2 company at Saratoga last year. Others on the list include timber prospect De Chera, a half-brother to Belmont winner Da’ Tara, and 5-year-old Secret Bid, a son of Street Cry and Hall of Famer/champion Inside Information bred by the Phipps Stable.

The sale and symposium are open to the public but reservations must be made in advance. You don’t need to be a buyer to attend. For more information and to register, see

Purses Up
NSA purses were $5.2 million last year (an increase of nearly $500,000 over 2013) and look to be on the rise again for 2015 – with an estimate of $5.7 million (which would be a record). Spring meets got into the act with increases in several key areas. The Iroquois card, already the richest spring stop, will be worth $415,000 in total purses. The Virginia Gold Cup also hit the $400,000 mark, headed by the $90,000 Gold Cup timber stakes, a new $75,000 hurdle stakes and three turf races.

Making the Grade
Looking toward horse welfare, owner protection and longer racing careers, the NSA will test a ratings system this year in hopes of proving more opportunity to horses in the middle tier of the sport. There are ample races for maidens and newcomers. There is a healthy stakes program. Opportunities over timber are plentiful. Horses caught somewhere in between run out of options, however, and there is not a healthy claiming division in U.S. jump racing.

Which is where the ratings come in, maybe.

Patterned after the handicapping system in Europe and other countries, winners over hurdles have been rated to start the season and races restricted to horses within certain numbers will be put up as substitute races at several meets.

The idea is to help owners keep horses rather than risk them in claiming races and give hurdle winners some opportunities later in their careers. The initial list includes 92 horses – from Demonstrative at 152 to Spinnaker at 100. The first ratings race (for horses ranked between 100 and 120) is scheduled for the Atlanta Steeplechase April 18.

Other News
Nominations for the Carolina Cup novice stakes are Absolum, Diplomat, Fog Island, Marq Your Bible, Sporty, Syros and Where’s The Beef.

Early nominations to the Maryland Hunt Cup timber stakes are Almarmooq, Bon Caddo, Catch The Echo, Delta Park, Embarrassed, Fort Henry, Foyle, Guts For Garters, Imperial Way, Joshua G, Lions Double, Major Malibu, More Fascination, Raven’s Choice, Rugged Rascal, Sovereign Fund, Spencer Road, Vine Hill. Guts For Garters and Imperial Way finished 1-2 in the 4-mile, $75,000 timber classic last year. As always, Hunt Cup Day is the last Saturday in April.