Jump racing fans probably thought they’d seen the final Saratoga steeplechase of the season after Wednesday’s $50,000 ratings handicap was cancelled due to inclement weather and time running out on the 40-day meet. But after discussions between NSA Race Director Bill Gallo and NYRA’s Martin Panza, senior VP of racing operations, the race was back on after Gallo assured his counterpart that horsemen were eager to run and willing to ship up again to compete. Panza, who was keenly aware of the hardships the jump-racing community endured because of Covid-related cancellations on the NSA circuit this spring, agreed to reschedule the race because of those limited opportunities and his commitment to complete the nine-race steeplechase program mapped out for the summer of 2020 at the Spa.
And no one was happier to hear the news than the team behind resurgent powerhouse Iranistan — owner Ed Swyer, trainer Jonathan Sheppard, and jockey Darren Nagle. On Labor Day, closing day at the Spa, the son of Einstein put on a tour-de-force, stalking pacesetter Silverton Hill’s Bodes Well until taking charge with little more than a quarter mile remaining, and accelerating “smartly,” in the words of Equibase’s chart caller, by 5 1/4 lengths over Armata Stable’s New Member, who rallied for second. The performance was impressive since Iranistan was not only stretching out to 2 3/8 miles — from 2 1/16 miles — but toting high weight of 158 pounds, five pounds more than he carried in his handicap win at Saratoga on Aug. 13.
“There was never a doubt that we should ship home (to Pennsylvania) and ship back up,” said Keri Brion, trainer Sheppard’s assistant. “Iranistan is not always easy to train as he can really get on the muscle, but trying to train him at the track for a few days would have been a disaster. He’s a good shipper so we came home and he continued on with his normal routine, and back up he went. I really don’t think he cared!”
Brion said Iranistan benefitted significantly from his race in August, and thinks he has finally returned to top form following an injury and long layoff. Plus, she said, 6-year-old has learned to settle in a race so that he doesn’t have to run on the front end.
Iranistan was a horse to watch from the moment he started over hurdles at the 2018 Carolina Cup Races in Camden, S.C., reeling off three straight victories in short order, capped by the prestigious Marcellus Frost Novice Stakes at Nashville. Stepping up quickly to open company, Iranistan ran second in the 2018 AP Smithwick and third in the Turf Writers Cup, both Grade 1s, at the Spa.
What’s next for Iranistan? A vacation, Brion said, along with a prayer that racing resumes to some semblance of normalcy next spring. Tod Marks has the photo recap of Iranistan’s win.