Steeplechase Time: Season begins to crank up

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Snow in Virginia and parts of Maryland. Nothing but rain farther north. One point-to-point held. Another postponed.

Welcome to steeplechase season. The racing started last week at Thornton Hill Point-to-Point in Virginia. It’s dormant this week at Blue Ridge thanks to the snow. By St. Patrick’s Day, the action will be in South Carolina for the Charleston Trials and then on for real with the Aiken Steeplechase the following week.

But what’s going on?

 Major Players

Pierrot Lunaire, Demonstrative, Black Jack Blues and Divine Fortune accounted for most of the sport’s big races in 2011 and 2012. They’re on a collision course for 2013 along with Spy In The Sky and certainly plenty of others. In short, 2012 champion Pierrot Lunaire should turn up at Middleburg in April for the Temple Gwathmey, then a go in the Grade 1 Iroquois in Nashville in May. Demonstrative could follow the same path, or bypass the Iroquois while looking toward a summer/fall campaign. Either way, they’re both in training and will be tough handle.

Then it gets interesting. Black Jack Blues stormed through the second half of 2011 with back-to-back wins including the Grade 1 Grand National. He added the Carolina Cup in 2012 to make it three in a row in the country, then went to the sidelines. Like the bulk of owner Irv Naylor’s stable, the Irish import is in the care of Brianne Slater in Maryland and will likewise be a force at the top of the division. Slater’s string also includes Via Galilei, Tax Ruling, Decoy Daddy and You’re The Top among others.

Divine Fortune finished second – to Arcadius, Pierrot Lunaire and Demonstrative – in three Grade 1 jump races last year. Trainer Jonathan Sheppard aims again and the rangy chestnut has some options coming off a year with no stakes victories. Spy In The Sky was among the entries at the now-shelved Blue Ridge Point-to-Point so could be thinking of early action, in addition to another go at the New York Turf Writers Cup at Saratoga.

Timber Toppers

The real proof will be in the entries for the Foxhall team race, set for March 17, but the timber warriors are out there getting ready for the Maryland Hunt Cup, Virginia Gold Cup and all the rest. Players include Twill Do, Battle Op, Bon Caddo, Grinding Speed and Triple Dip. Last year’s champion Incomplete was a possibility, while working his way back from a timber injury – including a stint at Fair Hill Equine Therapy Center this winter.

 For a detailed preview of the stakes horses, see Mid-Atlantic Thoroughbred article.

Safety Standards Created

After some rocky results last year, the National Steeplechase Association created a safety task force to look at variables that might increase risk. The group of veterinarians, horsemen and regulators has met several times and released its first policies this week. Among them are:

 – A Stewards Watch List to identify horses that may be subject to falls or other accidents.

– Maiden hurdle and timber races shall be limited to 10 starters. Races for 3-year-olds also shall be limited to 10 starters. Field limits for all other races will be determined by the NSA safety advisor.

– Horses on the Stewards Watch List shall not be ridden by an apprentice jockey. A non-winning apprentice jockey shall not be named to ride a horse that has failed to complete three races to the stewards’ satisfaction.

– A Mortality Review Committee shall be established under the direction of the Stewards Advisory Committee. Membership shall include stewards, representatives of the Stewards Advisory Committee and consulting veterinarians, among others. The Mortality Review Committee will gather all information related to each fatality, maintain data, and report findings and conclusions to the NSA Board of Directors.

– Standardized veterinary protocols shall be fully utilized by all race meets and their veterinarians. Among the standards are: prerace inspections, on-course coverage, and post-race care. The Veterinary List and Data Sheet shall be submitted promptly to the Marion du Pont Scott Equine Medical Center. Data also shall be provided promptly to The Jockey Club Equine Injury Database on appropriate forms.

– Racecourse moisture and compaction shall be assessed and recorded by a designee of the race meet on the day of the race. The data shall be submitted to the NSA Safety Advisor and correlated with injury data.

– The NSA Safety Advisor shall assess safety aspects of individual racecourses annually and submit recommendations to the NSA’s Stewards Advisory Committee. Among the areas to be assessed are fence placement, number of fences, and course conditions.

Concussion tests for jockeys

On another safety front, all licensed steeplechase jockeys must take a baseline ImPACT test (Immediate Post Concussion and Cognitive Testing) before riding in 2013. Tests are administered at locations in Maryland, Virginia, South Carolina and Tennessee.

ImPACT was developed in the early 1990s and consists of a 20-minute test used in clinical management of concussions. The test measures multiple aspects of cognitive functioning in athletes including attention span, working memory, sustained and selective attention time, response viability and reaction time. Also used by teams in the NFL, NHL, NBA, Major League Baseball, Olympic and other sports, the test provides a baseline standard for jockeys who may be injured during the season. A supervised follow-up test is recommended for any jockey suspected of sustaining a concussion.

 Racing Lineup

The schedule will look familiar, with a few changes to race conditions. The “new” heading will include the Dogwood Classic taking over the old Strawberrry Hill race meet April 6 at Colonial Downs racetrack in Virginia. The day, worth $70,000, includes five races headed by a $25,000 allowance hurdle. Colonial will run just one steeplechase day as part of the summer meet – June 8 – including the $50,000 Zeke Ferguson Memorial.

 Kentucky’s High Hope meet will skip 2013 in hopes of finding a permanent course location, meaning steeplechasing will have no racing in Kentucky this year.

The spring hurdle stakes schedule includes $645,000 in total purses on 11 races, with another $300,000 set aside for six timber stakes. The $150,000 Iroquois stands alone as the only Grade 1 of the spring at 3 miles May 11 in Nashville. Worth $400,000, that raceday will be a major target of most stables – as usual – with secondary stakes for novices, fillies/mares and timber horses. Fair Hill closes the spring race-meet schedule with a seven-race card May 25. The featured Valentine has been changed to a $40,000 starter handicap stakes for horses who have started for a claiming price of $30,000 or less in 2012-13 – which ought to bolster the early season claiming races.