By Tod Marks
The 2021 National Steeplechase Association season ended on Sunday much as it began in March, with high drama. Only this time the drama had nothing to do with the pandemic and everything to do with racing.
On the final day of the season, Graham Watters and Jack Fisher teamed up for two victories on the five-race card to lock up the hard-fought titles of leading jockey and trainer, respectively, following a thrilling battle with Tom Garner and Leslie Young. By day’s end, Watters finished the year with 21 victories, two more than Garner, while Fisher edged Young by the same margin, 17 to 15. For the Irish rider, in his fifth year on the NSA circuit, it was his first title. For Fisher, who entered the Hall of Fame in Saratoga this summer, it was his 14th championship. “Jack and I both needed the same winners to take our individual championships, which was strange but nice,” said Watters. “We were both celebrating each other’s success.”
In the opener, a $15,000 maiden claiming hurdle, Watters came oh-so-close to breaking the deadlock, as he finished a head short to Mason Hardaway Lampton’s Three O One. Three O One, ridden and trained by the husband-and-wife team of Lilith and Richard Boucher, led from the start-to-finish of the 2 ⅜-mile contest over 12 fences. Port Lairge Stable’s Make A Stand, with Watters aboard, stalked the pace in second early, then retreated as Three O One showed the way. Make A Stand came on again at the last, but came up just short of the winner. Baltimore Stables’ Homerhayes finished third.
In the second, a $25,000 maiden special weights hurdle, Kiplin Hall’s Gearhead, coming off a sharp second in a maiden effort at Montpelier two weeks ago, rallied under Jamie Bargary just past the last fence to win going away by a length over Irv Naylor’s Westerland and Gerard Galligan. With one fence to go, Westerland had taken over from longtime leaders Maranto Manner’s Duckett’s Grove, ridden by Garner and trained by Young, and Frank Bonsal’s Profiteer, with Eddie Keating aboard for trainer Casey Pinkard Savin. Heading to the last, Westerland looked to be home free until Gearhead, trained by Willie Dowling, unfurled his late bid.
The jockey and trainer battles effectively ended in the third, when Watters and Fisher captured the $20,000 handicap for horses rated at 110 or less with Riverdee Stable’s Gostisbehere. Well-placed throughout, the seven-year-old son of Gio Ponti took charge with one fence to go, pulling away to a 3 ½-length victory over Atlantic Friends Racing’s Peat Moss. MRQ Racing’s Argentic was third. For much of the going, it appeared as if Garner and Young would be the ones to break the tie with Potter Group USA’s Don’t Shout, who maintained a lead of about a length three fences from home, when Gostibehere began to make his move.
Watters and Fisher finished the year with an exclamation point in the fourth, the $25,000 Alston Cup allowance for three-year-olds, in a nail-biting finish with Bruton Street-US’ Ghostlighter. The high drama came as a result of loose horse Project Two, who was weaving his way through the stretch, nearly causing chaos, as the field streaked to the wire. Despite the dangerous going, Ghoslighter prevailed over Leipers Fork Steeplechasers’ Fast Vision and jockey Garner, who picked up the mount just before the race in an attempt to catch Watters in the jockey’s race.
The curtain closed on the season with a training flat race for apprentice riders. The winner was Upland Flat Racing’s Pleasecallemeback for jockey Parker Hendriks and trainer Keri Brion. Though the race didn’t count in the standings, it shone a spotlight on two newcomers who enjoyed tremendous success in 2021. Hendriks ended the year in seventh place in wins among jockeys with seven to go along with a total of 36 in-the-money finishes in 79 starts. It was only his second year riding on the circuit. In her first year of training, Brion finished third in wins, but first in earnings, largely as a result of her stable star, Buttonwood Farm’s The Mean Queen, the overwhelming choice to be voted the Eclipse Award as champion steeplechaser.
The NSA caught up with Watters shortly after he clinched the title, and here’s what he had to say about the award:
“It’s great to have something to put on my career like champion jockey. I really couldn’t have done it without the support of Mark Beecher, Neil Morris and, of course, Jack Fisher, and all of their very supporting owners and staff.
“I wasn’t too pushed on whether or not I won the championship as I had a fantastic season in winning my first Grade 1 on Snap Decision and a number of stakes races, and creating a strong partnership with Jack Fisher and his owners. The championship had been pretty exciting all year with not many wins separating close friend Tom Garner and I, giving each other some stick along the way.
“Jack and I had a terrible (International) Gold Cup, losing New Member and not a lot going right that day, but we bounced back quickly with four winners together over the next two weekends, which was exciting.
“When it came to Charleston, Jack only ran the two horses, and Mark Beecher the one, which really showed their confidence and class in not running what didn’t belong there, and just throwing the kitchen sink at the championship and risking horses and riders.
“The season is now over and we usually stay in the U.S. over winter, hunting and getting the horses started back for the spring racing. But this December, Rosie (Allen) and I are getting married at her parent’s hotel in Scotland, which we had postponed due to COVID.
“It has been two-and-a half years since I was home so it will be great to see the family again, and I might even bring my racing gear and try to scrub a few rides together for good old times.“Next season should be exciting as Jack, Mark and Neil have done a large restock of horses with some fresh winning legs, which makes my job easier.”