Augustin Stable's Lord Zada is 11 years old, but still might be the best American steeplechase horse in training.
The son of Lord Avie gets a chance to prove it versus seven rivals in Friday's $150,000 added Royal Chase (NSA-I) at Keeneland. Run at 2 1/2 miles over 13 fences, the race is the eighth on the card with an approximate post time of 4:45 p.m.
Lord Zada's meandering racing career has included seven flat wins, four steeplechase scores, a career-best Beyer of 99, and nearly $500,000 in earnings. But is he too old?
"He felt great schooling the other day, so that's a good sign," said jockey Gus Brown. "He's usually a laid back and calm in the morning, but he was sharp and really went after his fences. He was battling me pretty good to go faster."
Bred in Pennsylvania by owner George Strawbridge, Lord Zada has been battling since he was a yearling back in 1994. While playing in a field, the horse sustained an "avulsion fracture" to his right hind leg. A ligament had pulled a piece of bone off the fetlock joint, leaving fractures too small to repair with screws and plates. Dr. Dean Richardson, a surgeon at the University of Pennsylvania's New Bolton Center in Kennett Square, Pa., removed the bone pieces and waited. Then cutting edge, the surgery carried some risk and left only glimmers of hope for a racing career.
Despite missing extended periods of racing with various ailments, Lord Zada has not only raced – he's excelled. Trained by Sanna Hendriks, the rangy bay won stakes on the flat as a young horse and captured a grade I steeplechase in 2001. He finished fourth as the favorite in the 2002 Royal Chase, but was out of action for the next 18 months. Returned to action last fall, Lord Zada won a grade III stakes via disqualification in October and was a solid second to dominant champion McDynamo in the season-ending Colonial Cup (NSA-I).
With McDynamo out of action while recovering from off-season hock surgery, Lord Zada takes the favorite's position in the Royal Chase -- the year's first grade I steeplechase and the second-richest race on the National Steeplechase Association calendar next to the $175,000 Breeders' Cup (NSA-I) in October.
If Lord Zada is the veteran of the stakes division, upstart Preemptive Strike is the newcomer. Owned by Polaris Stable and trained by former Michael Dickinson assistant Paul Rowland, the 6-year-old carries a 2-for-2 record this year into Keeneland. A Maryland-bred, Preemptive Strike won the Little Everglades Stakes in early March and backed that up with a victory in the $50,000 Carolina First Carolina Cup (NSA-III) on March 27. Ridden by apprentice Robbie Walsh, the long-striding son of Roanoke faces the toughest test of his short career but certainly enters on a roll.
Irish-bred Hirapour saw a six-race winning streak snapped when second to Preemptive Strike in the Carolina Cup, but was only stubbornly defeated after leading at the last fence. The son of Kahyasi won a restricted grade I over Preemptive Strike last fall, and can start a new streak with a solid effort.
Noted flat owner Ken Ramsey will be represented by Royal Chase starter Man From Artemus. A longshot with just one career hurdle win, the 5-year-old son of Cozzene
warrants some consideration based on raw talent (he won a maiden hurdle by 28 lengths last summer) and a 20-pound break from Lord Zada.
The remainder of the field is made up of capable veterans Mulahen (third in the Breeders' Cup Steeplechase last fall), Indispensable (third in the grade I New York Turf Writers Cup last summer), Dancewel, and Miles Ahead.
Since its inception in 1998, the Royal Chase has been won by steeplechase Eclipse Award winners Lonesome Glory, Flat Top, Pompeyo and McDynamo. Flat Top and McDynamo further connected steeplechasing to flat racing as both were sold at Keeneland as yearlings.
The field (with owner, trainer, jockey, weight assignment) in post position order:
1. Hirapour (Eldon Farm Racing Stable, Doug Fout, Clayton Chipperfield, 148).
2. Lord Zada (Augustin Stable, Sanna Hendriks, Gus Brown, 158).
3. Preemptive Strike (Polaris Stable, Paul Rowland, Robbie Walsh, 150).
4. Miles Ahead (Jonathan Sheppard, Jonathan Sheppard, Danielle Hodsdon, 138).
5. Dancewel (Arcadia Stable, Jack Fisher, Xavier Aizpuru, 142).
6. Man From Artemus (Kenneth Ramsey, Tom Voss, Cyril Murphy, 138).
7. Indispensable (Edie Dixon, Jack Fisher, Paddy Young, 146).
8. Mulahen (Gillian Johnston, Kathy Neilson, Rob Massey, 144).