Of all the things to come out of a night on Caroline Street in Saratoga, Noah And The Ark might be one of the most unlikely – and now most successful – after Thursday’s Grade 1 upset in the Lonesome Glory Handicap at Aqueduct Racetrack.
English jump jockey Harrison Beswick takes an annual holiday with some friends in Saratoga and met American jump trainer Todd McKenna during a night out in 2019. They talked horses, watched a phone video of a handicap hurdle at Worcester and – after breakfast at The Horseshoe (naturally) a deal was struck to send the then 5-year-old gelding to America. He’d won four in England for Beswick’s cousin Bart Beswick and trainer Donald McCain Jr., but the American experiment failed in two starts in the height of the pandemic in 2020 – a seventh and a sixth – in mid-level handicap company. McKenna aimed for 2021, and sent his horse to the Carolina Cup at Camden, S.C., in May. With Harrison Beswick aboard for the first time in nearly two years, the son of Vinnie Roe charged up late to win the handicap hurdle by 3 lengths.
Tendonitis in both front legs sent Noah And The Ark to the sidelines on McKenna’s Pennsylvania farm until Thursday, where he ousted heavy favorite Snap Decision and six others in the $150,000 stakes – part of steeplechasing’s return to the New York City racetrack for the first time since 1974. The 8-year-old rated early as Snap Decision wound up in front under 168 pounds. Pressed by Iranistan, and then Song For Someone, Snap Decision led with a lap to go as the winner drafted into fourth on the inside. Noah And The Ark moved to third by the backside and headed to the last fence as the only potential winner other than Snap Decision.
Beswick loved where he was, but still worried about the 16-month layoff – and the competition level – even if he was getting 28 pounds from the favorite.
“I was fully expecting him to be there after the last fence, which is still quite a long ways from home,” the jockey said. “I knew he was good enough to do that, but to go past Snap Decision the way he did, I’m not sure I expected that. It was a very, very competitive field. I’m absolutely shook.”
Noah And The Ark took over on the turn and drew off late to score by 9 lengths in 3:34.83 for 2 1/2 miles. It was the first Grade 1 for trainer, also the co-owner as Keystone Thoroughbreds, and jockey. Snap Decision stayed on for second, three-quarters of a length ahead of Ask Paddington. Bred in Ireland by J.A. Slattery, Noah And The Ark won for the sixth time in 14 starts over jumps and earned $90,000 to push his lifetime earnings to $136,338. The winner paid $84.50 as the second-longest shot on the board.
McKenna, who bases his small stable on his farm in Chester County, Pa., was as surprised as anyone at the result – not necessarily in his horse.
“I was really doubting myself and thought to myself, ‘This horse all summer in the fields he has been absolutely flying around the fields, like a monster,’ ” McKenna said. “He came into the race perfectly, he’s really grown up. I’m like, ‘What’s the worst thing that can happen?’ And here we are. We know what the best thing is.”
Noah And The Ark won two novice hurdle races in 2018, with Beswick as a seven-pound apprentice and returned in 2019 with a 120 rating on the English handicap scale. A July 18 win at Ffos Las – rallying from well back – and a similar win at Worcester 12 days later put him on Bart Beswick’s phone at Saratoga and in front of McKenna.
“I know the horse can come from out of it, I bought him because I watched it,” McKenna said. “I was in Saratoga and I met these English guys and one was my jockey Harry’s cousin, Bart Beswick, and they’re there visiting and one night late somewhere in Saratoga he’s watching videos . . . He’s like, ‘We’re thinking this one should come to America. What do you think?” And I saw him come from the clouds at a racetrack in England and I’m like, ‘If he could do it there, he could definitely do it here.’ ”
McKenna wasn’t banking on a pandemic-shortened racing season in 2020, the tendon issues after the 2021 win or even a chance at a Grade 1. A former amateur steeplechase jockey who got into racing while watching his father John compete as an amateur in the 1980s and 1990s, McKenna owns Ferguson McKenna Supply with his twin brother Trevor. The company supplies hangers, pads, covers, bags, detergents, solvents and more to dry cleaners, laundries, hotels, etc. in Pennsylvania, Maryland, New Jersey and New York. The racehorse training operation wouldn’t necessarily compare to something you’d see at a racetrack.
“They’re out 12 hours a day and they’re in 12 hours day,” McKenna said of his horses, known more for their success over timber in the spring and fall than over hurdles in the summer. “I don’t know, I’ve always done it this way. It just works. I foxhunt them. It’s harder to get the hurdle horses sharp enough so I did use Fair Hill, I did go to Fair Hill and have a couple works down there so that helped him.”
The Mean Queen second in return
In Thursday’s first, defending Eclipse Award winner The Mean Queen also settled for second when run down in the final yards by 4-year-old first-year steeplechaser Proven Innocent in the $75,000 William Entenmann Memorial for novice hurdlers going 2 3/8 miles.
Owned by Bruton Street-US and trained by Jack Fisher, the son of Blame and jockey Jamie Bargary let his five rivals handle the racing details while saving ground for the first mile, advanced into position on the final turn and – in a mirror image of his allowance win at Saratoga Aug. 31 – wore down the leader through the stretch to prevail by a head at almost 9-1. The Mean Queen, making her first start in 11 months, settled for second while 6 3/4 lengths clear of Howyabud after 2 3/8 miles in 4:25.26.
A maiden winner on the turf for breeder Stuart Janney III and Shug McGaughey at Belmont Park last September, Proven Innocent was fourth in his hurdle debut in April, won at the Iroquois in May, finished second at Saratoga July 27 and has won his last two. The gray gelding is a half-brother to standout Janney flat runners Norumbega and Ironicus among others.
NOTES: Aqueduct hosted its first jump races in 48 years because of construction at Belmont Park, which moved NYRA’s fall championship meet to the historic track in Queens . . . Ten years ago, Beswick spent a summer galloping for trainer Leo O’Brien – who won the last jump race at Aqueduct in 1974 – in New York . . . Thursday’s runners all have lucrative opportunities at the Far Hills Races in New Jersey Oct. 15 – Snap Decision, The Mean Queen, Noah And The Ark and some others in the Grade 1, $250,000 American Grand National and novices such as Proven Innocent in the $75,000 Foxbrook. The $575,000 day features pari-mutuel wagering and will be part of the Racing Across American television show on Fox Sports . . . Next up on the circuit is Shawan Downs in Maryland Sept. 24 . . . On the leaderboard, Leslie Young (24 wins) leads Keri Brion by three among the trainers, with Fisher third at 11. Parker Hendriks (17), Tom Garner (11) and Freddie Proctor (10) lead the jockeys, followed by Graham Watters, Bargary and Teddy Davies with seven each . . . Leading owner Bruton Street-US owns the top tow horses on the earning list with Snap Decision ($220,500) and Proven Innocent ($125,700).