Steeplechase Season Kicks Off at Aiken

The Aiken Steeplechase March 21 kicks off the spring steeplechase season.

(Edited press release)

The National Steeplechase Association opens the 2009 season Saturday with the Aiken Steeplechase at Ford Conger Field in Aiken, S.C. The meet’s 43rd renewal offers $105,000 in total purses for its six-race card, highlighted by the $45,000 Southern Bank & Trust Imperial Cup.

Everyone coming into the Imperial Cup looks to brush away a few cobwebs, but favorites Paradise’s Boss and Mixed Up have collected more than their share of dust on the shelf. Then again, they’ve collected more than their share of stakes victories, too.

Ann Stern’s Paradise’s Boss hasn’t been to the races since May 2007, but he rated as one of the sport’s best before he went to the sidelines with a bowed tendon soon after winning the grade III Marcellus Frost in Nashville. Earlier that spring the son of Thats Our Buck took the Imperial Cup by three lengths and finished third (by a half-length) in the grade I Royal Chase at Keeneland. The speedy 9-year-old boasts a 9-for-16 record over hurdles, a 2004 NSA Novice Championship, and $325,880 in career earnings.

This isn’t the first time Paradise’s Boss has returned from a bowed tendon. He missed all of 2006 with the injury, then came back to win the Imperial Cup in 2007. So history says trainer Jack Fisher has good reason to be excited for race day.

“He’s bowed his tendon before and gotten back to the top level, so I think he can do it again. The circumstances were very much the same the last time, and he won easily,” Fisher said. “Naturally I’m excited to get him back going, and this looked like a nice spot to start the season. He’s been back in training since December, and though he’s been away for a long time, he can win on Saturday.”

Paradise’s Boss will carry 158 pounds, including Xavier Aizpuru, the circuit’s two-time defending riding champion. Horse and jockey have meshed well over the years; their victory in the 2004 Meadow Brook at Belmont Park was Aizpuru’s first American stakes score. They’ve since won four more stakes together, and that success has Aizpuru thinking big.

“With him coming back it’s very exciting to me. We have a pretty good history together and when he’s right he’s a really tough horse,” Aizpuru said. “Right now Good Night Shirt looks unbeatable but just like in sports someday you’re going to get beat, so maybe me and the Boss-man will be there in the right place at the right time.”

Like Paradise’s Boss, Mixed Up tasted success at the highest level only to be derailed by injury. Trained by Hall of Famer Jonathan Sheppard, the 10-year-old has won a pair of grade I stakes and earned $457,730 in his career. And also like Paradise’s Boss, Mixed Up returns from an extended vacation, having been off since finishing a dull fourth in last May’s Frost. Regular rider Danielle Hodsdon will be aboard at 158 pounds.

Bred in Pennsylvania by Sheppard and owner Bill Pape, the son of Carnivalay took the New York Turf Writers at Saratoga in 2006 and the Royal Chase at Keeneland in April 2007, both grade I stakes. Mixed Up added the grade II A.P. Smithwick at Saratoga later that year, but hasn’t finished better than third, or within nine lengths of the winner, in four starts since. Sheppard is optimistic that the freshening and time off will trigger a return to form and fitness.

“I think the time off did him good,” he said. “He’s come back fresh and feeling good, so Saturday is a nice starting off point for the season.

With the race being two miles, they might go a bit quick for him early on, but he’s been that distance before in the Frost last year so we’ll see what happens,” Sheppard said. “I had looked at the Carolina Cup but that seems to be coming up awfully tough and we want him around for the season, so there’s no need to jump right into something like that with him.”

Previously run at 2 1/4 miles, the two-mile Imperial Cup seems made to order Hip Hop, who has used his high cruising speed to post five lifetime wins. Last spring, Hip Hop almost pulled off an upset in the Imperial Cup for owner-trainer John Griggs when he made a bold late run at Preemptive Strike before finishing second. In his next start – the grade I Georgia Cup at two miles – he gave two-time steeplechase champion Good Night Shirt a scare and then some, taking the lead late before finishing second by 1 1/2 lengths. Jody Petty, at 146 pounds, gets the call.

With a 12-pound break in the weights (under the restricted stakes' allowance conditions), and speed to spare, Hip Hop could prove a troublesome foe.

“He loves two miles and could really be tough on that flat course, especially since they shortened the race,” Griggs said. “They used to just run flat-out there when it was 2 1/4 miles, so I would think they’ll do that again at two miles, and he really likes that.”

Fisher also sends out Sheila Williams’ Rare Bush (Padge Whelan, 154 pounds), who made his lone 2008 start a winning one – with a little help from the stewards – when he took the grade III Appleton last October at Far Hills. Rare Bush got home second in the Appleton but was moved up as the winner caused interference at the last fence. As a novice runner, Rare Bush finished second in a trio of graded stakes and could find himself a comfortable spot rating just behind the early speed.

Randleston Farm’s Spy In The Sky (Liam McVicar, 154 pounds) fared well last year against fellow novices and open company. The 5-year-old son of Kentucky Derby (gr. I) and Belmont Stakes (gr. I) winner Thunder Gulch broke his maiden last April at Middleburg and finished a strong second in open company in the Frost. He won the restricted Happy Intellectual at Saratoga over the summer and enters the Imperial Cup with a potential fitness edge on his rivals, having started in a pair of training flat races at the Blue Ridge and Warrenton point-to-points in the past month.

Little Bay Racing Stable’s Pals Pride (Bernie Dalton, 150 pounds) rounds out the field for the Imperial Cup. The former 3-year-old champion won twice in 2007 for trainer and breeder Kevin Pallister, and the North Carolina-bred is another that should ensure a quick pace.

 The Southern Bank & Trust Imperial Cup field (with jockey, trainer, owner and weight):

1. Paradise Boss (Xavier Aizpuru, Jack Fisher, Ann Stern, 158)

2. Hip Hop (Jody Petty, John Griggs, John Griggs, 146)

3. Spy In The Sky (Liam McVicar, Jimmy Day, Randleston Farm, 154)

4. Pals Pride (Bernie Dalton, Kevin Pallister, Little Bay Racing Stable, 150)

5. Rare Bush (Padge Whelan, Jack Fisher, Sheila Williams, 154)

6. Mixed Up (Danielle Hodsdon, Jonathan Sheppard, Bill Pape, 158)

Aiken has four other hurdle races on the card in addition to the Imperial Cup, and like the feature, all have been shortened to two miles. A 1 1/4-mile training flat will kick off the card at 1p.m.

Carolina Cup Coming Up Tough

The grade II, $75,000 Carolina Cup, to be run March 28 as an open stakes, drew an outstanding group of nine early nominees, led by Sonny Via’s two-time champion Good Night Shirt. The 8-year-old son of Concern was perfect in 2008, winning all five of his grade I starts and enters on a six-race winning streak for trainer Jack Fisher.

Good Night Shirt is quite comfortable at Springdale Race Course, having taken the past two editions of the Colonial Cup, in addition to running third in the Carolina Cup in 2006 – when it was a novice stakes. Under the allowance conditions, Good Night Shirt will carry 158 pounds.

The list of potential opposition includes Polaris Stable’s Preemptive Strike (150 pounds), who came within a neck of shocking Good Night Shirt in the Colonial Cup last November for trainer Sanna Hendriks.
The multiple-graded stakes winner led every step of the way, dug deep in late stretch, and just missed. Preemptive Strike’s combination of speed and stamina make him dangerous anytime he shows up.

Calvin Houghland’s Dr. Bloomer (154 pounds) took the grade III Marcellus Frost against open company last May at Nashville, and then won the grade I AFLAC Championship at Callaway Gardens over novice runners in November for trainer Jonathan Sheppard.

Sally Radcliffe’s Best Attack (150 pounds) finished third in the Colonial Cup last fall for trainer Bruce Miller. Though he’s winless since taking the grade II National Hunt Cup over novice runners in May 2007,  it’s not for lack of effort. Best Attack has raced against Good night Shirt in six of his last seven starts and did better that rival when he finished third in the 2007 Grand National at Far Hills.

Paradise’s Boss (150 pounds, Fisher), Dalucci (142, Janet Elliot), Red Letter Day (142, Elliot), Isti Bee (142, Doug Fout) and Triple Dip (142, Jimmy Day) round out the nomination list.

National Steeplechase Association Spring Meeting

March 21 Aiken Spring, Aiken, S.C.

March 28 Carolina Cup, Camden, S.C.

April 4 Palm Beach, Wellington, Fla.

April 4 Stoneybrook, Raeford, N.C.

April 11 My Lady’s Manor, Monkton, Md.

April 11 Strawberry Hill, New Kent, Va.

April 18 Block House, Tryon, N.C.

April 18 Grand National, Butler, Md.

April 18 Middleburg, Middleburg, Va.

April 25 Atlanta, Kingston, Ga.

April 25 Foxfield Spring, Charlottesville, Va.

April 25 Maryland Hunt Cup, Glyndon, Md.

April 25 Queen’s Cup, Mineral Springs, N.C.

May 2 Virginia Gold Cup, The Plains, Va.

May 3 Winterthur, Winterthur, Del.

May 9 Iroquois, Nashville, Tenn.

May 10 Willowdale, Kennett Square, Pa.

May 16 Radnor, Malvern, Pa.

May 17 High Hope, Lexington, Ky.

May 23 Fair Hill, Fair Hill, Md.

Reporters and editors looking for information on steeplechasing can find it at
This site features a downloadable version of the 2009 NSA media guide (there is no print version) as well profiles of the leading trainers and jockeys. Press inquiries and contact requests can be directed to Joe Clancy and the staff of ST Publishing. Those seeking background or comment should contact Bill Gallo, the NSA’s director of racing.