Stop the presses. Today’s New York Turf Writers Cup is not yesterday’s New York TurfWriters Cup. Wednesday morning, Jonathan Sheppard planned to scratchhighweight Mixed Up, leaving a field of six led by new highweightPlanets Aligned. By Wednesday afternoon, Tom Voss decided to scratchPlanets Aligned and Sheppard opted to run Mixed Up.
Jockeys went everywhere. Danielle Hodsdon, Sheppard’s number one jockey and Mixed Up’s regular pilot, switches from 136-pound featherweight Sermon Of Love to ride Mixed Up, replacing Robbie Walsh who was named originally and is nursing a bum collarbone from a fall last week. Voss’ first-call jockey Peter Buchanan moves from Planets Aligned to Slip Away, also trained by Voss. Xavier Aizpuru, originally named on Slip Away, picks up Hodsdon’s vacated seat aboard Sermon Of Love.
There will be a quiz at 2:06 when the flag falls for the third race, the only stakes on the card and biggest jump race of the summer. At least biggest in prestige, this year’s stakes carries its lowest purse since 2004, smallest field in years and lacks clarity after the defections and changes.
At 8:30 Wednesday morning, Sheppard had all but decided not to run Mixed Up.
“I just left him in, in case there were any last-minute defections,” Sheppard said, “try to hold the race together a little bit.”
Little did he know, just down the shedrow, Voss agonized over a cut on the leg of Planets Aligned.
“His leg doesn’t look right, there’s a cut on there. He’s had a nick on the side of one leg, it wasn’t sore, he galloped fine but it’s got a little filling in it and he’s not going to run,” Voss said Wednesday evening. “There isn’t anything wrong with him, though. The owner didn’t like the weight, I didn’t like the weight that much so we’re not running.”
Re-enlist Mixed Up.
“I entered to keep our options open. If something happened to Sermon Of Love or one of the others came out, I figured I’d like the chance to run,” Sheppard said. “Planets Aligned scratching sheds a different light on things. We were going to pass, but things changed. I figured if one of the better horses came out, we’d run and if that happened I figured Dani would ride Mixed Up. Being able to get Aizpuru for Sermon Of Love is icing on the cake for that horse.”
Mixed Up and Sermon Of Love represent the depth of Sheppard’s stable and the lack of depth in the steeplechase horse inventory. Both are in with a chance.
Bill Pape’s Mixed Up owns 11 steeplechase wins and sports a career bankroll of nearly $700,000. The 10-year-old veteran won the A.P. Smithwick three weeks ago while carrying 146 pounds. He picks up 10 pounds from that effort, something that sunk him two years ago when running back in three weeks and picking up four pounds. It took him nearly two years to come back to form.
He won the 2006 Turf Writers (at 148 pounds) and seeks to become the first horse to win both Saratoga stakes twice.
Calvin Houghland’s Sermon Of Love owns two jump wins and a career bankroll of less than $150,000. The 6-year-old snapped a 2 1/2-year losing streak when taking an optional claimer at Penn National over jumps. Sheppard brought him to Saratoga, blew him out in 59 seconds over the Oklahoma turf and won a 12-furlong maiden on the turf here earlier in the meet (he ran an 80 Beyer).
“He’s been knocking at the door of being a little bit better horse than his form would indicate, he’s at the top of his game right now and he gets in with a nice light weight, I hope he’ll be competitive. Frankly, I’d be a little surprised to see him win a race like this just now but as long as he holds together, at some point he might,” Sheppard said. “He’s got a little bit of class which he hasn’t chosen to show as often as he might have, he’s always been a cheeky little horse. With these young horses, it’s such a big jump to open company, if you can somehow hold them together, without abusing them just to get another year or two of seasoning, which is what we’ve been doing with him, running him here or there.”
On paper, the 6-year-old son of Pulpit doesn’t fit with Mixed Up or Slip Away and has been beaten by the rest of the field, Dalucci, Swagger Stick and Spy In The Sky.
But Sheppard has won 12 runnings of the Turf Writers, with iron, Mistico (168 pounds) and Flatterer (164), and fluff, Bisbalense (142) and It’s A Giggle (142). He’s hit the board with inexplicable longshots Double Leaf, Underbidder, Willstown, Confidente, Allgrit and others. Sermon Of Love fits somewhere in the middle.
“He’d be in there with the likes of Bisbalense, he’s not up there with the real class ones, but he may not be worse than some of the others that have run well in there before,” Sheppard said. “He’s certainly in that category, hopefully he’ll get a piece of it, there are a couple of tough horses in there, I imagine Voss winning it.”
That was before Voss cut his string in half.
Slip Away has risen through the claiming ranks, just how owner Ken Ramsey would have wanted.
The son of Skip Away broke his maiden last spring at High Hope before flopping in two tough spots at Saratoga last summer. Voss dropped the bomb after that. Slip Away finished second for a $10,000 tag and then won six in a row, going from a $15,000 claimer to a Grade III winner in the Zeke Ferguson this summer.
“I never thought he was no good but that man tells you to run them where they can win, he’s hard on you, but I guess that’s the way you’re supposed to do it, that’s what those claiming guys do anyway,” Voss said earlier this summer. “He didn’t run until late into his 3-year-old year, then he fell at the last fence at Colonial, and he bowed. So he was always catching up, he came back a year later and nobody had seen him, and nobody took him.”
Slip Away lost his streak in the Smithwick, when he couldn’t dictate the pace and wound up fourth. He’s the speed today while stretching from 2 1/16 miles to 2 3/8 miles.
“He’s all right,” Voss said. “I don’t think the distance hurts him put it that way, probably helps him, he just keeps going on the lead, if they leave him alone. He’s got such a big, old long galloping stride to him, he’s going faster than you think.”
Jack Fisher wheels back Swagger Stick in two weeks.
The 8-year-old son of Cozzene put in his typical steady effort in the Ben Nevis, closing ground to finish third behind Dynaski and Arcadius. Neither shows up here, so Swagger Stick leads the third, fourth and fifth home from that day. Willie Dowling rides for Gil Johnston.
Recent Hall of Fame inductee Janet Elliot swings again with Cherry Knoll Farm’s Dalucci. The Irish-bred won twice this spring before finishing a decent fourth in the restricted Ben Nevis. Dalucci clashed with Good Night Shirt, well, tried to clash with the two-time champion last fall but found that company too heady. This year, he’s found his footing against lesser, beating Sermon Of Love while going 3 miles in soft turf in May. Bernie Dalton, former exercise rider for Kiaran McLaughlin, has the return call.
Virginia-based Jimmy Day doesn’t ship to Saratoga often but has made his presence felt in two previous runnings of the Turf Writers, when finishing second with Canta Ke Brave in 2001 and Top Of The Bill in 2006.
This year’s nomination, Randleston Farm’s Spy In The Sky, carries similar credentials. The son of Thunder Gulch ousted Swagger Stick and Sermon Of Love in the Happy Intellectual last year at Saratoga. Since then, he’s found life on the flat easier than over jumps, hitting the board in two Colonial Downs allowance races. The Gainesborough-bred 5-year-old finished fifth in the Ben Nevis. Liam McVicar takes the call.