The 51st annual Aiken Spring Steeplechase kicks off the 2017 National Steeplechase Association season on Saturday with two $25,000 divisions of the Budweiser Imperial Cup, several full fields, and a highly competitive Ford G. Conger ratings handicap. First post time is 1 p.m. at the Aiken Horse Park in Aiken, S.C.
The focus will be on newcomers to jump racing, with maidens looking to move into the winning column in the two-mile Budweiser Imperial Cup.
In the second division, former champion timber jockey Mark Beecher will saddle My Afleet for his jumps debut. Owned by Jeffrey S. Amling and Merriebelle Stable, the six-year-old Afleet Alex gelding finished second in the $100,000 John’s Call Stakes at Saratoga Race Course last August. My Afleet, bred by Amling and Merriebelle’s Charles Noell, earned nearly $300,000 in his flat career.
He will be ridden by reigning champion jockey Kieran Norris, who has notched three straight victories in the Budweiser Imperial Cup.
Returning to the races is Jack Doyle, who will ride MB Stables Syndicate’s Extensible in the second division of the Budweiser Imperial Cup. The Irish jockey owned large leads in the rider standings by wins and earnings when he was injured at Belmont Park last September.
Also riding in the Aiken races are two past champion jockeys, Ross Geraghty (2012) and Willie McCarthy (2014); last year’s leading jockey by purse earnings, Sean McDermott; and 2016’s apprentice jockey, Brendan Crowley.
Racing Hall of Fame trainer Jonathan Sheppard will saddle Hudson River Farms’ Aflutter in the Budweiser Imperial Cup’s first division. Second in a Colonial Cup maiden hurdle last November, Aflutter will be ridden by McDermott.
The $20,000 Ford D. Conger attracted a field of six for the ratings handicap, in which weights are determined by the the horse’s NSA rating as assigned by a panel of three handicappers working under the supervision of Director of Racing Bill Gallo Jr.
Carrying the 158-pound highweight will be Devil’s Wrangler, owned by Stonelea Stables and trained by Julie Gomena. Mark Watts will ride Devil’s Wrangler, who won an Atlanta Steeplechase maiden claiming hurdle last April.
The action begins with the W. C. Jackson maiden training flat race, which drew a field of 10 and includes multiple hurdles stakes winner Alajmal, trained by Racing Hall of Fame member Janet Elliot. Attracting a field of nine was the $15,000 G. H. Bostwick maiden claiming hurdle.