In the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, the National Steeplechase Association attempted to salvage an abbreviated spring season with the latest version consisting of just four stops in June.
A dozen meets were canceled – Aiken, Carolina Cup, Tryon Block House, My Lady’s Manor, Grand National, Maryland Hunt Cup, Foxfield, Queen’s Cup, Radnor, Willowdale, Winterthur and Fair Hill – with the four remaining dates pending updates to federal, state and local guidelines.
“We’ve taken on a position of social responsibility,” said Al Griffin, president of the NSA and co-chair of the Virginia Gold Cup race meet. “We do not want to create a venue that would exacerbate the current conditions. State governments started making calls early and taking decisions out of our hands and our race meets’ hands and now we rely on state health officials, but there was some confusion with our March race meets because they came early in the process.”
The NSA season was supposed to start at Aiken in South Carolina March 21, with some point-to-points preceding that date. Virginia point-to-points Rappahannock and Warrenton ran March 7 and 14, respectively.
Once cancellations happened, versions of the NSA calendar included start dates in May or early June, and additional rescheduled meets, but those plans changed as the effects of the virus expanded. South Carolina issued a statement against public gatherings, which forced Aiken’s closure. Virginia’s order prohibited public gatherings through June 10, which impacted Middleburg’s original make-up date of June 6. In early April, cancellation of the rescheduled Foxfield Races June 13 gave room for Middleburg to back up a week and get outside the state’s timeline. The Fair Hill Races, forced to relocate due to reconstruction of the course, moved from late May at Laurel to early June at Shawan Downs to being canceled. A $100,000 purse supplement for Fair Hill comes from slots proceeds, but must be used at a facility licensed by the Maryland Racing Commission.
To help horses and horsemen prepare for the short schedule, Shawan scheduled two days of trials June 6-7. The races are not sanctioned by the NSA, but will provide racing opportunities and some important preps for horses coming off long layoffs as the most recent NSA races occurred in November.
“That will be an important piece, and we’re grateful to Shawan for making it happen,” said Griffin. “We have some young riders coming up and they were supposed to get a chance at the NSA level this year and their opportunities have been taken away. We’ve been trying to create opportunities for them and the races at Shawan will help.”
Officially, the schedule was slated to begin with the Middleburg Spring Races at Glenwood Park in Virginia June 13. Organizers expanded the card, typically run in April, to include nine races headlined by the $100,000 Temple Gwathmey hurdle stakes.
A day after Middleburg, Pennsylvania’s Cheshire Point-to-Point was slated to include an NSA-sanctioned timber race for amateur/apprentice jockeys in memory of Paddy Neilson.
Two NSA fixtures normally conducted in May complete the calendar, with the Virginia Gold Cup Races June 20 and the Iroquois Steeplechase June 27. The Gold Cup card includes the $75,000 David Semmes Memorial hurdle stakes and the $75,000 Virginia Gold Cup timber stakes. The Iroquois planned to offer $380,000 worth of races highlighted by the $150,000 Iroquois hurdle stakes.
Griffin cautioned that all dates were tentative and subject to guidance from public health officials.
“We’re not out of the woods by any stretch, but we felt it was important to have some kind of a season – for horsemen, for horses, for the spectators who support our meets,” he said. “We want to have a racing season, and we wanted to publish a schedule that had a chance of working.”
In April, June seemed like the safest bet.
The abbreviated calendar left owners and trainers with decisions about keeping horses in training, adjusting schedules for summer stops at Saratoga or other racetracks (also in doubt) or waiting until September and what could be a full autumn season.
Like their peers with flat horses, steeplechase trainers dealt with the schedule issues as best they could. Horses were fit, or relatively so, but there was no racing.
“We’re doing a lot of training and they all train well, but there are no results,” said Pennsylvania-based trainer Ricky Hendriks. “It’s like training when there’s a snowstorm, but there’s no snow. You can’t go anywhere, nothing’s open, it’s weird. I’ll be on the farm for three or four days at a time and never leave.”
Hendriks was aiming stakes horses Zanjabeel (GB) and Surprising Soul for the Iroquois, and will stay on that target though the prep schedule changed. Normally, championship-level horses would run in the Temple Gwathmey in April and come back to the Iroquois a month later. Now, the races are just two weeks apart – with another open stakes – the Semmes at the Gold Cup the week between. Even with an adjusted schedule, horses are not going to make all three, which could alter the goals.
The Hendriks stable planned to be busy early in the season with 13 potential entries for Aiken.
“We had to back off of them,” he said. “You had to invent things to do with the horses. We took a set of hurdle horses and puttered around in the woods with them – jumped logs, walked through streams and things. That kept them occupied for a couple days. We took some timber horses and went cross country. They liked that.”
Trainer Kate Dalton followed a similar strategy with her runners, utilizing the various options in and around Springdale Training Center in Camden, S.C.
“We’re lucky here,” she said. “The Carolina Cup course was beautiful, ready for racing and it was in great shape. They opened it up to people to use at our discretion. It’s another place to train. We have turnout and trails in the woods and things.”
But racehorses are always training toward a race, with a goal in mind, and there were no races and no goals.
“You don’t want to lose the fitness that you have so you keep doing what you’re doing but you’re not going anywhere,” Dalton said. “You’re usually trying to build-up to something. Now you’re in this strange holding pattern. You’re hoping it’s not so long that you stop and turn them out and let them down, but . . . you’re doing maintenance gallops and trying to keep them healthy and happy so when racing does go on again, you’re ready.”
Dalton and Hendriks said their owners were on board with the new schedule (or lack of a schedule) and kept horses in training for now. The new lineup of races did claim a few however as Dalton stopped with a maiden filly who would have fit at Aiken to point for Colonial Downs and Hendriks opted to wait for the fall with a horse who doesn’t appreciate hot weather.
Through it all, horsemen tried to remain pragmatic.
“You never expect for something like this to happen but you expect a bad year, it’s the horse business,” said Dalton. “If you’re in the game, you’re going to eat a year somewhere in there and I guess that’s this year for all of us.”
NOTES: Last year’s steeplechase champion Winston C (Ire) was training early in the year, but was put away for Saratoga – where he won two Grade 1 stakes in 2019 – by Hudson River Farms and trainer Jonathan Sheppard . . . Trainer Jack Fisher’s open stakes horses Scorpiancer (Ire) and Moscato (GB) – first and third in last year’s Iroquois – were pointing for starts as was 2019 novice champion Snap Decision and filly/mare stakes winner Pravalaguna (Fr). New purchase Footpad (Fr), a Grade 1 winner in England, Ireland and France, was being aimed for the Iroquois but won’t follow that path now . . . Potential timber runners included 2019 Gold Cup winner Andi’amu (Fr), Doc Cebu, Schoodic, Mystic Strike and Super Saturday.