Michael T. Wharton’s Grinding Speed established himself as the horse to catch for this year’s timber championship when jockey Mark Beecher laid down a strategically slow pace in Saturday’s $90,000 Virginia Gold Cup and then turned back a stiff challenge from Dakota Slew to win by a length.
Straight to It finished third, Ballylifen was fourth, and defending Virginia Gold Cup winner and timber champion Hot Rize finished fifth. Bred in Maryland by Alan, Mark, Mitchell, and Madeline Kline, nine-year-old Grinding Speed ran the Gold Cup’s four miles over 24 timber fences in 10:13.60 to secure his second victory in three years.
The richest edition of the Virginia Gold Cup meet was run under mostly sunny skies with temperatures in the 70s, and it attracted a large, festive crowd for its nine races, all with pari-mutuel wagering. Also on the program was the $75,000 David H. Semmes Memorial (Gr. 2), which was won by Parker’s Prospect, owned by the Hudson River Farms of Edward Swyer.
Grinding Speed began the 2015 National Steeplechase season with a victory in the My Lady’s Manor, and the Virginia Gold Cup’s $54,000 first-place purse gave him a commanding lead in the timber championship race with $72,000. His closest competitor is Raven’s Choice, who was elevated to the top spot in the $75,000 Maryland Hunt Cup on April 25.
Beecher rode Raven’s Choice and has a sizable advantage in his effort to win a second straight timber jockey championship.
Beecher’s ride aboard Grinding Speed was consummate opportunism. Trainer Alicia Murphy said Beecher rode the Gold Cup as it shaped up rather than according to a preconceived plan. The Grindstone gelding broke on top and, though he rarely has set the early pace, opened a sizable lead that extended to ten lengths in the first mile.
All the while, Beecher had Grinding Speed on a long rein while traveling at exercise-gallop speed and jumping well. The pace picked up somewhat on the second circuit on Great Meadow Race Course, and Magalen O. Bryant’s Dakota Slew challenged four fences from the finish line under Robbie Walsh.
They were on equal terms over the third-to-last fence, but Grinding Speed gained an advantage over the final two fences and opened a clear length at the finish line. In addition to his two Virginia Gold Cup wins, Grinding Speed has two victories in the International Gold Cup, in 2012 and last year, over the Great Meadow course.
The inaugural running of the Semmes had an even tighter finish, with champion jockey Willie McCarthy driving Parker’s Project to a neck victory over Clorevia Farm’s Dr. Skip, also ridden by Walsh. All Together finished third, followed by Sporty, Diplomat, and Spy in the Sky in finish order.
In company with Rock Ford Stables’ Sporty, Dr. Skip was always on or near the lead of the 2 1/8-mile race over National Fences. The early pace was relatively slow, and Dr. Skip had plenty of energy left when Parker’s Project came charging at him in the stretch. Dr. Skip gave up the lead grudgingly as the far more experienced Parker’s Project charged over the last fence and fought to the lead in the race’s late stages.
Trained by Jonathan Sheppard, Parker’s Project ran the Semmes distance in 4:31.80. Always a member of the sport’s upper echelon, Parker’s Project won his first race since the 2012 Marcellus Frost (Gr. 2) at Nashville’s Iroquois Steeplechase. Last year, he finished second to eventual Eclipse champion Demonstrative in Belmont Park’s Lonesome Glory Handicap (Gr. 1) and third to Demonstrative in the Grand National (Gr. 1) at Far Hills, N.J.