A showdown is expected at Springdale Race Course when two of steeplechasing's top runners ride into Camden, S.C., Saturday for the Carolina First Carolina Cup (NSA-III), with 2004 champion Hirapour ready to take on last year's Cup winner Preemptive Strike.
The field contending for the $50,000 stakes also includes last year's leading money winner, Sur La Tete, meaning it could be a three-way tussle, as well as talented runners Feeling So Pretty, Il Capitano and Class Yankee. They've met four times, and each time they've comprised the quinella. And while Hirapour has taken three of these meetings, Preemptive Strike's score came last year in this very race.
Hirapour didn't make many starts last year, but he did make them count. The Irish-bred needed just four races (two of them over this course) to take home the championship for trainer Doug Fout and owner Eldon Farm, as he won two national steeplechase association grade I stakes, the Colonial Cup and the Royal Chase at Keeneland, ran second to McDynamo in the Breeders' Cup (NSA-I) and finished second in Carolina Cup.
Hirapour, who also comes equipped with last year's leading jockey, Matt McCarron, in the irons, goes for his first hurdle start of 2005 off a flat race at Aiken last weekend.
Preemptive Strike, jockey Robbie Walsh and trainer Paul Rowland return to Camden seeking to bring home their second straight Carolina Cup. The pride of Polaris Stables won last year's running of the grade III stakes despite getting passed by Hirapour on the final turn.
Following a successful 2004 campaign, which began with a win in the Little Everglades Stakes in March, finished with a second in the Colonial Cup in November, and included a victory in the grade III Appleton in between, Preemptive Strike's connections have modified the gameplan for this year, bypassing the season-opening Florida meet.
The Cup, run at a distance of 2 3/8 miles, will be the 7-year-old's first hurdle event of the year, though he comes in fresh off a win on the flat at Farmington-Keswick Point-to-Point last week.
Preemptive Strike looks to become the first horse to win back-to-back runnings of the Carolina Cup since it was changed from a timber event in 1968, though both Al Skywalker and Lonesome Glory have won the race twice since then.
Hirapour and Preemptive Strike are Cup co-highweights at 158 pounds under allowance conditions, with Sur La Tete to carry 154. From there, it's Il Capitano at 142, with the mares Feeling So Pretty and Class Yankee at 138 and 134 pounds, respectively.