After a disheartening 2020 season that resulted in the pandemic-related cancellation of the majority of events, the National Steeplechase Association working in conjunction with the race directors at individual meets have assembled an action-packed 2021 spring schedule focused squarely on restoring as much normalcy as possible to the sport at a time when so much uncertainty still exists.
Thirteen meets have been carded for the season, beginning with the Cheshire races outside of Unionville, Pa., on Sunday March 28, and ending about a month later than usual, with the Iroquois in Nashville, Tenn., on Saturday June 26. Three meets have cancelled their spring events, Aiken, Foxfield, and Fair Hill.
It took a lot of shuffling to create the schedule, which reflects a significant number of date changes from the fixtures’ typical place on the calendar. While the Maryland timber triple — My Lady’s Manor, the Grand National, and Maryland Hunt Cup — will retain its traditional position in April, the Carolina Cup, Middleburg Spring, Virginia Gold Cup, Winterthur, Tryon Block House, and the Iroquois will all take place later in the season. Queen’s Cup, Radnor and Willowdale will remain in their usual slots. By pushing back the dates, organizers, who remain in constant contact with their state and local officials, are hoping for safer conditions — and greater distance from the worst of the pandemic — that would improve the chances of their events taking place, hopefully with at least some spectators in attendance.
At the NSA’s winter board meeting, which took place via Zoom call on Friday afternoon, President Al Griffin applauded the fact that 13 of the 16 race meets are determined to go ahead with racing under difficult circumstances. NSA Director of Racing Bill Gallo added that NSA is working hand-in-hand with the Steeplechase Owners and Trainers Association to put the finishing touches on the Spring Condition Book, which has undergone frequent revision because of the realities of the Covid crisis. The Condition Book will be available at www.nationalsteeplechase.com on Monday.
A critical question that surfaced during the Board meeting was whether the meets were committed to run in a “what-if” scenario — meaning if spectators were not permitted to attend? While the answer isn’t clearcut, a number of meets are planning to go ahead no matter what. For instance, the Queen’s Cup in Mineral Springs, N.C., has already announced that racing will take place without fans. New board members Molly Oakman and Leslie White Carpenter said that their respective race meets, Tryon and Willowdale, would go forward even if spectators are barred.
On another positive note, the summer season is looking quite promising, too, with Colonial Downs in Virginia vowing to provide the steeplechase community with “a stout program” of 14 races over seven weeks, with purses returning to 2019 levels. Gallo is expected to be in contact with the New York Racing Association within the next week or so to discuss jump racing at the Spa this summer. He’s hoping NYRA will commit to its normal complement of nine or 10 races. Even though both meets run concurrently, the race conditions at Colonial Downs and Saratoga are for completely different divisions of horses, and therefore don’t conflict.