“Oz” Shows his Wizardry in Grand National

Snap Decision (left) and Iranistan (right) jump the final fence together in Saturday's Temple Gwathmey at Middleburg. ©Tod Marks

By Tod Marks

One of the largest crowds to watch the Middleburg Spring Races at Glenwood Park in Virginia enjoyed one of its most thrilling races, but the way the $75,000 Grade 2 Temple Gwathmey Stakes played out was anything but expected.

Five runners turned out to face starter Stirling Young in the historic 2 ½-mile contest, but as Young dropped the flag, the field “dawdled,” in the words of the chartcaller, and stood motionless for a full 15 seconds before Parker Hendriks, aboard Ed Swyer’s Iranistan, broke the stalemate and took off with the lead. The move proved fortuitous. As it turned out, Iranistan led throughout, though he was headed at the 14th and final fence by Bruton Street-US’ mighty Snap Decision (ridden by Graham Watters), but had enough in the tank to prevail by 2 1/4 lengths in a driving finish for trainer Keri Brion. It didn’t hurt, either, that Snap Decision, who had won nine straight races over two years until last September, was giving Iranistan 14 pounds under the handicap conditions of the Gwathmey.

Snap Decision’s Bruton Street-US’ stablemate, 2020 Eclipse Award winner Moscato also put in a solid effort following a long layoff. Making his first start in 20 months after a tendon injury, the 11-year-old tracked Iranistan in second under Jamie Bargary for much of the going, but was outrun late. Still, he finished third, only 2 ¼ lengths behind Snap Decision. Irv Naylor’s Amschel was fourth; Sharon Sheppard’s Redicean trailed.

Storm Team and Graham Watters in the Middleburg Hunt Cup. ©Tod Marks

In the co-featured $25,000 Middleburg Hunt Cup timber stakes, at 3 ¼ miles, it was a tour de force by veteran Storm Team. The eight-year-old chestnut by Candy Ride, owned by Sheila Williams and Northwoods Stable, set the pace and navigated the 18 fences skillfully. He was never seriously threatened, and drew off easily after the final fence with Graham Watters aboard for trainer Jack Fisher, who saddled both Snap Decision and Moscato in the Gwathmey. Ballybristol Farm’s 2019 timber champion, Andi’amu, a previous winner of the race, finished second while making his first start since June 2020. Regular rider Tom Garner had the mount. For Storm Team, it was his eighth win in 34 career starts, and brought his earnings to just under a quarter-million-dollar mark. Storm Team had captured his previous start over the course in the National Sporting Library & Museum Cup Stakes at the Virginia Fall Races last season. 

There were enough other highlights on the day to fill several scrapbooks, starting with wins by two of the National Steeplechase Association’s latest riders from Europe, Mikey Hamill and Jamie Neild. Hamill struck first, in the second, an allowance hurdle for non-winners of two, with The International Venture’s Going Country, a lightly raced Irish-bred six-year-old, who broke his maiden a week ago at Tryon. Riding for Keri Brion, Hamill rated off the pace set by Del Rio Chasers’ Recent Revelations, began to move forward in the final half mile, and drew even with new leader Scorpion’s Revenge at the last. From there, the duo dueled to the finish, with the winner maintaining a length advantage. 

Next, it was Neild’s turn to find the winner’s circle, in the sixth, a maiden hurdle, with Kiplin Hall’s Take Profit. Making his first start over hurdles after eight tries on the flat at Laurel, Pimlico, Aqueduct, Gulfstream Park, and Delaware Park, the four-year-old son of Air Force Blue took to hurdles like an old pro. Never farther back than third in the field of 10, Take Profit stalked pacesetter, Buttonwood Farm’s Caughtoncamera, and outfinished Riverdee Stable’s Awakened for a narrow score. William Dowling trained the winner.

Parker Hendriks, whose crowning moment prior to Saturday came aboard Historic Heart in the recent Carolina Cup novice stakes, had two other victories besides the Gwathmey, both for Brion. First, he guided Buttonwood Farm’s Sa’ad in a rousing stretch contest with Irv Naylor’s Fearsome in the opener, a training flat event. His third tally came in the fifth, a filly and mare maiden special weights hurdle, with Metahorse Racing’s Kicking Myself, who like Brion’s champion The Mean Queen was sired by Irish stallion Doyen. Making her first career start, the filly sat seventh in the field of 10 for a mile and a half, got into gear with two fences remaining, powered to the lead in mid-stretch, and won with authority by four lengths. Jennifer Pitts’ Lear Avia, who led most of the way, was second.

Picking up where he left off in Aiken in March, Sean McDermott was again victorious as both a trainer and rider in the seventh, a maiden claiming hurdle. McDermott guided South Branch Equine’s Who’s Counting to a two-length win in his NSA debut. It was the veteran reinsman’s second triumph with Who’s Counting, whom he saddled successfully on the flat at Laurel.

The eighth and final race on the card was the always thrilling Alfred M. Hunt Steeplethon, at 2 ⅝ miles over mixed obstacles, and the winner was Silverton Hill’s Bodes Well. With Tom Garner aboard for trainer Leslie Young, the seven-year-old Irish-bred son of Rock of Gibraltar, who earned his first steeplethon win at Great Meadow last fall and finished second in a similar race at Glenwood Park before that, set an unpressured pace, and finished 27 lengths in front of the runnerup, Irv Naylor’s A Silent Player. Bodes Well, who also boasts a novice stakes score over hurdles, has finished in the top three in 16 of his 32 career starts, with earnings of more than $150,000. Since coming to the U.S. from Europe in 2019, Bodes Well has a dozen in-the-money finishes in 17 starts.

Awesome Adrian (left) and Road to Oz (right) take the final fence of the Grand National together. ©Douglas Lees

Road to Oz takes the Grand National

After a series of solid performances in the maiden and allowance ranks, Holwood Stable’s Road to Oz became a stakes winner on Saturday, taking the 119th running of the $30,000 Grand National, the second leg of the Maryland Timber Triple in Butler. 

With Brett Owings in the saddle for trainer Mark Beecher, a heralded timber rider himself before switching hats, the seven-year-old Maryland-bred son of Quality Road bided his time early, sitting in the middle of the field of six. He began to gain ground after the 10th of 18 fences, drawing even with the leader at the 14th, and taking charge with three jumps to go in the 3 ¼-mile test. At the wire, Road to Oz was two lengths clear of Nancy Reed’s Awesome Adrian and Eric Poretz, who maintained the same advantage over the show horse, Armata Stable’s Goodoldtimes.

Neither Road to Oz nor Leipers Fork Steeplechasers’ Tomgarrow, winner of the first leg of the series, the My Lady’s Manor Stakes on April 16, are among the nine overnight entries for the most grueling and richest final leg of the series, the 4-mile, $100,000 Maryland Hunt Cup in Glyndon on April 30. But Armata Stable’s Vintage Vinnie, who made his 2022 debut at The Manor Races on April 16 with an allowance score, is expected to defend his title in the Hunt Cup on Saturday. 

The Grand National was one of four timber races on the card. In the $10,000 maiden, Ballybristol Farm’s Boutonnierre won in his first try over wooden fences – and his first start since August 2020 at Colonial Downs – for new NSA jockey Freddie Procter and trainer Leslie Young. Boutonniere took command from the outset and controlled the race on the front end, widening his margin of victory through the lane to eight lengths. Irv Naylor’s Stooshie was second.

Procter struck again in the next race, an allowance contest, with Upland Partners’ Shootist for trainer Todd McKenna. In that race, Procter gunned Shootist to the lead and never looked back. Lucy Goelet’s Rocket Star Red finished second, nearly three lengths back.

The 23-year-old has experienced stunning success in his first few weeks on the NSA circuit. In six mounts, all over timber, Procter has four wins and two seconds.

In the day’s final race, an allowance event restricted to apprentice riders, Riverdee Stable’s Include It won over the course for the second straight year, this time under Elizabeth Scully for trainer Todd Wyatt. The victory was the third in a row for the seven-year-old Maryland bred. Include It was content to race near the back of the field early, closed the gap turning for home, but still had ground to make up heading to the final fence. After that it was clear sailing, with Include It drawing clear by about five lengths. Ballybristol Farm’s Mercoeur was second.

Heading into this weekend’s triple header – The Maryland Hunt Cup, Queen’s Cup in North Carolina, and Foxfield Races in Virginia – trainer Leslie Young leads with eight wins on the season, one more than Keri Brion, but Brion holds the edge in earnings, by a little less than $40,000. Among riders, Parker Hendriks leads in both categories, with seven victories – three more than Procter – and $168,150 in earnings, more than double that of Graham Watters.

The maiden timber field on a beautiful spring day in Maryland. ©Douglas Lees
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