Despite a tough spring, the steeplechase community pulled together for a successful summer, but it couldn’t have happened without a Herculean effort by stakeholders both on the front lines and behind the scenes.
In a year filled with crushing body blows — race cancellations, slashed purses and sponsorships, and the loss of critical revenue from fans who have been banned from attending most events — it would be easy to be discouraged about the future of steeplechase racing. Then came summer racing at Saratoga Springs and Colonial Downs in Virginia. The recently concluded jump-racing season at the historic upstate New York track was a remarkable success under the strange and difficult circumstances, giving horsemen a much-needed boost heading into the Fall NSA season. And at Colonial, six, or half, of the scheduled races were run before a sudden Covid outbreak on the grounds brought racing to a screeching halt. Consider the accomplishments and what it took to make all the pieces fall into place:
● All nine of the Saratoga races filled — and were run — for the first time since 2017, but it happened only after some juggling when rain washed out the Aug. 5 ratings handicap, which was moved to Aug.13, and the final jump race, also a handicap, was similarly cancelled and, at the 23rd hour, rescheduled to the final day of the meet, September 7, the first race of a 14-race Labor Day card. The nine races were worth a total of $554,000 in purses.
● Overall, there were 11 days of racing, nine at Saratoga and two at Colonial before that abbreviated meet ended on Aug. 14. Saratoga scheduled one jump race every Wednesday, starting July 22, and on two Thursdays, a month apart, for the featured Grade 1 stakes. Colonial’s start was delayed when heat scratched the opening-night card on July 27, but the jumpers opened the action on Sunday, Aug. 2 and Monday Aug. 10, with three races each evening.
● On the racecourse the jumpers performed well, with 68 starters in the nine races, for an average of 7.5 horses per race at Saratoga. Only 44 individual horses ran and, most important, the Saratoga meet was run without any fallers or lost riders. Colonial had 51 starters in the six races, for a field average of 8.5. Only one horse fell at Colonial.
● Speaking of riders, the jump-jockey colony, which was carefully sequestered at both tracks to minimize the risk of contracting or spreading the virus, was very limited, particularly in New York, where apprentice riders are ineligible. Following injuries to Wille McCarthy and Graham Watters in June at Middleburg and Virginia Gold Cup — the only surviving race meets from the spring calendar — the number was reduced to eight when Kieran Norris suddenly retired. At one point Danielle Hodsdon, who had been retired for several years, was recruited by trainer Arch Kingsley to ride Show Court in the first ratings race. The closely quartered jockeys spread the summer success around, with the eight riders winning at least one race. Gerard Galligan, who captured his first ever race at Saratoga, aboard French Light, also won three at Colonial. By the end of the summer he stood atop the NSA leaderboard with nine wins during the abbreviated campaign. Other Saratoga winners included Sean McDermott, who won two with novice sensation Snap Decision; Michael Mitchell, who captured a Grade I with Moscato and an allowance with Fast Car; Tom Garner, who won an allowance with Court Ruler and a Grade 1 with Rashaan; and Darren Nagle who swept the two ratings races with Iranistan. Ross Geraghty (The Happy Giant), Barry Foley (Go As You Please) and Bernie Dalton (Elmutahid) each won a race at Colonial.
Seven weeks have come and gone since the start of the NSA summer program, and like everything else throughout this Covid-19 pandemic period, nothing has been easy. Without the benefit of a full spring steeplechase season, horsemen, who kept their runners in training since January, faced enormous hurdles both on and off the course. However, this resilient bunch never flinched, adjusted to change, conformed to protocols, and delivered a product the entire racing community can look back on with pride.
Jack Fisher dominated the early action, with three straight victories at Saratoga: Snap Decision in the Jonathan Kiser novice, Moscato in the A.P. Smithwick and Fast Car in an allowance race. He followed that with a repeat by Snap Decision in the Michael G. Walsh novice stake, for a total of four wins from a staggering 20 starters. Fisher ran at least two horses in every Saratoga race. Jonathan Sheppard’s string, which was closely monitored by assistant Keri Brion, won both ratings races (130 or lower) with Iranistan, and wheeled French Light back from a Colonial maiden score to win an allowance race at Saratoga late in the meet. Sheppard won three of the six races at Colonial and was deadlocked with Fisher, with 10 wins apiece, by summer’s end. Leslie Young was the only other trainer to score at Saratoga, winning an allowance race with Court Ruler and the Grade I New York Turf Writers with Rashaan.
Among owners, Bruton Street-US (Mike Hankin, Charlie Fenwick and Charlie Noell) dominated the Saratoga meet, winning both novice stakes with Snap Decision, and both Grade 1’s with Moscato and Rashaan. Snap Decision, a five-year-old by Hard Spun, formerly trained by Shug McGaughey for the Phipps Stable, may have been the most impressive of all, carrying 162 and 165 pounds with ease in the two novice races, and extended his win-streak to seven. Albany, NY-based owner Ed Swyer may have been the happiest NSA owner of all, winning both overnight handicap races with his resurgent six-year-old Iranistan, a son of Einstein.
Beyond the individual winners there were others who contributed to a successful summer. Trainers Kate Dalton and Arch Kingsley traveled the farthest, from Camden, S.C. Richard Valentine and Neil Morris made the long trip from Virginia to Saratoga, Marylanders Cyril Murphy, Meriwether Morris, and Elizabeth Voss participated, as did Ricky Hendriks, Lilith Boucher, and Todd McKenna from Pennsylvania. The assistant trainers, the attendants, the van drivers, everyone was all in, Covid test in hand, temperature check each morning, without complaint.
Then there were those behind the scenes: NYRA starter Mike “Pup” McMullen, with one solid start after another; Mike Lippey, head of the grounds crew that set up and broke down the fences; NYRA’s clerk of scales Sal Russo, who made sure jockeys complied with all rules and protocols; NSA steward Beale Payne, who walked the course before each race at both Saratoga or Colonial; and NSA photographer Tod Marks, who captured the steeplechase action throughout the summer in short words and sensational photos.
There were more, for sure, that helped us, urged us, and kept us positive, even during these uncertain times. In fact, it took a small army, but we pulled it off.