Story and photos by Tod Marks
Despite the absence of fans and a dramatically truncated racing calendar due to Covid-19, there were noteworthy achievements by both horses and humans on the National Steeplechase Association stage in 2020. But perhaps the biggest success of all was the fact that the show was able to go on — 80 races in all, worth more than $1.6 million in purses — during an unpredictable spring, summer, and fall. As we look toward better times ahead, we look back at the champions of this uniquely challenging season.
Lonesome Glory leading money winner Moscato Owner, Bruton Street-US Trainer, Jack Fisher Jockey, Michael Mitchell
A standout since coming from Europe in 2017, Moscato was the sport’s top earner in 2020 with two wins and a third in three starts and $100,000 in winnings. The flashy gray British-bred son of Hernando began his season as he did a year earlier, with a victory in the Temple Gwathmey Stakes at Middleburg (the only graded hurdle stake run outside of Saratoga this season), this time romping by 11 lengths over a star-studded field that included Eclipse-award winner Zanjabeel, Iranistan, and Surprising Soul. Next came a determined late rally to overtake Eclipse-award finalist Optimus Prime in the G1 AP Smithwick at Saratoga. Moscato, who early in his U.S. career raced in the shadow of his Eclipse-award winning stablemate Scorpiancer, finished his campaign with a close third to another stablemate, Rashaan, in the G1 NY Turf Writers Cup at the Spa. What does the future hold for the 9-year-old? A tendon injury surfaced late in the summer, and Moscato’s connections are hoping that he will be able to run next fall. But, ultimately, it will be up to how the horse rehabs under the care of trainer Jack Fisher.
Leading jockey Gerard Galligan
After eight years — and 445 mounts — on the circuit, Gerard Galligan reached two milestones in 2020. The jockey, from Kildare, Ireland, secured his first win at Saratoga this summer, aboard Irv Naylor’s French Light, and captured his first NSA riding title. And he did the latter with flair, finishing first in four of the five races at the season finale at Charleston to surpass Michael Mitchell by two victories. Overall, Galligan won 13 races (with nine seconds and nine thirds) in 61 mounts, and $230,200 in purses ($64,110 behind Mitchell). Riding for Jonathan Sheppard, Galligan’s top mounts were Zoom Zoom Zoe, Baltimore Bucko, French Light, and A Silent Player. Galligan will be returning to Ireland soon to ride Baltimore Bucko and French Light in a European campaign. After taking the riding title in Charleston, Galligan said: “I was hoping I might be able to claw back a draw in the jockey championship, but after winning the first four races, I had to pinch myself. I was worried I was going to wake up from a dream. It was the proudest day of my career for sure. I’m very grateful for all the support from Jonathan Sheppard, his great team at Ashwell, and all the wonderful owners for the opportunities this year. I’ve never been happier.”
Leading trainer Jonathan Sheppard
There’s no disputing that Hall of Fame trainer Jonathan Sheppard is a living legend, having achieved staggering success both over jumps and on the flat in a career that spans some 60 years. His list of accomplishments is jaw-dropping, starting with his 15 Eclipse Awards winners and a 47-year winning streak at Saratoga. In 2020, the native of Ashwell, Hertfordshire, England won his 26th NSA training title, dethroning Jack Fisher, whose powerhouse stable had taken the title for nine straight years. Sheppard recorded 19 wins (in addition to finishing in the money in 46 of 79 starts) to Fisher’s dozen, though the latter took home about $11,000 more in purses. The shadow Sheppard casts over the sport is a giant one, and he recently set out to conquer a new world by sending out a string of his top runners for a winter European campaign (overseen by his assistant Keri Brion).
Champion timber horse Curve of Stones Owner, S. Rebecca Shepherd Trainer, David Bourke Jockey, Barry John Foley
If ever a horse lived up to the saying “if at first you don’t succeed, try, try again,” it is Curve of Stones. Rebecca Shepherd’s 9-year-old son of Arch, burst on the jump racing scene in 2016, and turned heads with back to back wins. But after a dull performance at Monmouth, the gelding went to the sidelines for 11 months, and didn’t hit the board again until the fall of 2017. It was another year before his next in-the-money finish, and still another after that before he did so again. But his connections persisted despite setbacks, and “Stoney,” as he’s known around trainer David Bourke’s barn, finally broke his maiden over timber in October 2019. This year, all the perseverance paid off as Curve of Stones broke through with two stakes wins, the National Sporting Library and Museum Cup and the International Gold Cup, both this fall in Virginia. He concluded his championship season with a runner-up finish to Upland Partners’ Mystic Strike at the Pennsylvania Hunt Cup Races, finishing his campaign with a record of four starts, two wins, a second, and $34,500 in purses.
Leading owner Bruton Street-US
It was serendipity that brought together three friends to form the Bruton Street-US partnership, and it’s a ride that’s taken them to the highest level of the sport. In 2013, Mike Hankin, Charlie Fenwick, and Charlie Noell were attending the races at Royal Ascot in England. At breakfast one morning, Fenwick suggested the trio pool their resources to pick out some horses for Mike’s son, NSA jockey Connor Hankin, to ride. Hankin and Charlie Noell had co-owned Connor’s first mount, Make Your Own, and the partnership began its new adventure with City Press and Drift Society, the latter a solid timber stakes performer who would go on to record two seconds and a third in the prestigious Maryland Hunt Cup. Since then, they’ve never looked back. Bruton Street-US — named after a thoroughfare where Hankin’s firm, Brown Advisory, operates its London office — campaigned 2017 Eclipse-award winning steeplechaser Scorpiancer and 2016 timber champ Two’s Company. They’ve had other good ones, too, such as Lemony Bay, Lord Justice, The Nephew, Ballylifen, and Pravalaguna.
In 2020, the stable made the most of the sport’s limited opportunities and campaigned its three brightest stars (and highest earners): Grade 1 winners Moscato and Rashaan, who defeated his stablemate in the New York Turf Writers Cup at Saratoga, and the electrifying novice sensation Snap Decision, a winner of seven straight races, including the Michael G. Walsh, Jonathan Kiser, and David Semmes Memorial this year. The trio accounted for all six Bruton Street’s victories and $252,000 of its $253,950 in purse earnings. Bruton Street had 10 horses in training with Jack Fisher this season, as well as two each with Leslie Young (who conditions Rashaan), Todd Wyatt, and Elizabeth Voss Murray. In addition, the partners run horses in the U.S. and in Europe (with Ben Pauling and Willie Mullins), under the monikers Northwoods Stable, Merriebelle Stable, and Bruton Street-UK. Though most of the stable’s acquisitions have been European-breds, notably Irish-breds, Mike Hankin said that the group is trying to produce more U.S.-bred horses for racing over jumps. They’re also working diligently to introduce new owners to the game.