By Tod Marks
The National Steeplechase Association Spring season got underway this past weekend with a combined eight-race doubleheader at Aiken and Cheshire, with many familiar names from the 2021 leaderboard signaling their readiness for even bigger things ahead in 2022.
Trainer Leslie Young, who finished two behind Jack Fisher in victories last season, sent out three winners, two at Aiken in South Carolina and another at Unionville, Pa. Young struck first on the flat with Maranto Manor’s Duckett’s Grove, a six-year-old Kentucky-bred son of turf star Point of Entry.
Young made it back-to-back wins with Tom Rice and Van Cushny’s Bee Major, a five-year-old by English Channel, who settled in striking distance of the leaders for most of the going, rallied on the inside over the last fence, then drew clear of stablemate Cause for Pardon in the final strides of the $25,000 maiden special weights hurdle contested at 2 ⅛ miles, the same distance as all of the jump races at the new course. It was Bee Major’s first career win after 21 tries on the flat and one effort over jumps. The winning margin was a length and a quarter. Visiting Englishman Harry Beswick had the ride.
Neil Morris, who made a run at the training title last year, uncorked NRQ Racing’s Criticize in the $15,000 maiden claiming hurdle. Like Bee Major, it was the first career win for Criticize, but it didn’t come easy. Criticize, with champion jockey Graham Watters in the saddle, sat back while Taking the Lead Stable’s Seville Barber and Kathy Neilson’s Big City Dreams battled it out. Criticize rallied on the far turn and drew even with the determined Seville Barber, who had taken command at the final fence. From there, the duo raced in tandem to the wire, with Criticize digging in for a half-length tally.
The featured race on the card, the $30,000 Imperial Cup, belonged to newcomer Boulette, a four-year-old Irish-bred owned by Paul and Molly Willis, also NSA newcomers, who achieved success last season with Historic Heart, who runs in the colors of Willis’ US-UK syndicate Atlantic Friends Racing. With apprentice rider Parker Hendriks aboard and getting break in the weights of seven to 18 pounds. Boulette took the lead at the start and controlled the pace throughout. At the wire, Boulette was an easy 6 ¼-length winner over William Russell’s Animal Kingston.
Keri Brion took over Boulette’s training duties after the JCB Finesse Triumph Trial Juvenile Hurdle at Cheltenham in late January. Boulette led to the bottom of the hill and ended up fifth to Pied Piper, who made his next start in the prestigious Cheltenham Festival earlier this month, finishing third in the JCB Triumph Hurdle.
Probably the most hard-fought win of the day came in the $20,000 handicap for horses rated at 110 or less. Coming off a layoff of 577 days, Petticoats Loose Farm’s Gaye Breeze earned his first trip to the winner’s circle since breaking his maiden over jumps at Fair Hill in 2019. His previous start came at Saratoga on Aug. 26, 2020. Under the tutelage of trainer-jockey Sean McDermott, the nine-year-old made his move on the final turn, hooking the leaders after the last fence, and holding off Potter Group USA’s Don’t Shout by a half length.
And at the Cheshire Hunt Races
Nearly 700 miles from Aiken, a trio of three-mile, $10,000 timber races showcasing amateur and apprentice riders highlighted a full day of action and family fun in Pennsylvania on Sunday.
In the featured Louis A. Paddy Neilson III Memorial, an allowance event, Boudinot Farms’ Elusive Exclusive gave Leslie Young her third triumph of the weekend. With Virginia Korrell in the irons, the nine-year-old veteran won for the second time in three starts since coming over from Ireland last season, where he raced 26 times without a victory. For most of the race, Elusive Exclusive tracked pacesetter Renegade River. He took a narrow lead two fences from home, and got up in the final strides to edge Holwood Stable’s Road to Oz by a length. It was a solid performance by the runnerup, who closed out 2021 with an allowance win at the Pennsylvania Hunt Cup Races.
Nancy Reed’s Awesome Adrian, who finished second in a division of the 2021 Neilson, was the winner of the Cheshire Bowl open timber contest for jockey Parker Hendriks and trainer Kathy Neilson. The nine-year-old Maryland-bred, a veteran of 36 trips to the post, settled at the rear of the field of four, then unleashed a strong rally to assume the lead just before the final fence. Hendriks persevered through the stretch to hold off Ballybristol Farm’s Mercoeur, who courageously continued to give chase despite setting the pace from the start.
Star-timber-Jockey-turned-trainer Mark Beecher took the Buttonwood Farm maiden with South Branch Equine’s Master Seville. The lightly raced six-year-old Pennsylvania-bred, who prior to Sunday’s race had made only four career starts – three of which were DNFs – settled in mid-pack, rallied and led over the final two fences, and held gamely under jockey Brett Owings, who was riding the horse for the first time. Black and Blue Stable’s Fletched, under Elizabeth Scully, raced close to the lead throughout, and stayed on strongly to hold second, beaten by a length.