While the marquee races of this Covid-abbreviated National Steeplechase Association calendar were run long ago, Saturday’s Steeplechase at Callaway Gardens in Pine Mountain, Ga., cemented the title of leading trainer and set up a showdown for top rider at the season’s final meet in Charleston, S.C., on Nov. 15.
With two victories on the seven-race card, Hall of Famer Jonathan Sheppard took an insurmountable lead over Jack Fisher for leading NSA trainer, an award Fisher has taken a remarkable nine years in a row. Sheppard has 16 wins to Fisher’s dozen, though the latter has a $26,000 edge in earnings. Fisher has only one runner entered at Charleston.
Sheppard struck in the third, an allowance hurdle, with Buttonwood Farm’s promising newcomer Baltimore Bucko, who won for the second time in four starts this season. Gerard Galligan piloted the winner, who defeated Hudson River Farm’s Another Try — also trained by Sheppard — by a length and a quarter.
Sheppard and Galligan teamed up again one race later, taking the featured $25,000 handicap (for horses rated at 120 or lower) with Irv Naylor’s A Silent Player, another rising star who also won for the second time in four 2020 starts. A Silent Player ground out a hard-fought one-length victory over Mason Hardaway Lampton’s Maccabee. Both Baltimore Bucko and A Silent Player began their racing careers just this year.
Galligan’s double gives him 10 wins for the season, one behind Michael Mitchell.
In other action, Leipers Fork Steeplechasers’ Tomgarrow, who had been chasing tough competitors in hurdle races at Saratoga, Great Meadow, and Middleburg this fall, transferred his skills to timber and romped by 14 ½ in the WC Bradley maiden under Tom Garner for trainer Leslie Young. Garner and Sean McDermott are tied with eight wins, trailing only Mitchell and Galligan.
Wendy Hendriks’ Officer Sydney rebounded from a DNF in the $25,000 International Gold Cup Stakes at Great Meadow two weeks ago — when he got separated from jockey McLane Hendriks — with a four-length score over Hudson River Farm’s Codrington College in the $7,500 George Sloan Memorial timber race restricted to apprentice riders. McLane Hendriks was back in the saddle for the victory, which was Officer Sydney’s second over timber this fall. The 8-year-old son of Lawman is trained by Ricky Hendriks.
Trainer Neil Morris and jockey Graham Watters combined to capture the two maiden claiming hurdles on the card, with Shannon Hill Farm’s All Out of Aces, in the first division, and William M. Russell’s Gold Shield in the second. And in the finale, the George Seier Memorial claiming hurdle for apprentice riders, Sycamore Run Farm’s Adjutant, making only his second U.S. start, was a two-and-a-half length winner over Team Ollie’s Orchestra Leader. Skylar McKenna had the mount for mom, trainer Kathy Neilson.
Wins and losses aside, the Steeplechase at Callaway offered fans and horsemen alike a glimmer of hope for the upcoming Spring 2021 season. For the first time on the NSA circuit this year, spectators were permitted to attend the races, albeit at half the usual capacity. Though circumstances are far from normal, it was an encouraging sign and reminded everyone what it was like to be back at a social event once again.