On a day filled with racing thrills and exciting finishes, it was the human achievements that stood out most at Saturday’s National Steeplechase Association’s Genesee Valley Hunt Races in Geneseo, N.Y., and Virginia Fall Races in Middleburg.
At Genesee, 18-year-old sensation Skylar McKenna swept all four races on the card, including the featured $25,000 Genesee Valley Hunt Cup timber stakes aboard Upland Partners’ Mystic Strike, who prevailed by a head against hard-knocking rival Schoodic. Skylar has ridden plenty of winners for her mom, Kathy Neilson, but this one was for her dad, trainer Todd McKenna.
Both Mystic Strike and Dolly Fisher’s Schoodic are still going strong while most horses are long retired. Each has 13 career wins. For 12-year-old Mystic Strike it was his third — and second stake score — in six tries this season. Schoodic, 11, captured the Virginia Gold Cup in May. In the Genesee Hunt Cup, Schoodic unleashed a powerful rally and the two veterans duked it out to the wire in the 3-mile marathon that was reduced in distance by a half mile due to course conditions.
McKenna’s two other timber victories were laughers rather than nail-biters. In the maiden opener, she romped by 41 lengths aboard Irv Naylor’s Withoutmoreado, and by 32 on Ballybristol Farm’s Rakhaa in the contest restricted to apprentice riders. Her final win came in a training race over the flat on Mason Hardaway Lampton’s Ace Ventura. Both Ace Ventura and Withoutmoreado are trained by Kathy Neilson; Leslie Young trains Rakhaa.
The three victories over jumps count in the standings, and they give Skylar a career total of 15, meaning she’s no longer an apprentice, which entitled her to a break in the weights. McKenna rode her first sanctioned race in 2019, but began her pony-racing career in 2011 at Plumstead.
Looking back at her monumental accomplishment at Genesee, McKenna said, “It was awesome. The biggest day of my career. I won one for my mom and my dad! Mystic jumped great. He’s a pro, very classy.”
About 350 miles south of Geneseo, one of the largest crowds in memory turned out for the eight-race card at the Virginia Fall meet at Glenwood Park. The star of the day was local trainer Neil Morris, who after a spectacular summer at Colonial Downs in New Kent, Va., has quietly moved into a tie with Leslie Young for most wins (12) on the NSA circuit. Young scored at Genesee with the aforementioned Rakhaa and struck again at Middleburg with Leipers Fork Steeplechasers’ Drewscourt, who broke his maiden in the second, a $20,000 hurdle, his first U.S. start. Tom Garner rode the winner.
Morris saddled five contenders over jumps on Saturday and came away with three wins and a second. In the opener, a $20,000 handicap for runners rated at 115 or less, Morris wheeled back William Russell’s Animal Kingston on six days rest following a handicap hurdle win at Foxfield. Under Richie Condon, Animal Kingston caught stablemate Vincent Van Gogo, also trained by Morris, and drew off by 4 ½ lengths.
His next score came three races later in the inaugural running of the $25,000 Magdalen Ohrstrom Bryant allowance hurdle, with Pathfinder Racing’s Knockholt, who divides his time between flat racing and steeplechasing. The six-year-old Temple City gelding, who took an allowance race at Mountaineer Park in West Virginia last month, closed strongly under Gerard Galligan to overtake South Branch Equine’s Compass Zone and defeat Melissa Cantacuzene’s fast-closing Yankee Doodle Boy by three-quarters of a length.
Morris found the winner’s circle again in the following race, a $10,000 maiden claiming hurdle, with MRQ Racing’s seven-year-old French-bred Argentic, another of the conditioner’s success stories on the flat at Colonial Downs this summer. With Parker Hendriks riding, the striking gray gelding was never worse than fourth in the field of six, took the lead two fences from home in the 2 ⅛-event, and drew off by 12 lengths over William Wofford’s Ubuntu, who was making his first jump start after six tries on the flat at Belterra and Ellis Parks, and Indiana Grand Race Course.
Jockey Graham Watters had another solid meet with two winners — both for trainer Jack Fisher — that put him in a tie at day’s end with Tom Garner in the jockey standings. Both have 15 victories. Watters piloted Sheila Williams and Northwoods Stable’s Storm Team to his first career stakes win over timber in the $30,000 National Sporting Library and Museum Cup over Leipers Fork Steeplechasers’ Tomgarrow by 5 lengths. Storm Team, a stakes winner over hurdles with a record of seven triumphs in 32 lifetime starts and $232,000 in earnings, led from start to finish.
Watters also scored in the $15,000 steeplethon, over mixed obstacles, with Armata Stables’ New Member, giving the 10-year-old gelding his first win since the 2018 Jonathan Kiser novice stakes at Saratoga. New Member prevailed by a length in a spirited two-horse duel to the wire with Silverton Hill’s Bodes Well, who ironically finished first in this year’s running of the Kiser.
In the second of two timber races on the card, it was a victory for the home team, with local owners Four Virginia Gents and trainer Doug Fout, Glenwood Park’s clerk of the course, bringing home the trophy in the $15,000 maiden. The winner, First Friday, was a success story for his connections as Fout nursed the seven-year-old Artie Schiller gelding back to health after serious injury. First Friday and jockey Barry Foley stalked pacesetter Ack Feisty, and inherited the lead when the leader lost his rider at the 10th fence. After battling challengers Monbeg Stream, a first-time starter for owner John Greene and trainer Leslie Young, and Irv Naylor’s lightly raced On My Wish List, with Eddie Keating, First Friday got up in the final strides to win by three-quarters of a length.
Eddie Keating rebounded in the finale on the flat with Atlanta Hall’s Renown, the remarkable 10-year-old graded stakes winner, who just keeps on going. A winner of nine races and $349,000, Renown, trained by Elizabeth Voss, made his last competitive start at the 2019 Far Hills Races. In Saturday’s 1 ½-mile training contest, Renown caught NSA newcomer Ashwell Stable LLC’s Honor Up, a black-type stakes winner on the NYRA circuit who finished third in the 2019 G1 Carter Handicap, in the final strides.
Full results can be found here: nationalsteeplechase.com/results
Catch the replay of all the day’s races here: nationalsteeplechase.com/jump-racing-usa