Jump racing at The Big A

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Jump racing at Aqueduct in 1971. Innkeeper (7, Ronnie Armstrong) powers to the front for Chance Hill Farm and trainer Tommy Walsh. Coglianese photo.

They ever have jump racing at Aqueduct?

The question arose in early July – even before NYRA announced the shifting of Belmont Park’s Fall Championship meet to The Big A – and gained steam as Saratoga’s 2022 season unfolded.

The answer, of course, is yes. But not for a while.

Officially, the most recent steeplechase race New York’s Aqueduct Racetrack occurred July 24, 1974. Afilador, an Argentine-bred owned by Raymond Guest’s Powhatan Stable, trained by Pat Graham and ridden by Leo O’Brien, won the $10,000 allowance restricted to non-winners of $2,500 twice. They went 2 miles in a quick 3:42 over a yielding turf course. In addition to O’Brien, jockeys were Bob Witham (second on Cold Iron), Dave Washer (third on Kentaurus), Jerry Fishback, Kip Elser, Joe Aitcheson, Skip Brittle and Peter Pugh. That race was one of four at Aqueduct that summer and the first there since 1971. The jumpers also ran July 10, 11 and 17. Afilador was second in the opener.

Thursday, Afilador gets nudged off his place in history when Aqueduct ends its jump-racing drought with two races.

Afilador (left, Leo O’Brien) and Crag’s Corner (Kip Elser) battle down the stretch of a 1974 Aqueduct jump race – not the actual last one which came two weeks later – July 10, 1974. Coglianese photo

In the $75,000 William Entenmann Memorial, the opener at 1 p.m., last year’s Eclipse Award winner The Mean Queen sneaks into the novice condition and will be odds-on while making her long-awaited 2022 debut. One race later, in the $150,000 Grade 1 Lonesome Glory, last year’s Eclipse Award runner-up Snap Decision shoulders 168 pounds while seeking his third Grade 1 win of 2022. He too will be a short price.

The two stars are fitting heirs to Aqueduct’s steeplechase history, though it would be fun if they were in the same race. I would have changed the Entenmann conditions to encourage a third meeting between the two (she leads 2-0), but I’m not the racing secretary. She’s eligible for the novice race since she didn’t win her first jump race until April 2021, and it’s a cozy spot for a returning champion off an 11-month layoff. Thursday should be an ideal tune-up for another crack at the American Grand National – and Snap Decision – at Far Hills Oct. 15.

But back to Aqueduct. The place opened in 1894 on property owned by the Brooklyn Water Works, where a conduit took water to New York City from the Hempstead Plain. I don’t think jumpers took part in the first meeting, but it didn’t take long to put up fences. Jump races took place at the inaugural Belmont Park meeting in 1905. Belmont Terminal, next door, was another popular spot for early jump races.

In 1930, amateur jockey Rigan McKinney finished second in the Meadow Brook Cup at the Westbury Course on Long Island and – after weighing in, jumping in a car and hustling to Aqueduct – won in the Harbor Hill Steeplechase aboard Cree for Thomas Hitchcock.

Jungle King, champion steeplechaser of 1937, won several races at Aqueduct – a 1935 handicap, and the Old Glory Stakes in 1937 and 1938 for Greentree Stable and trainer Vince Powers. Brother Jones, the 1943 champion, won the Glendale at Aqueduct in September and came back three weeks later to land the American Grand National at Belmont Park.

Hall of Famer and two-time champion Elkridge ran over jumps at Aqueduct 13 times (plus once more on the flat), winning the Harbor Hill in 1943, a handicap in 1946 and the 1947 Lion Heart and Glendale. Mercator used a victory in the 1945 Harbor Hill to capture that year’s title. Trough Hill won at Aqueduct in 1947 and 1948 before taking the title in 1949. The 1947 champion War Battle dominated the Hitchcock Stakes under 162 pounds at Aqueduct that season. He won there again in 1948.

Ancestor won on the flat and over jumps at Aqueduct. Bred by Ogden Phipps and originally part of his flat stable trained by Sunny Jim Fitzsimmons, the son of Challedon captured a 6-furlong allowance in June 1952, added the Discovery Handicap going 1 1/8 miles in September. In 1953, Ancestor couldn’t handle Tom Fool when eighth in the Carter. By the next spring, Ancestor was a jumper. Campaigned by Phipps’ wife Lillian and trainer Pete Bostwick, Ancestor won his first two at Camden and Belmont in April, won at Aqueduct in late June before closing the year with three consecutive wins at Belmont. Still productive at 10 when trained by Mikey Smithwick, Ancestor clinched the 1959 steeplechase title with major stakes scores in the Broad Hollow and Brook handicaps at Aqueduct.

King Commander, champion of 1954, was an Aqueduct regular – winning there in 1952 (flat), 1953 (jumps) and 1955 (jumps). Oedipus, another Phipps runner, won over jumps June 13 and 19, 1950 – getting 2 miles in 3:46 1/5 and 3:42 2/5, respectively.

Amber Diver, champion in 1963, won several major jump races at Aqueduct including the Temple Gwathmey Handicap in 1963 and 1964 for his Hall of Fame trainer Sidney Watters Jr. and Hall of Fame jockey Joe Aitcheson. Amber Diver won there twice in 1961 and raced on the flat there in 1959 and 1960.

Speedy 3-year-old hurdler Barnabys Bluff won at Aqueduct in 1961, once with future Hall of Fame flat trainer Scotty Schulhofer in the saddle.

Blazing front-runner Bon Nouvel made at least part of his reputation at Aqueduct, winning there in 1963 (going 1 5/8 miles over hurdles, wow), and winning four consecutive stakes – the Harbor Hill, Broad Hollow, Brook and Grand National – in 1964. The streak stopped there as Bon Nouvel settled for third in the Gwathmey 10 days after a 20-length romp in the Grand National.

Three-time champion and Hall of Famer Bon Nouvel – here winning at Belmont – won multiple races at Aqueduct. Bert Morgan photo/National Steeplechase Association collection

Back for more in 1965, the future Hall of Famer won the Broad Hollow, Brook and Gwathmey – the latter by 30 lengths under 170 pounds. Owned by Theodora Randolph and trained by Smithwick, the Virginia-bred Bon Nouvel won championships in 1964, 1965 and 1968.

Peal’s 1961 championship season ended with a 14-length win in the Gwathmey at Aqueduct.

Quick Pitch was so good he won stakes on the flat and over jumps at Aqueduct for trainer E. Barry Ryan. The foal of 1960 won the Brighton Beach Handicap in 1963. Four years later, he won the Land Boy, Bushwick and Rouge Dragon stakes over jumps there as part of six consecutive victories.

The 1970s brought the end of regular jump racing at Aqueduct, and a big decrease at the other NYRA tracks, though Shadow Brook nearly turned a unique double. Trained by Sidney Watters Jr. for Stephen Clark Jr., the son of Cohoes won a turf allowance at Aqueduct July 17, 1971. Five days later, he finished second in the Meadow Brook over jumps at the same track. Those preps sent him to wins in his next four – the Lovely Night and Grand National at Saratoga, the Brook and the Gwathmey at Belmont – and a championship.

Future steeplechase champion Top Bid began his career on the flat at Aqueduct – winning twice as a 2-year-old in 1966 before finishing third in the Sanford, Saratoga Special and Hopeful that summer and tackling the Santa Anita and Louisiana Derbies the next year. By 1968, he was a jumper and won twice at Aqueduct his first season before becoming a champion in 1970.

Hall of Fame steeplechaser Flatterer began his racing career at Aqueduct, a dismal 12th going 6 furlongs on the inner dirt in January 1982. He ran there three more times that year, finishing second in a $45,000 turf claimer in November.

Snap Decision, Thursday’s Lonesome Glory favorite, ran three times at Aqueduct – on the dirt – for Phipps Stable and trainer Shug McGaughey in November 2018. He finished ahead of Preakness winner Cloud Computing when fifth going a mile and was third behind Mr. Buff going 1 1/8 miles.

So yes, indeed, they did have jump racing at Aqueduct. And they have it again Thursday.