Covid-19 may have taken the wind out of the sails of the 2020 National Steeplechase Association calendar, but this year of unique challenges has also brought out the best in the tight-knit community. During the abbreviated spring campaign, which resulted in the cancellation of all but two meets, generous benefactors stepped forward to donate purse money to reward horsemen for keeping their athletes in training. Similarly, this fall, sponsors and donors banded together to enhance funding to live stream the action from six sanctioned meets, most of which are being run without fans.
Now, once again, supporters of the sport have come together to boost the morale of the racing community and give horsemen one more chance to compete.
On Saturday, the team at Willowdale, which conducts a spring meet in May at the Kennett Square, Pa., race course — one of the events scuttled by the pandemic — will put on a spectator-free, three race point-to-point, anchored by a fourth, NSA-sanctioned, race, the inaugural $7,500 Louis “Paddy” Neilson III over timber. The feature is named in honor of the legendary timber rider, trainer, and three-time winner of the Maryland Hunt Cup who passed away last year, and will be contested over three miles. It is restricted to apprentice riders. Two of those are Paddy’s grandchildren, Skylar McKenna and Parker Hendriks, who ride for their moms, Kathy Neilson and Sanna Neilson, Paddy’s daughters.
The nonsanctioned races include two, three-mile timber races, one open, the other for maidens, plus an apprentice rider training flat race at one-and-one-half miles. Click here for the entries:
How the meet came together
Again, it began with a desire to boost the morale of horsemen and the good fortune of a generous benefactor stepping up. In September, race chairman Dixon Stroud approached race director Leslie White to float the idea of putting together a meet, which local horsemen had been clamoring for. It helped that Dixon knew of a supporter who was committed to put up funding to help with expenses.
Then came the reality of readying the course, the fences, and raising additional money to make it a reality.
“We had many conversations about how we could cover the expenses in the Covid world with no spectators,” White said. “The goal was to have a day of racing while keeping it as simple as possible, and adhere to the Covid restrictions and guidelines.”
Willowdale was able to secure additional funding through the enthusiastic assistance of local trainer Kathy Neilson, who also serves as president of the Steeplechase Owners and Trainers Association. Kathy was instrumental in obtaining sponsorship from BNY Mellon Wealth Management and Selkirk Partners to put up purse money for the race named for her father. The NSA then worked with Willowdale to make the race a sanctioned event, and allow participants to run off of trailers instead of a dedicated stabling area, which would have made the event impossibly expensive to conduct.
There were obstacles as well, such as obtaining approval from the township, planning and managing course access, securing volunteers, and putting protocols in place to assure proper pre-race health screenings for attendees and contact tracing, if necessary. On the plus side, White said, horsemen have become accustomed to the “new normal” in race-day procedures — learning from other similarly run meets — to help assure everything runs smoothly.
“I’m so grateful to all of the volunteers — officials and everyone who has stepped up to help with the course as well as the day,” said White. “As they say, it takes a village and we are in such an amazing community. We can’t wait for May 8, 2021 when we look forward to welcoming back spectators and race to raise funds for our beneficiaries; The Stroud Water Research Center and Penn Vet New Bolton Center.”
First race post time is 1 p.m.; the Neilson is scheduled to go off at 2:30 p.m. The Willowdale Races will not be streamed live, but you can follow the action via postings on both the NSA and Willowdale social media pages. In addition, videos will be uploaded to Willowdale’s Facebook page as soon as they’re edited.
The race card
The Neilson has drawn a prospective field of 12 (Click the link for entries: https://www.nationalsteeplechase.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/10/Willowdale-scratch-overnight-program.pdf), including the following:
Cocodimama – Owned by Adlestrop Hill, trained by Emily Hannum and ridden by Chloe Hannum. The 11-year-old, a veteran of 44 starts, hasn’t won since 2015, when he was trained by Julie Gomena for Bon Nouvel Chasers. The son of Johar had a tuneup on the flat last week at the Virginia Fall Races.
Worzel Gummidge – Straylight Racing’s lightly raced 7-year-old is ridden by owner Alex Leventhal and trained by Mark Beecher. He has yet to hit the board in seven career starts and finished ninth in a hurdle for maidens at Virginia Fall.
Prime Prospector – Peter and Sarah May’s 12-year-old son of Seeking the Gold is a two-time winner over the Willowdale course and captured an allowance over timber on the 2019 My Lady’s Manor card. Colin Smith has the mount for trainer Todd Wyatt.
As You Like It – Co-owned by Sherry Fenwick and Hall of Fame trainer Jonathan Sheppard, the time 8-year-old son of Shakespeare hadn’t been in a sanctioned race for nearly three and a half years before finishing fifth last Saturday in a large-field maiden hurdle at Virginia Fall. Parker Hendriks rides for trainer Sanna Hendriks.
El Jefe Grande – A winner of $222,000 lifetime, with the distinction of having finished third to Phipps Stable’s Mr. Speaker in the 2015 Commonwealth Cup turf stakes at Laurel, Irv Naylor’s 10-year-old has hit the board in three of his last four starts. His most recent start was at the 2019 Pennsylvania Hunt Cup Races. Elizabeth Scully rides for Cyril Murphy.
Pac Yer Tack – Andrew Takacs’ 10-year-old has made 72 career starts, mostly on the flat, and comes into the Neilson off of two 2020 appearances, finishing fifth at Middleburg Spring and third at the Virginia Gold Cup Races. Both of those races were in steeplethons over various types of jumps, in which he faced tough competitors Invocation and Mercoeur. Eve Ledyard rides for Jonathan Sheppard.
Pured it – A solid stakes performer over timber, Sycamore Run Farm and Move Up Stable’s 11-year-old son of Purim will tote 170 pounds, including jockey Skylar McKenna. In his last out, in May 2019, he won the Radnor Hunt Cup, following a third in the Willowdale Steeplechase, a race in which he finished second the previous year. Kathy Neilson trains.
Grand Manan – A multiple timber stakes winner — Valentine Memorial, Genesee Valley Hunt Cup, and International Gold Cup — Armata Stable’s 11-year-old son of Giant’s Causeway has also hit the board in six others. He also carries 170-pounds. In his seasonal bow last week at Virginia Fall, Grand Manan finished a non-threatening sixth in the National Sporting Library & Museum Cup. Archie Macauley rides for William Meister.
Renegade River – Kiplin Hall’s 7-year-old son of Bellamy Road hasn’t won in 23 career starts, 10 over jumps. But he did have a second and third over timber in 2019. Chris Gracie rides for William Dowling.
Officer Sydney – When last seen at the races, at Saratoga 2018, the Irish-bred was a DNF in the Jonathan Kiser Novice Stakes. But he did have two hurdle wins under his belt before that, at Foxfield and Middleburg. The 8-year-old gelding makes his first start over timber and comes from another family stable: Owned by Wendy Hendriks, trained by son, Ricky, and ridden by grandson McLane Hendriks.
Awesome Adrian – Nancy Reed’s Maryland-bred son of Great Notion has just one jump race victory to his credit, but it’s noteworthy. He broke his maiden over Willowdale’s timber course by 17 lengths in 2019. Skylar McKenna is named as the rider here, too, for Kathy Neilson.
Forever Bernardini – Owned by Lucy Goelet and trained by Alicia Murphy, the 7-year-old son of Bernardini is seeking his first win over jumps. But after four DNFs and two far-back finishes in his first six starts on the NSA circuit, Forever Bernardini showed some spark by finishing a close second to the tough Royal Ruse in a timber maiden at the 2019 Pennsylvania Hunt Cup Races, his most recent effort.