A spring racing season that began three months ago with questions about the state of the sport in the face of the ongoing pandemic, concludes on Saturday with full fields and full stands for the 80th running of the Iroquois Steeplechase at Percy Warner Park in Brentwood, Tenn., just south of Nashville.
With seven races, three stakes, and more than a quarter-million dollars in purses, the Iroquois is a fitting conclusion to a successful Spring in which the entire racing community continued to persevere despite the ongoing challenges posed by Covid-19, including a ban or cap on spectator attendance at most events, restrictions on the sale of food and beverages, and enforcement of distancing and mask requirements. Compared to 2020, when all but two spring meets were canceled, all 13 scheduled events in six states took place.
By rescheduling the Iroquois from its original date of May 8, to work with local city and health department officials to create the safest possible event, the Iroquois will be able to go ahead with eased precautions. As of May 14, all Covid restrictions have been lifted in Nashville.
Highlighting the card is the $100,000 Calvin Houghland Iroquois Stakes, the only Grade 1 on the NSA spring calendar. Contested at 2 ¾ miles this year, the race is shaping up as a rematch between the remarkable Snap Decision and European star Footpad, with added drama provided by a resurgent Bedrock and recent winner Galway Kid.
Bruton Street-US’ Snap Decision is a winner of eight straight races over two years. With Graham Watters in the saddle for trainer Jack Fisher, Snap Decision romped by 9 ½ lengths in the G2 Temple Gwathmey Stakes at Middleburg, Va., in his seasonal bow, besting Irv Naylor’s Amschel, Hudson River Farm’s Galway Kid, and Sonny Via’s Footpad, all of whom are entered in the Iroquois. Unlike the Gwathmey, which was run as a handicap, the Iroquois is run at level weights; all starters will carry 158 pounds. In the Gwathmey, Snap Decision carried 156 pounds, compared to Footpad’s 162. All of the others in the field that day toted far less. Footpad, a winner of 11 of 27 lifetime starts and more than $900,000, also is in the Fisher barn. Footpad is likely to benefit from his previous off-the-board effort, his first start in 16 months.
Galway Kid is exiting a hard-fought neck victory in the $50,000 David Semmes Memorial hurdle stakes (Grade 3) at the Virginia Gold Cup Races, in which Bedrock finished third, beaten less than a half length following a layoff even lengthier than Footpad’s. Galway Kid, who has competed against the sport’s best, improved his career record to four wins in eight starts. The six-year-old Irish-bred, trained by Keri Brion, suffered two of his losses to Snap Decision, but closed out 2020 with a handicap hurdle win over a strong field at the International Gold Cup Races.
Another Brion starter, KMSN Stable’s Sportswear, put in his best performance in two years on June 5 when finishing second to The Happy Giant in the $30,000 Block House Handicap, for horses rated at 125 or less. Before that, Sportswear was fourth in the Carolina Cup — a handicap similar to the Block House — to Keystone Thoroughbreds’ Noah and the Ark.
Amschel was a three-time winner in Europe before coming to the U.S. in 2018, where he is one for five, that lone victory being a handicap at Montpelier in 2019. Rounding out the field is Armata Stable’s New Member, a classy 10-year-old who captured the 2019 Jonathan Kiser novice stakes at Saratoga to go along with a second-place finish to Optimus Prime in the 2018 G1 New York Turf Writers Stakes at Saratoga.
In other stakes action
The $50,000 Green Pastures novice stakes, formerly the Marcellus Frost, has attracted a large field of jumpers in the early stages of their careers, a number of whom are entering the race off of recent wins.
Willow Oaks Stables’ Master Gunner broke his maiden by five lengths at Radnor and then finished second best to Buttonwood Farm’s highly regarded The Mean Queen in an allowance contest at the Virginia Gold Cup Races. J. David Richardson’s Kilronan broke his maiden at the Queen’s Cup Races, but was no factor when stepping up in company in the Carolina Cup. Bon Nouvel Chasers’ Repeat Repeat took a non-winners of two allowance at Middleburg, then was pulled up in the Block House handicap at Tryon. Irv Naylor’s Chief Justice is looking for his first U.S. win after seven tries, but boasts a second in the 2019 William Entenmann novice stakes at Belmont Park and a second to Snap Decision in the David Semmes Memorial at the Virginia Gold Cup Races last June.
Also stepping up is Leipers Fork Steeplechasers’ Perfect Tapatino, a maiden hurdle winner at the Virginia Gold Cup races. Perfect Tapatino’s stablemate, Court Ruler, is two for four lifetime, including a 13-1 upset in an allowance race at Saratoga in 2020. Gill Johnston’s Contented makes his first start since the 2019 Queen’s Cup, while Robert La Penta’s precocious Fast Car, a 2020 winner at Great Meadow and Saratoga, makes his initial start over jumps in 10 months. He prepped for the race in a training-flat run at Camden, S.C., in May. Buttonwood Farm’s Baltimore Bucko, who ran in Ireland over the winter and spring, is also coming into the race off of a training-flat tightener, at Winterthur, where he defeated stablemate — and first-time starter — Nice to Meet Ya by two and a half lengths.
Riverdee Stable’s City Dreamer scored in the Marcellus Frost in 2019, but is winless in six starts since in similarly tough novice stakes competition. Jacqueline Ohrstrom’s Arch My Boy is on the comeback trail after a strong start to his U.S. career — two seconds in novice stakes at Saratoga and Belmont — in 2019, after which he spent more than a year and a half on the sidelines. Bruton Street-US sends Gowiththeflow to the post for the second time since coming over England. He finished sixth in the Queen’s Cup following a 15-month layoff.
In the $25,000 Margaret Currey Henley filly and mare stakes at 2 ¼ miles, the aforementioned The Mean Queen will garner plenty of attention. One of three runners carrying highweight of 151 pounds, the five-year-old daughter of Doyen helped trainer Keri Brion make history this spring as the first U.S.-based conditioner to be victorious in an Irish hurdle race when she won at Wexford Racecourse. She made her U.S. debut in an allowance race at the Virginia Gold Cup and beat the boys convincingly by eight lengths. Brion has also entered The Mean Queen’s Buttonwood stablemate, Lizzy, who has made only one career start, in a maiden at Tryon, finishing fifth.
Taking aim at The Queen will be a large field including the two other topweights, Joseph Fowler’s Down Royal, who also beat males, in a handicap at the Queens Cup, and Gill Johnston’s Amnicalola, winner of the 2019 Iris Coggins Memorial Stakes at Fair Hill. Following a two-year layoff, Amnicalola returned to action in a handicap at Radnor last month, finishing fourth.
South Branch Equine’s Paddy Wears Prada moves up to stakes company following a two-length maiden win at the Carolina Cup. Beverly Steinman’s Speed Alert moves up to stakes company after winning the filly and mare maiden hurdle at Middleburg in May, as does Theodore Gregory’s Screen Image, who bested Speed Alert in the filly and mare maiden hurdle at Foxfield last fall. An interesting entry is Kathy Neilson’s Bercasa, a six-year-old who made 19 starts in Ireland before coming to the U.S. in 2019. Bercasa made two starts that year, including a fourth in the prestigious Peapack Stakes for fillies and mares at Far Hills, in which she finished ahead of Down Royal.
Maggie Bryant’s Eve’s City and Carrington Holdings’ Cainudothetwist complete the field. Eve’s City is a lightly-raced daughter of Temple City, and boasts a single win, in a non-winner’s of two allowance at Montpelier in 2019. New York-bred Cainudothetwist is looking for her first jump racing score, and enters the Henley off of two third-place maiden special weight hurdle events.
In addition to the trio of stakes, the Iroquois card boasts four other fixtures: the $20,000 Bright Hour handicap for horses rated at 115 or less; two divisions of the George Sloan and John Sloan Sr. maiden hurdle (each worth $20,000), and the $20,000 Mason Houghland Memorial timber allowance. For the complete entries, click here: www.nationalsteeplechase.com/entries/
If you are not attending the races in person, be sure to watch the live stream via the NSA’s website. Post time is 1 p.m. Central Daylight Time. 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. and on demand after that. The live stream is sponsored by Brown Advisory, the Temple Gwathmey Steeplechase Foundation, Charleston’s Post & Courier, and the Virginia Equine Alliance.