Timber racing returns to Maryland hunt country for the second Saturday in a row as nine veteran runners including stakes winners Stand Down, Mystic Strike, and Grand Manan, are expected to go to the post in the 118th running of the historic contest in Butler.
This year’s Grand National carries a purse of $30,000. And best of all, fans will be allowed to attend, albeit at 50 percent of the usual capacity. Tickets must be purchased in advance and no walk-ins will be permitted. Gates open at noon, and the three-race card gets underway at 3:15 p.m. The Grand National, to be contested at around 3 ¼ miles over 18 fences, is the first race on the card.
Most of the runners entered in the Grand National are among those nominated to the longest and most demanding race of the series, the Maryland Hunt Cup, which will be run on April 24. Vintage Vinnie captured the first leg, the My Lady’s Manor Stakes, last Saturday, and is nominated to the Maryland Hunt Cup as well, though he is sitting out the Grand National.
This year’s Grand National field includes a mixed batch of runners at various stages of their respective careers.
- Frank Bonsal’s Stand Down won an allowance race over the course in 2018, the same year he captured the Pennsylvania Hunt Cup. But the nine-year-old hasn’t found the winner’s circle since then. In his most recent effort, he finished a distant third to Upland Partner’s Mystic Strike in last fall’s Pennsylvania Hunt Cup, but signaled his readiness for Saturday’s race with a victory over timber at the Elkridge-Harford Point to Point. Eddie Keating has the mount for trainer Casey Pinkard Savin.
- Mystic Strike, 12, is the most accomplished starter in the field, and comes into the Grand National after slipping and falling on slick ground in the My Lady’s Manor. The winner of nearly a quarter-million dollars has run exclusively in stakes company since 2017, winning four times (including two Pennsylvania Hunt Cups), finishing second three times, and third once. He was second in earnings to timber champion Curve of Stones last season. Chris Gracie has the mount for trainer Todd McKenna.
- Armata Stables’ Grand Manan, also 12, hasn’t won since his best season — 2016 — when he took the International Gold Cup and Genesee Valley Hunt Cup. He did not finish in two of his three 2020 starts and was far back in the third. John Brophy rides for trainer Billy Meister.
- Sportsmans Hall’s Hill Tie, 11, has stayed pretty close to his Maryland home in all but one of his six timber starts. The Joe Davies’ trainee, ridden by Joe’s son, Teddy, finished third in an allowance race over the course in 2017 and won another allowance race a year later. In 2019, he finished fifth in the Grand National when stepping up to stakes company. His most recent race was the 2019 Maryland Hunt Cup in which he also finished fifth.
- Jeremy Batoff’s Class Indian, now 14, has raced only 36 times in his nine-year-career, and his best performances have come in allowance company. But the sturdy Waquoit gelding did pick up a check in two timber tries last year, albeit he finished a distant third in both. Justin Batoff rides for trainer Willie Dowling.
- Michael A. Smith’s Le Chevalier has had a long, productive career, his crowning moments coming in the prestigious New Jersey Hunt Cup at the 2016 Far Hills Races and the National Sporting Library and Museum Cup Stakes at Virginia Fall two years later. But the 12-year-old remains money in the bank, finishing on the board in nine of his previous 10 timber starts — all stakes — dating back to 2017. He recently won the Cheshire Bowl at the Cheshire Point to Point, a prep for the Grand National. McLane Hendriks rides for Julie Gomena.
- Another dangerous horse to keep an eye on is the ever-improving Royal Ruse. Owned by Charlie Fenwick and trained by Sanna Neilson, the seven-year-old son of the Japanese stallion Hat Trick has gotten better and better under jockey Skylar McKenna. The duo have combined for three victories in their last four starts, and also finished a close third to Curve of Stones and Mystic Strike in the National Sporting Library and Museum Cup in Virginia last October.
Rounding out the race-day card are the 55th running of the $15,000 Benjamin F. Murray and the 15th edition of the $10,000 Western Run Plate II. Both events are allowances; the Western Run Plate is restricted to amateur riders.
You can download all of the entries here:
If you are unable to attend the races in person, be sure to watch the live stream via the NSA’s website. The stream can also be accessed from the NSA’s Facebook page. For those who are unable to watch live, the NSA will broadcast a recap show, Jump Racing USA, featuring replays, commentary and interviews, on its web site on Monday evening at 7 p.m. Eastern Daylight Time and on demand for the following week. The live stream is sponsored by Brown Advisory, the Temple Gwathmey Steeplechase Foundation, Charleston’s Post & Courier, and the Virginia Equine Alliance.