By Joe Clancy
National Steeplechase Association
Bill Pape's It's A Giggle, a winner of his last four starts at Saratoga, heads a probable field of nine for the National Steeplechase New York Turf Writers Cup (NSA-I) steeplechase stakes, to be run Thursday at Saratoga Race Course.The $100,000 stakes highlights the summer steeplechase season at Saratoga, and is one of 10 NSA grade I American steeplechase races. The 2 3/8-mile stakes will be run as the featured eighth race on Thursday.Trained by Jonathan Sheppard, It's A Giggle has put together a remarkable run. The son of Northern Baby is unbeaten in three starts, all stakes, this year and leads all U.S. jumpers in 2002 earnings with $172,620. To top it off, the 8-year-old Pennsylvania-bred loves Saratoga, with five career wins in six starts over the track. He won an allowance race in 1998, captured three races last year and won the NSA grade II A.P. Smithwick on Aug. 8.That's why he will carry high weight of 160 pounds, and give away up to 20 pounds to a solid group of stakes horses. Others (with weight) expected are Al Skywalker (156), Tres Touche (152), Flat Top (150), Anofferucantrefuse (146), Indispensable (146), Zabenz (146), Shamrock Isle (144) and Double Leaf (140). It's A Giggle spent much of the three weeks between the Smithwick and the Turf Writers at Sheppard's Pennsylvania farm, but recently returned to Saratoga for final preparations. Sheppard's horse tries to become the fifth to complete the Smithwick-Turf Writers double since 1980, while Sheppard goes after his 12th victory in the race.Al Skywalker finished second to the favorite at Keeneland in April, and ships in for North Carolina-based owner/trainer Jennifer Majette. The 9-year-old hasn't started since winning an NSA grade III stakes by 12 lengths May 18, and should be on or near the lead.Australian-based Zabenz, who finished third in a Saratoga allowance Aug. 22, returns off just a week's rest for trainer Robert Smerdon. Unbeaten in three hurdle starts Down Under, the 5-year-old should benefit from the Saratoga run."I was a bit disappointed in the way he ran, and he seemed a bit lackluster," Smerdon said after the race. "He's done a bit of traveling and you wonder about the effects of those things. He certainly didn't race in his normal style which is up on the pace, into the birdle more. He hadn't raced in quite a while so hopefully there's a bit of benefit in it."Veteran Flat Top finished third to It's A Giggle and Al Skywalker at Keeneland, but brings a lofty career that includes seven wins and $382,000 in jump earnings. The 1998 steeplechase Eclipse Award winner, trained by Janet Elliot, gets 10 pounds from the favorite.Trainer Jack Fisher will run an entry of Indispensable and Shamrock Isle for owner Edie Dixon. The latter comes off an allowance score here Aug. 1, defeating Euqistar -- who came back and won his next start.Strategy-wise, the race should have plenty of early pace.It's A Giggle, Al Skywalker, Tres Touche, Zabenz and Anofferucantrefese (fourth in the Smithwick) have all shown early speed in their prior races. With jockey Gus Brown aboard for the first time in the Smithwick, It's A Giggle sat just off the early pace of Anofferucantrefuse and Tres Touche before jumping to the front on the final turn and winning by 1 1/2 lengths."I like that there's plenty of speed, and the bigger the field the better," said Brown. "That will make it more honest and it makes sure there's a good solid pace because this horse can be ridden from anywhere. I don't have to be on the lead and be a target."Despite being aboard the prohibitive favorite, Brown sees competition from several horses."Tres Touche keeps running those races back, and banging at the door," he said. "Shamrock Isle I worry about a little bit, because he's never done anything wrong. I hope the inexperience (just six career jump starts) gets to him a little bit. There are a lot of good horses in there."