They call this a prep race?
A.P. Smithwick Memorial Steeplechase has long been the traditional launching pad to the Grade I New York Turf Writers Cup later in the meet. Apparently the seven runners in today’s $100,000 Grade I didn’t get the memo, as the race shapes up as the most competitive hurdle race of the season.
Peggy Steinman’s Dark Equation leads the way for trainer Doug Fout. Now 8, Dark Equation parlayed a second in the 2008 Smithwick into a win in the Turf Writers three weeks later. The son of Polish Numbers has had his eyes on the Spa all season and will look to win at Saratoga for the third straight year.
“This is his place, he just loves it here,” Fout said. “We’ve had a lot of luck with him up here over that track and he’s coming into the summer just as good as he was last year. That’s not a bad thing at all.”
And if true, it also makes Dark Equation a formidable foe. Last year he won the training flat race at Open House, finished second in the Smithwick and rallied late to win the Turf Writers and secure the first Grade I. He’s on the same schedule this summer, even if it didn’t start out exactly like 2008.
“He ran third in the flat race at Open House, but we got just what we wanted out of the race. I didn’t crank him to win it like I have in the past,” Fout said. “The main thing was to get a good work in him and have him strong and fresh for these two races and then the fall and that’s exactly what I’m seeing when I look at him.”
Dark Equation has started once this year, when he just missed catching flag-to-wire winner and stablemate Isti Bee in the Grade III Temple Gwathmey at Middleburg in April over a soft course. The light schedule wasn’t necessarily by design, but it also doesn’t have Fout losing sleep.
“We had just the one run this year but he ran huge at Middleburg and that’s the important thing,” Fout said. “He got an ulcer about 10 days after that race and it set us back a bit, but we were only going to run him once more anyway. But in hindsight it might have been a blessing because now we have a fresh horse for the summer and the fall.”
While Dark Equation might be better suited for the Turf Writers’ 2 3/8 miles he should be able to sit a dream trip in the Smithwick behind what looks to be an extremely quick pace. Regardless of the outcome Fout has one eye on the big prize at the end of the meet.
“At the end of the day the Turf Writers is the goal – it always is. I’d love to win this race but the Turf Writers is the one we want so we need to run well here and move forward. He did the same thing last year; run big in the A.P. and then get the Turf Writers,” Fout said. “They’re going to be doing Mach One out there tomorrow. The pace is going to be hot and that should set up perfectly for us. We’ll just sit back, tuck in and make a run.”
Paddy Young has the call on Dark Equation, the 154-pound highweight.
Bill Pape’s Mixed Up (Danielle Hodsdon, 146 pounds) has also excelled at the Spa in the past, winning the Turf Writers in 2006 and the Smithwick in 2007 for trainer Jonathan Sheppard. Now 10, Mixed Up has enjoyed a career resurgence in 2009, winning twice in four starts after losing both 2008 tries.
Mixed Up won his first two starts of 2009, the Imperial Cup and an allowance race at Tryon and then ran well when third behind Smithwick entrants Planets Aligned and Slip Away at Nashville in May and second behind another of today’s runners, Slip Away, at Colonial Downs in July. The son of Carnivalay rallied from far back in the Ferguson and Sheppard cites the less is more mentality as a big reason for his star’s return to form.
“The lighter schedule we have him on this year has him feeling good and ready for Saratoga. He’s had some good races under his belt, yet I don’t think they have tired him out any,” Sheppard said. “Last year not much worked and he just had a few setbacks that caused us to miss the meet. This year we’ve got a fresh horse that’s doing well and comes into the meet the right way.”
After opening the season with the Imperial Cup score, Sheppard studied the condition book and found that Mixed Up was eligible for a money allowance race at Tryon in April. Mixed Up won easily. He ended his spring campaign at Nashville, and then got going again in the Fergusno at Colonial Downs July 12, where he rallied late in the perfect tightener for Saratoga.
“We could have tried him against the tougher horses earlier in the year but he had some conditions and that’s why we ran him in a spot like Tryon. Why test the big horses that early when we didn’t have to,” Sheppard said. “Certainly in his last race we just used it as a bit of a training race for Saratoga and it worked out perfectly. Dani didn’t try to use him up (going after Slip Away) and it has him set up for the two races up here.”
Tom Voss sends out Slip Away (Peter Buchanan, 150) and Planets Aligned (Chip Miller, 150). The former, owned by Ken Ramsey, streaked into the Ferguson with five straight wins again lesser but answered the class test by easily defeating Mixed Up by 5 lengths. Slip Away opened up 15 and remained unchallenged throughout the 2 1/4 miles. While things figure to be much dicier on the front end Thursday, Voss goes in with confidence.
“There’s a lot of speed in there, but he doesn’t have to be on the lead. I think he’s actually better when he sits off of a horse or two and that’s probably what will happen,” Voss said. “He’s done everything we’ve asked of him, answered every question and just keeps on going. He did it at Colonial and now he’ll have to do it against even better horses, but he’s coming into the race in great shape.”
Voss also starts Planets Aligned, the 2007 novice champion, for Fox Ridge Farm. The 8-year-old son of Gold Fever has shown in his last two starts that he’s intent on making his mark in the open ranks as well. He opened his season with a close third in the Gwathmey and then closed late to take the Frost by three-quarters of a length. He took the Mickey Walsh Novice here in 2007.
“The distance should suit him, he likes this course and he gets along well with Chip so we’re ready,” Voss said. “It looks like he’ll get a good setup in there behind the speed and he’s coming into the race the right way. His two runs this year have been big and he handles any type of ground so I expect another good performance.”
Polaris Stable’s Preemptive Strike is still flaunting his speed at 11, and the son of Roanoke rates as a formidable front-running presence whenever he shows up. Trained by Sanna Hendriks, Preemptive Strike is winless in two starts this season but did finish second to two time steeplechase champion Good Night Shirt in the Grade II Carolina Cup in March. Preemptive Strike missed by a half-length to Mixed Up in the 2007 Smithwick and rates as the horse to catch under Jody Petty (146).
Rare Bush (Xavier Aizpuru, 150) adds blinkers for trainer Jack Fisher, which should have the 9-year-old son of Dynaformer involved from the beginning. Owned by Sheila Williams and Andre Brewster, Rare Bush has scored a pair of allowance wins this year but has come up short in a trio of stakes runs. He enters off a fourth behind Slip Away in the Ferguson when he failed to break alertly and spotted the field several lengths. Two back in the Frost, Rare Bush jumped out to a 6-length lead and just missed holding off Planets Aligned in the stretch.
Sheppard also sends out Calvin Houghland’s Dr. Bloomer (Robbie Walsh, 150). The son of Fantastic Fellow was a Grade I winner against novice runners in 2008 but has struggled against open foes this season, finishing off the board in the Carolina Cup, Gwathmey and Frost. Dr. Bloomer has run over soft ground in all three attempts this year and his high cruising speed should appreciate the return to a firm course.