Gregory Hawkins’ Alajmal, who capped an extraordinarily competitive 2013 racing season with a victory in the Colonial Cup (Gr. 1), heads the early nominees to the $50,000 Budweiser Imperial Cup (Gr. 3), the featured contest of the 48th annual Aiken Spring Steeplechase on Saturday, March 22.
The Aiken Spring Races kick off the 2014 National Steeplechase Association season and annually attract large crowds to Ford Conger Field in Aiken, S.C. First post time will be 1 p.m. for the six-race program.
The 2012 novice champion, Alajmal began and ended his 2013 season at Springdale Course in Camden, S.C., where he won the Carolina Cup for novices in March and then took the Colonial Cup on Nov. 23, the last day of the racing season.
In between, Alajmal was troubled by a mysterious ailment that baffled his trainer, Racing Hall of Fame member Janet Elliot. But the First Samurai gelding regained full health and fitness in the fall, and he made a powerful run under Xavier Aizpuru to draw away to a 3 1/2-length victory over an all-star field in the Colonial Cup.
The two-mile Budweiser Imperial Cup attracted two other early nominees, Pleasant Woodman and Dugan. Nominations remain open until Monday, March 17, and weights for the handicap hurdle will be assigned that afternoon by NSA Director of Racing Bill Gallo Jr.
Owned by Virginia B. Lazenby and Farm d’Allie Racing Stables, Pleasant Woodman loves the Aiken course, where he is undefeated in two starts. The six-year-old Woodman gelding kicked off a busy 2013 season with a runaway victory in the James W. Maloney, a maiden hurdle.
Virginia-based trainer Doug Fout returned Pleasant Woodman to Aiken on Oct. 26 for another stellar performance in the Budweiser Holiday Cup, an optional allowance hurdle. Ridden by Willie McCarthy, Pleasant Woodman cut all the pace and drew off late to an impressive five-length victory.
Bill Pape’s veteran Dugan will be returning to Aiken for a chance to step up into graded-stakes competition. Trained by Racing Hall of Fame member Jonathan Sheppard, Dugan also has an affinity for the Aiken course and has won three of his six starts there. He most recently won a claiming hurdle at the 2011 Aiken Fall meet.
Last spring, the Forest Wildcat gelding finished second in the Charles S. Bird Jr., an optional claiming hurdle, before winning an optional claimer at the Block House Races in Tryon, N.C. He also won an open claiming hurdle at the Radnor Hunt Races in Malvern, Pa.