Belmont Park’s Fall Championship Meet has long been a popular stepping stone for flat horses aiming at the Breeders Cup World Thoroughbred Championships. Jumpers adopt that strategy Sept. 22 with the inaugural running of the $150,000 Lonesome Glory Steeplechase Stakes (gr. I).
The 2 1/2-mile race marks the return of steeplechasers to Belmont Park and will serve as a major prep to the $300,000 Breeders’ Cup Grand National (gr. I) Oct. 20 at the Far Hills Races in New Jersey.
Named for Hall of Famer and five-time Steeplechase Champion Lonesome Glory, the stakes has drawn a deep and competitive field of nine, led by Sonny Via’s Good Night Shirt. Trained by Jack Fisher, the 6-year-old son of Concern has been off since a flag-to-wire score in the prestigious May 12 Iroquois (gr. I). Behind him that day was McDynamo, the four-time defending Breeders’ Cup champion. Rested since his Iroquois triumph, Good Night Shirt comes to Belmont with his sights set on the big prize in October.
“It’s a grade I worth $150,000, so it’s not like we aren’t going to try,” Fisher said. “We would like to win, for sure, but I like to keep expectations low and not get too overconfident. This is also a good spot to get a race into him and move forward to the Breeders’ Cup.”
Good Night Shirt has exceeded Fisher’s expectations several times. As 2006 came to a close, Fisher wasn’t overly impressed with the horse and pondered a career change. Fisher continued with Good Night Shirt as a hurdler, but felt he might be in need of a race before the Royal Chase (gr. I) at Keeneland -- only to see him finish a neck behind fellow Lonesome Glory entrant Mixed Up.
“Last year, I was thinking about making a timber horse out of him, but he just keeps surprising me,” Fisher said. “When I tried him at Keeneland and the Iroquois I wasn’t expecting much, but again, he surprised me.”
Good Night Shirt stretched his legs over Fair Hill’s Tapeta surface the morning of Sept. 18 under regular rider Willie Dowling, jogging in company with a stablemate. The pair went in a two-minute lick and Good Night Shirt accelerated several lengths past his partner toward the end of the work. He’ll carry 154 pounds Sept. 22 and should be forwardly placed throughout.
“I was happy with the work,” Fisher said. “He came back in good shape. At this point, I’m not worried about the weight at all.”
Bill Pape’s Mixed Up, trained by Hall of Famer Jonathan Sheppard, could go off favored in the Lonesome Glory. Assigned top weight at 158 pounds, the 8-year-old Carnivalay gelding took the Royal Chase in April but had an up-and-down summer. Mixed Up won the A.P. Smithwick (gr. II) at Saratoga Race Course, but that effort was sandwiched between two disappointing outings, the Flatterer Handicap at Philadelphia Park on July 28 and the New York Turf Writers’ Cup Handicap (gr. I) at Saratoga Aug. 30.
Carrying 164 pounds in the Flatterer, a stakes restricted to Pennsylvania-breds, Mixed Up fell at the fourth jump. The non-effort had him in need of a prep for the Turf Writers, a race he won in 2006. A late-running score in the Smithwick sent him to the Turf Writers as a heavy favorite, where he was assigned a hefty 162 pounds under regular rider Danielle Hodsdon. Whether due to the weight or a turf course in dire need of rain, Mixed Up threatened at the top of the stretch before fading to fifth behind Footlights, who aired by 11 1/2 lengths.
“He tried hard, but he carried a lot of weight and it was really hot that day,” Sheppard said. “That was his third race in five weeks, so it might have caught up with him.”
The Lonesome Glory gives Mixed Up -- this season’s leading money-earner with $152,847 -- another chance at a grade I win without having to commit to the Breeders’ Cup, which is run over a Far Hills course not ideally suited to Mixed Up.
“The Breeders' Cup might not be our best option,” Sheppard said. “If it’s soft or yielding, we probably wouldn’t run. That course is an uphill finish over 2 5/8 miles, and that might not be his best trip.”
Sheppard also saddles Calvin Houghland’s mare Sweet Shani and Timber Bay Farm’s Underbidder. Sweet Shani came a close third in the Smithwick, then finished sixth in the Turf Writers. Underbidder, sent off at more than 28-1 in the Turf Writers, rallied to take second after trailing by 33 lengths at the opening call.
Those shopping for value will have plenty of options Saturday, and could be drawn to EMO Stable’s Orison. Trained by Doug Fout, he finished a solid fourth in the Smithwick after having to battle ulcers leading up to the race, and won the Carolina Cup (gr. II) against novice runners in late March.
“The horse is really training good right now. He tried to colic on us and he had the ulcers, but I think we have it all taken care of,” Fout said. “He should show huge improvement. He obviously had some excuses in that race but he still ran good. I thought he should have been third. Is he good enough to run in the Breeders’ Cup after this? He’s going to have to tell us that; it’s time to step up. He’s all cleaned up and in good shape, now it's just time to see if he has enough class and `oomph.’”
As Lonesome Glory’s trainer, Bruce Miller could have some karma going for him on Saturday when he saddles Sally Radcliffe's Best Attack (146) and Houghland’s Mon Villez (146). Best Attack has not been over the jumps since May 19, when he took the National Hunt Cup (gr. II) against novice runners at the Radnor Hunt Races.
Miller had the 6-year-old son of Bahri entered in the Turf Writers but decided to scratch when the Saratoga turf course came up too firm. While Miller understands the lack of recent action could be an issue, the trainer knows he has a proven commodity. He also has great faith in his jockey -- his son Chip, a winner of 200 career races and the National Steeplechase Association’s leading active rider.
“Best Attack is training well, but we just haven't been able to run him,” Miller said. “I vanned him up to Saratoga, but I’m glad I didn’t run him. I wish we had been able to run, but that ground was just too hard. Some of the others in here haven’t run since the spring either, so we are in the same boat. We will know where to head after this. He’s a proven horse and Chip knows him.”
Mon Villez (coupled with Sweet Shani, Houghland’s other runner) disappointed in the Iroquois when he finished sixth in his only start of the year. Last November, he was second, defeated only a length, by McDynamo in the Colonial Cup (gr. I). Jody Petty picks up the mount.
“He’s a horse who I know will like the distance,” Miller said. “He’s been training so well, right along with Best Attack, that we thought we would run him.”
Polaris Stable’s Preemptive Strike (146) left the course before the 10th fence in the Turf Writers after opening up a long early lead. A confirmed front-runner, his run-and-gun strategy has worked before for the 9-year-old, who owns decisive wins in a pair of grade II events, the Georgia Cup and the Somerset. Trained by Sanna Hendriks, he finished second in the Smithwick, just a half-length behind Mixed Up. Paddy Young rides.
Mill House Farm’s The Looper (142) rounds out the Lonesome Glory field. Trained by Tom Voss, the 7-year-old Labeeb gelding was third in the Turf Writers, a neck behind Underbidder. Cyril Murphy, aboard for all four of The Looper’s starts this year, has the call.
The field for Saturday’s Lonesome Glory (gr. I):
1. Underbidder, James Slater 142
2. Orison, Matt McCarron 146
3a. Mon Villez , Jody Petty 146
4. The Looper, Cyril Murphy 142
5. Mixed Up, Danielle Hodsdon 158
6. Preemptive Strike, Paddy Young 146
7. Good Night Shirt, Willie Dowling 154
8. Best Attack, Chip Miller 146
9a. Sweet Shani, Xavier Aizpuru 144
The Lonesome Glory honors five-time steeplechase champion and Hall of Famer Lonesome Glory. Owned by Kay Jeffords, the chestnut won Eclipse Awards in 1992, 1993, 1995, 1997 and 1999 during a career that included 17 American wins, two victories in England and more than $1 million in earnings. At Belmont, he won the 1993 Breeders’ Cup Steeplechase . . . The race is part of a steeplechase weekend in the New York City area with the Somerset Medical Center Stakes at the Meadowlands Friday night.