Hudson River Farms’ Winston C, making a big class jump in only his second American start, powered to the lead entering Saratoga Race Course’s stretch and won Thursday’s $150,000 A. P. Smithwick Memorial (Gr. 1) by a widening 3½ lengths.
Foxtrot NH Racing Partnership’s Vosne Romanee, making his first run in the U.S., kept pace with Winston C into midstretch and finished second, three-quarters of a length ahead of Sonny Via’s late-running longshot Hinterland. Riverdee Stable’s Gibralfaro finished fourth, another 4½ lengths farther back. All three are trained by Jack Fisher.
Winston C represented a hometown win and another virtuoso victory by the master of Saratoga, Racing Hall of Fame trainer Jonathan Sheppard. Hudson River Farms is owned by Edward Swyer, an Albany developer and longtime steeplechase owner.
Sheppard’s streak of winning at least one Saratoga race each meet ended in 2015 after 47 years, but Saratoga’s bettors know never to dismiss his chances.
Although Winston C had been beaten in his first U.S. start, finishing third in the Iroquois Steeplechase’s Marcellus Frost Champion Hurdle for novices on May 11, he went off as the 3.35-to-1 close second favorite in a packed, talent-filled field of 12 for the 2 1/16-mile Smithwick on Saratoga’s inner turf course.
Thomas Garner, who had ridden the Irish-bred five-year-old at Iroquois, notched his second victory in two days. On Wednesday, he had ridden Sharon Sheppard’s Redicean to victory in Saratoga’s $75,000 Jonathan Kiser Novice Stakes for trainer Leslie Young.
“The jockey gave him a great ride, and the horse ran well,” Sheppard said on his return to the Saratoga winner’s circle. “He ran well in his last start at Iroquois in Tennessee, and I thought he was well enough to come back and enter here, and he showed it today.”
As in the Nashville race, Winston C took up a position at the back of the field early as Irv Naylor’s Sempre Medici laid down the pace with a multiple-length early lead, followed by Sheppard-trained Grade 1 winner All the Way Jose and Gibralfaro.
Racing in midpack early were Vosne Romanee and jockey Sam Twiston-Davies, who had been the eight-year-old’s regular partner in most of his recent starts, including a victory in an Ascot handicap steeplechase stakes last November.
Keeping Winston C and Garner company at the back of the field was Naylor’s recent acquisition Bedrock, who went off as the 3.35-to-1 favorite.
The rearward position was not what Sheppard and Garner had planned for Winston C. “We had it planned in our head that we were going to line up halfway down the field,” the 29-year-old jockey said. “It didn’t go quite to plan. We didn’t get the best of starts and went at a really, really quick gallop for the first mile. My lad didn’t go as well as I hoped. He wasn’t jumping.”
Garner made a quick adjustment to the game plan and took Winston C to a more comfortable position at the back of the field. “I just wanted to get him in rhythm and make sure he was doing his job properly, so I put a pull on him,” Garner said. “I got his confidence going and got him back jumping.”
Bedrock, ridden by Sean McDermott, made the first move on the final run down Saratoga’s backstretch, followed by Vosne Romanee and then Winston C. Sempre Medici led over the last fence and ran on into the final turn before beginning to tire.
With four horses across the turf course approaching the lane, Winston C and Garner were on the outside while making headway on his opponents. “He went four- or five-wide because I had no choice,” Garner said. “I swung into the stretch, and he just kept going.”
Winston C and Vosne Romanee began to separate themselves from the rest of the field in midstretch, with Winston C leading by a length at the furlong pole and Vosne Romanee up by two lengths over Bedrock. Through the final 200 yards, Winston C proved to have the superior speed, much to trainer Sheppard’s delight.
“I’m not going to say I expected that flat run from him, but I hoped for it. He’s a little quicker than the average European steeplechase type,” he said.
The Smithwick marked the culmination of Winston C’s rapid rise in the hurdle ranks. He won his maiden victory over fences at Wincanton in January, took down a midlevel novice hurdle at Sandown in February, and then jumped to victory in a good-quality handicap at Kelso in March. Then trained by Harry Fry, he departed England with a fifth-place finish in an Aintree novice stakes on Grand National weekend in April.