Curtain closes on NSA season with key titles to be decided
After nearly eight months and 23 meets in 10 states, plus a dozen race dates at Saratoga, Belmont Park, and Colonial Downs, the 2021 National Steeplechase season comes to a close on Sunday with the Steeplechase of Charleston at Stono Ferry Race Course in Hollywood, S.C.
In a year that began under stormy skies — both literal and figurative — at the Cheshire point-to-point in March amid uncertainty due to the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic, it ends on a optimistic note, with fans back in attendance, tailgating parties in full swing, and family-friendly activities once more part of the experience that all contribute to the “thrill of the ‘chase.”
Five races, four over jumps, are on tap for Sunday’s card, which has a first-race post time of 1 p.m. Eastern Standard Time. They include a $15,000 maiden claimer; $25,000 maiden special weights event; $20,000 handicap for horses rated at 110 or less; $25,000 allowance; and a training-flat race for amateur riders. You can watch via live stream from the NSA website. The live stream is sponsored by Brown Advisory, the Temple Gwathmey Steeplechase Foundation, Charleston’s Post & Courier, and the Virginia Equine Alliance.
What the meet lacks in stakes competition it makes up for in high-stakes drama in the thrilling race to the wire for leading jockey and trainer, both nail-biters that will be determined by day’s end.
Among conditioners, Leslie Young and Jack Fisher are knotted at 15 wins. Fisher, who was inducted into the National Racing Hall of Fame in Saratoga Springs this summer, has won 13 training titles. Young, who began training in 2007 and recently recorded her 100th win, is seeking her first championship. Keri Brion, who trains the sport’s leading contender for the Eclipse Award, Buttonwood Farm’s The Mean Queen, is two behind with 13 victories. Brion has all but locked up the award for purse earnings. Neil Morris, who has had a remarkable year considering he’s saddled only half the number of starters as the top two, has 12 victories. At Charleston, Brion and Young have entries in all four hurdle races; Fisher and Morris have entries in two.
In the duel for top jockey, Graham Watters and Tom Garner, each of whom is seeking his first NSA title, have 19 wins each. Both Garner and Watters have earned about triple the purse money of their nearest rival, Skylar McKenna. Going into Sunday, Garner has collected $619,800, about $30,000 more than Watters. Garner and Watters are scheduled to ride in three of the four hurdle races.
The NSA spoke with the leading title contenders in advance of the Charleston meet and here’s what they had to say:
Graham Watters: “I have three rides this Sunday and the three have equal chances. Make a Stand for Mark Beecher is in good form coming off two flat runs, Gostisbehere has good form and should like the track and Ghostlighter is improving with every run and should also like the track. Winning the jockey’s title would mean a lot to me but not the be all and end all. At the end of the year I had a fantastic season, winning my first Grade 1 at the Iroquois and a number of stakes races, and creating a strong partnership with the Fisher stable and his owners. Competing for the title with a close friend Tom Garner has been fun also, giving each other some stick all season.”
Tom Garner: “They’ve all got chances. They wouldn’t be in it if they didn’t. Don’t Shout, in the ratings handicap, has been knocking on the door ; I think he’s probably my best shot. If Duckett’s Grove can get his jumping together he’s going to be very tough. Twentyoneguns has got a chance. I’m grateful to be in the position I am. It’s an honor. Growing up you dream of being champion jockey. I didn’t think I’d be in this position in America, and I would take a lot of pride in it if it did work out.”
Leslie Young: “I feel I have had some exciting things happen in my life. In high school, I was a field hockey and lacrosse all-star team member. In college, I was a lacrosse regional all-American and North\South all-stars member. I was pony racing champion back in the day for small and large ponies and even was nationally ranked in Pony Club Tetrathlon. I grew up working for Jonathan Sheppard and Jack Fisher, two of the greats whom I still look up to today. They were my heroes growing up. So I feel leading trainer would be my greatest accomplishment.”
Jack Fisher: “I feel the most important title, for the sport itself, is the leading trainer in races won. To be leading money earner takes one horse to get you there, which is a great accomplishment. But leading trainer in races run takes multiple good horses. I also feel for the sport it’s great to have someone else win the leading trainer titles. To have Keri win the leading trainer in money earned is great; The Mean Queen is good for the sport. And if Leslie takes home the leading-trainer-by-wins title, that’s great for the sport.”