Tis the Season

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Where did the winter go? Even after months of snow and frigid temperatures in the Northeast, it seems like the jump season has come around quickly. Aiken already? Aiken, already.

The entry box had less action than a nerd at a dance, with just four lined up for the $50,000 Budweiser Imperial Cup and six for the $25,000 optional claimer. The maiden and maiden claimer attracted eight in each. Seven came to order for the training flat.

Along with bad backs and broken equipment, cold winters usually result in short fields.

Training this winter was less about following a blue print and more about adjusting to the elements.

Doug Fout, who weathered the storm at his Virginia Farm, unveils two-time winner Pleasant Woodman for the Imperial Cup. Owned by Virginia Lazenby and D’Allie Racing Stables, the 6-year-old son of Woodman won an allowance race over the Aiken course in the fall and spun around the Warrenton Point-to-Point course for a win and a prep last weekend.

“I hope he’s ready, it was just a two-horse race at Warrenton but he did it nicely, jumped great and finished up strong but who knows,” Fout said, on his way to Aiken Friday afternoon. “It was tough this winter. One week you were galloping, then the next week, you were back jogging and galloping on the dirt roads. It’s as long a winter as I can remember.”

With the absence of Colonial Cup winner Alamjal, the Imperial Cup certainly became a better proposition for the four entries. None are established stakes horses.

Ricky Hendriks ships veteran Call Me Sonny for his 23rd jump start. Owned by Dale Thiel, the four-time winner has never won a stakes but did manage two wins last year, including a starter handicap at Fair Hill in the spring. Jacob Roberts has the ride, his first since having his license reinstated.

Hall of Fame trainer Jonathan Sheppard looked through his stakes arsenal but only found veteran claimer Dugan. The 10-year-old owns five wins over hurdles, including two last season, but they were in short field against claimers and limited allowance horses. Bernie Dalton has the call, replacing Darren Nagle who broke his leg in a training mishap this winter.

Camden-based Arch Kingsley sends out Dogwood Stable’s Street Fight for his stakes debut. The 5-year-old son of Street Sense won his debut over the course last fall before finishing eighth against allowance foes at Camden to close out his season. The Ontario-bred 5-year-old spots experience all around but should be fit and ready for a stable which has made Aiken its picking patch in the past. Willie McCarthy, regular jockey for Pleasant Woodman, takes the call.

Yes, it’s a stakes but all horses are eligible for a two-other-than allowance conditions. Fout won’t give jockey Kieran Norris any detailed instructions aboard the established frontrunner.

“He’ll jump well, he’ll try, he’ll be right there. He’s got a good bottom under him, it’s just how fit the others are, that’s all,” Fout said. “You just drop his head and let him find his way, keep talking to him, I’ve tried to change his style, it just makes him mad and he doesn’t finish up.”

– On the flat, Arch Kingsley preps Carolina Cup nominee Top Striker. Sue Sensor’s 5-year-old crushed maidens at Camden in the fall. Julie Gomena dusts of Arakiss and Sporty. Jonathan Sheppard counters with the yin and yang of steeplechasing, $275,470 earner Sal The Barber and Augustin Stable’s 4-year-old filly Chat, who makes her U.S. debut after a 1-for-2 career for trainer John Gosden in England.

– Sheppard returns two-time flat winner Bill Pape’s Love Of Flying to steeplechasing in the maiden. The son of Forestry made one start over hurdles last year, pulling up at Queen’s Cup. The 6-year-old will take on Cry Vengeance, who placed three times as a 3-year-old last year for Ricky and Wendy Hendriks. Trainer/jockey Danielle Hodsdon unveils Omega Racing’s In My Eyes, a two-time winner for Michael Matz.

– Lilith Boucher entered two in the maiden claimer, naming husband Richard on both. Complete Dyno hit the board in two out of three starts last fall and drops back to the maiden claiming ranks. Boucher also entered first-time starter Class Energy. Both are owned by Why Not Racing.

– Dave Washer, the Todd Pletcher of the Aiken Steeplechase, entered G G Gal in the optional claimer. Owned by John Griggs, the 5-year-old mare has not been seen since winning her hurdle debut over the course to open the 2013 season. Washer also tabbed Johnny Eason’s General Partner who won his debut against maiden claimers at Aiken in the fall. Janet Elliot counters with Edition Farm’s Run To Class, who broke his maiden at first asking in the fall.

– As for picks. It’s a new slate for ST Handicappers. Joe took the beer in 2013, humbling Tom and Sean from the outset. Sean won the title previously while Tom, who is the only handicapper of the three who had his own handicapping gig way back when, returns for his second year. A brewmeister on the side, Law expects to pick more winners this year. Beer on the line.

First Race. Training Flat Race. 1 ¼-mile.
Joe: Top Striker, Sal The Barber, Chat.
Sean: Top Striker, Chat, Sal The Barber.
Tom: Sal The Barber, Chat, Top Striker.

Second Race. Maiden Hurdle. $20,000. 2 miles.
Joe: Love Of Flying, Cry Vengeance, Ryvit.
Sean: Cry Vengeance, Love Of Flying, Ryvit.
Tom: Love Of Flying, Cry Vengeance, Ryvit.

The Third. Maiden Claiming Hurdle. $10,000. 2 miles.
Joe: Complete Dyno, Le Chevalier, Slice of Gold.
Sean: Complete Dyno, Class Energy, Slice of Gold.
Tom: Complete Dyno, Slice of Gold, A Zoo Society.

Fourth Race. Allowance Optional Claiming Hurdle. $25,000. 2 miles.
Joe: Run To Class, General Partner, El Season.
Sean: Run To Class, Spinnaker, Ez Mac.
Tom: El Season, Run to Class, General Partner.

Fifth Race. Budweiser Imperial Cup. $50,000. 2 miles.
Joe: Pleasant Woodman, Call Me Sonny, Street Fight.
Sean: Pleasant Woodman, Street Fight, Call Me Sonny.
Tom: Pleasant Woodman, Street Fight, Dugan.