Mud not the only memory from Far Hills 2023.

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There’s nothing like Far Hills mud. After a day like Saturday, you find it everywhere – car tires and floor mats, shoes, pant legs, socks even a splotch on your binoculars. Sticky and reddish-brown, there’s something different about it, and I’m not even a horse.

Saturday featured plenty of mud, dampness, rain and wind, even if the turf drew a universal “not as soft as you’d think” assessment after a wet autumn and steady rain leading up to the first race. Officially, the course was yielding. Unofficially, “holding” might cover it. More unofficially (way), somebody compared the course to a mattress soaked with water for a week. There was little kickback. Jockeys came back clean (ish). But, man, horses looked tired while finishing. Some handled it. Others didn’t. Sometimes you could tell right away. In other cases, a horse went from traveling to struggling in a few yards.

Whatever. The mud will rinse off eventually. Racing happens outside and the National Steeplechase Association’s annual October sojourn to New Jersey for a deep card of races provided plenty with $675,000 in purses, Irish-based challengers, historic races, championship moments and more.

I spent the day doing commentary for America’s Day at the Races on the FoxSports networks. Produced by the New York Racing Association, the show hopefully put American jump racing in front of new eyes and went at least a little way toward pushing the link between flat racing and jump racing. Click the embed screen below to watch.

Kyogo (right) holds off Our Boy Wes in the opener at Far Hills. Tod Marks photo

Start at the beginning. Three-year-olds started the day with the $50,000 Gladstone Hurdle Stakes. Eight first-year hurdlers tackled 2 1/8 miles. Four finished, with obvious standouts Kyogo and Our Boy Wes making their overseas form stand up. Shawan Downs winner Lightning Ridge set the pace, but gave way to the most-experienced horses in the race. Kyogo and Our Boy Wes came in with three starts each, and made the form stand up. Trained by Emmett Mullins in Ireland until being purchased by Atlantic Friends Racing and Keri Brion, Our Boy Wes took the lead with a lap to go, was joined by Kyogo and Southpaw Mike three fences from home and came under pressure on the turn as Kyogo roared away coming to the last fence for Jack Kennedy. Somehow, Our Boy Wes wasn’t finished, and whittled a 3-length lead back to three-quarters at the finish. Both horses stayed on over the final yards, with first-time hurdler Southpaw Mike 4 lengths back in third. Sold to Marylander Ben Griswold IV’s Meadow Run Farm before Far Hills, Kyogo won for the second time in four hurdle starts for Irish trainer Gordon Elliott. The son of Ribchester won at Perth in September. Bettors made St. John’s the favorite in his hurdle debut, but he was pulled up along with three others. Irish 3-year-old hurdlers versus American 3-year-old hurdlers is not a fair fight.

Calico (right) makes it look easy while winging the last fence in the Harry Harris. Tod Marks photo.

Next up came the Harry E. Harris Hurdle Stakes for 4-year-olds. Like the first race, this one came with nothing but the age restriction – meaning the form covered all bases. Elliott runner Calico came in with 22 starts over jumps including four wins in 14 starts this year. She faced seven American-based runners who had combined for 24 starts over jumps. The French-bred filly, owned by America’s Del Rio Racing and Ireland’s Goldman Racing Syndicate, led throughout after briefly matching strides with Just Another One and won by 8 lengths. It wasn’t that close. Calico, ears pricked, outjumped everybody and shrugged off a mild challenge on the final run along the backside. Active Duty advanced to second, Chosen Judge looked OK in third, Total Joy loomed in fourth but fell three from home. Calico motored around the turn for Kennedy, took Chosen Judge’s best shot, jumped the last in front and pulled away. Chosen Judge, in his second hurdle start, held second with Just Another One third. Chosen Judge gave it a proper go. He’ll be worth watching from the Leslie Young barn.

Abaan (left) collars The Hero Next Door late in the Foxbrook. Tod Marks photo

The third race wound up with four runners, but they put on a show and the winner might have delivered the day’s biggest performance. Abaan, in his third hurdle start, took on 2 1/2 miles, 13 jumps, unfamiliar turf and three foreign-bred rivals in the $100,000 Foxbrook Champion Hurdle Stakes for novices. The race was open to horses who didn’t win over hurdles before Sept. 1, 2022. Abaan made it with a year to spare as his first hurdle win came Sept. 8 (2023!) after a second in his debut Aug. 11.

Owned by Eclipse Thoroughbred Partners and Daigneault Racing, the 6-year-old won five of 19 including last year’s Grade 3 W. L. McKnight on the flat for trainer Todd Pletcher. Sent to Bernie and Kate Dalton, the son of Will Take Charge ventured into his new career at Colonial Downs this summer – making the lead too soon and getting caught late in the debut and running away with the maiden win. Trainer Kate Dalton and her husband/jockey Bernie bypassed an allowance race at Shawan Downs, aimed high at Far Hills and Abaan did the rest. He let The Hero Next Door set the pace and found a comfort zone in the back. A too-free Cool Jet took the lead after four fences, followed by dual winner The Hero Next Door and Saratoga winner L’Imperator. Abaan kept pace. The quartet bunched together on the turn toward the backside the final time. Cool Jet led by a length, The Hero Next Door stayed second, Abaan was third on the rail, L’Imperator right there in fourth. Two lengths separated them.

Cool Jet cracked first as The Hero Next Door swept past at the first of three jumps in a line. Abaan and L’Imperator covered the move and were a half-length down at the next. Abaan and The Hero Next Door jumped the second-last together and put a quick 5 lengths on L’Imperator. Saving ground on the turn, The Hero Next Door jumped the last with a narrow advantage but soon felt company. Abaan drew even at the road crossing, climbed the hill like a Jeep and pushed away to win by 2 lengths with a pat on the shoulder and fist pump from his jockey. L’Imperator was a distant third with Cool Jet even farther back in fourth.

Based in Camden, S.C., the Daltons are well known in flat and jump racing. He used to gallop some of Kiaran Mclaughlin’s toughest runners. She rode out for trainer Jonathan Sheppard – that’s her with Grade 1 winner With Anticipation (at least some of the time). Bernie and Kate won a Grade 1 jump race with homebred Down Royal in 2022, another one with Diplomat in 2017. Belisarius won the 2018 Foxbrook for major flat owner Gary Barber and partners. They’ve got another good one with Abaan.

Say Goodbye (left) jumps with Right Tempo in the Peapack. Tod Marks photo

Americans couldn’t handle a 3-year-old or a 4-year-old from the Elliott barn, and had no chance against 7-year-old Say Goodbye in the $75,000 Peapack Hurdle Stakes for fillies and mares. The three-time winner carried 163 pounds, which tried to level the playing field against seven rivals, but posted a comfortable win. Kennedy again rode, for Brian Acheson’s Robcour Racing. The 3-5 favorite and a game Right Tempo pulled away from the rest leaving the backstretch with Say Goodbye finally dispatching her challenger after the last fence to win by 3 1/4 lengths. Give Right Tempo credit, she made good use of her 20-pound break in the weights and put the winner under pressure. Gold Charm was third. Say Goodbye collected her fourth win in 14 starts over jumps. She and Calico are apparently staying in the U.S. and could run at Montpelier, where they will be tough to handle.

Saturday’s TV show – produced by NYRA for America’s Best Racing – wasn’t really the place to do it so yes Elliott served a 12-month suspension (six suspended) by the Irish Horseracing Regulatory Board in 2021 after a photo taken in 2019 emerged of him sitting on a dead horse at his training yard in Ireland. He was suspended and fined under the IHRB’s rule relating to someone in racing acting in a manner “prejudicial to the integrity, proper conduct or good reputation of horseracing.” Elliott served his penalty and had his license reinstated in September 2021.

Zabeel Champion (yellow) emerges from a crowd after the last in the Appleton. Tod Marks photo

Three weeks before Far Hills, Jonjo O’Neill-trained English-bred veteran Zabeel Champion made his American debut for trainer Jack Fisher in a 120 handicap hurdle at Foxfield. The 23-length defeat did little to inspire confidence, but the son of Poet’s Voice dispatched tougher company at Far Hills to win a 130 handicap hurdle – the $50,000 Charles Appleton Stakes. Bernie Dalton rode the winner, who scored by 3 1/2 lengths over Fast Vision. Last year’s winner Redicean finished third with 2021 winner Presence Of Mind fourth. Zabeel Champion won a novice hurdle and two handicaps in England and Scotland for owners Martin Tedham and Wasdell Properties before coming to the U.S.

Then came the big one. The $250,000 American Grand National, the richest jump race in the U.S., attracted eight starters topped by Irish raiders Salvador Ziggy for Elliott and Seddon from the barn of John McConnell. The former came in off four strong races this year – chase wins at Punchestown in June, Tramore Aug. 18 and Killarney eight days after that plus a second in the Kerry National at Listowel Sept. 20. Seddon also arrived in good form – a Cheltenham Festival chase win in March, a hurdle win at Punchestown in April, a fourth going 2 1/8 miles on the flat at Killarney in August and a second in a 2 5/8-mile hurdle at Galway Sept. 11.

Noah And The Ark (right) flies the last fence with (from left)
Merry Maker, Salvador Ziggy and Seddon. Tod Marks photo

They faced Americans from all corners. Snap Decision looked to right his ship off losses in four of his last five (and two in a row). He brought a spotty Far Hills mark including a novice win in 2019, a second in the 2021 Grand National and a sixth in yielding ground last year. Merry Maker beat Snap Decision and five others in the Grade 1 Lonesome Glory in September after opening the year with a first-level allowance win. The Irish-bred won his hurdle debut in 2021, missed a year to recover from a fractured tibia, weathered two dismal tries in 2022 and came out swinging this year. Noah And The Ark, second last year, tried to erase three losses this year while adding Lasix. Jimmy P tried to prove he belonged, off a second at Saratoga and a handicap win at Nashville. Third behind Irish raider Scaramanga and Snap Decision in the Iroquois in May, Scorpion’s Revenge got off the bench. Seven-time winner Mortlach tried to prove he belonged after coming up empty at the Iroquois in May.

The Irish didn’t hang around. Seddon made the early running. Salvador Ziggy stalked in second, followed by Jimmy P and Irish-based jockey Danny Mullins, Snap Decision, Noah And The Ark, Mortlach and Merry Maker. On the inside, Noah And The Ark moved to third with a lap to go. Every jump looked like a struggle for Snap Decision, who dropped steadily through the field and was pulled up before the 11th of 14 fences. Up front, the contenders sorted themselves. Take it a fence at a time:

  • 11: Seddon by a length; Salvador Ziggy second; Noah And The Ark inside and a little scrambly on landing third; Merry Maker wide, making progress in fourth.
  • 12: Seddon trying to stretch them, got away from Salvador Ziggy; Noah And The Ark still third, inside; Merry Maker jumped well to the outside.
  • 13: Seddon touched down in front, but left an opening to the inside; Noah And The Ark and Harrison Beswick tested, then backed off; Salvador Ziggy advanced to the leader’s neck; Merry Maker stayed put; Scorpion’s Revenge tried to get involved. Around the turn they went. Seddon led, Salvador Ziggy to his outside, lapped on; Merry Maker rallied around them to third; Noah And The Ark was fourth, but grinding away; Scorpion’s Revenge couldn’t make progress.
  • 14: Seddon, Salvador Ziggy and Merry Maker drifted off the turn coming to the last; Noah And The Ark stayed inside and took his cue from Beswick – front hooves rising over the brush and touching down with all the momentum. Fourth off the turn, he left the ground first and aimed for the hill. He saw it out from there to win by 5 1/4 lengths over Merry Maker with Seddon third. Scorpion’s Revenge rallied for fourth as Salvador Ziggy retreated to last behind Jimmy P and Mortlach.
Noah And The Ark (right) kicks into high gear while winning the Grand National. Tod Marks photo

Trained by Todd McKenna for Keystone Thoroughbreds, Noah And The Ark won for the seventh time and lived up to his second behind Hewick in last year’s Grand National. The Irish-bred son of Vinnie Roe returned $37. He came in off a fifth in the Iroquois in May, a fourth in the A.P. Smithwick at Saratoga July 19 and a well-beaten eighth in the Jonathan Sheppard at Saratoga in August.

He’s the fifth Grade 1 jump winner (in five races) this year. His $170,500 in earnings are second to Merry Maker’s $180,000. Awakened, who runs Saturday at Great Meadow and won the only common start among the three, is third at $125,000. Don’t even think about asking me who the Eclipse Award should go to. Not yet anyway. Anybody miss the Colonial Cup?

One thing for sure, no horse tried harder than Noah And The Ark Saturday. He kept up, scrapped his way along the inside, attacked the last fence, ran past two quality rivals who had been in front the whole way and then had plenty left for Merry Maker. The effort was championship worthy.

McLovin leads the way late in the John Forbes Memorial. Tod Marks photo

The Far Hills finale, the $100,000 John Forbes Memorial Stakes at 2 miles on the flat went to McLovin, who dragged Beswick to the front after a mile, jumped every road crossing like they were hurdles and won by a length over closer Who’s Counting, who had a dozen lengths on Riptide Rock. Rodolphe Brisset trains the winner, third in a stakes at Colonial Downs Sept. 9, for Team Valor International.

NOTES: Zabeel Champion ran 2 5/8 miles in 5:40.97, just faster than Noah And The Ark’s 5:41.28. Both were well behind the record of 4:50 set by Rawnaq in 2016 . . . The Harry Harris is named for a jump jockey who died in a fall while schooling a horse between races at Aqueduct in 1951 . . . In the TIHR handicapping contest, I had two winners Saturday (Say Goodbye and McLovin); Sean had three (Kyogo, Say Goodbye and McLovin); Tom had one (Say Goodbye) . . . Beswick leads all jump jockeys with 15 wins this year, three more than Graham Watters and four ahead of Freddie Procter . . . Young leads the trainers’ race 29-15 over Fisher, who is seven clear of Arch Kingsley . . . The jump season heads to Virginia’s Great Meadow course for the International Gold Cup Saturday, followed by three meets next weekend – Montpelier (Nov. 4), Callaway Gardens (Nov. 4), Pennsylvania Hunt Cup (Nov. 5), Charleston (Nov. 12) and the finale at Aiken (Nov. 18).