Spa Diary: No blame, but no ‘chase mounts either

by | Aug 24, 2017 | Breaking, Racing, Regionwide, Top Stories

Steeplechase racing at Great Meadow. File Photo by Douglas Lees.

by Teresa Genaro

On Thursday at Saratoga, seven-year-old All The Way Jose will make his fourth start of the year in the Grade 1 New York Turf Writers Cup Handicap. The former flat runner is 8-1 on the morning line, and looking for his first win at the Spa since an allowance race in 2014 when he was ridden by Willie McCarthy, his regular rider until earlier this spring, when Gerard Galligan got in the saddle for one start.

Then apprentice jockey Keri Brion, the assistant to All The Way Jose’s trainer Jonathan Sheppard, climbed on board. She rode him to a runner-up finish and a win, then came to Saratoga to ride him in her first race here, the G1 A.P. Smithwick Memorial Handicap. It didn’t end well, with Brion tumbling off after the bay gelding hit the 6th fence.

And when All The Way Jose hits the turf for the Turf Writers, Brion will be watching from home—not because Sheppard took her off the horse, but because on Friday, Aug. 4, the National Steeplechase Association put out a terse press release: “By order of the NSA Stewards Advisory Committee, apprentice jockeys are no longer permitted to ride in steeplechase races at Saratoga and Belmont. This policy is effective immediately.”

The day before, Brion had ridden her second race at Saratoga, the Mrs. Ogden Phipps Stakes. Her mount, Fall Colors, fell at the first fence, fatally injuring herself. Brion again emerged unhurt from the fall.

During the same race, flat jockey Forest Boyce had been given permission to ride Amnicalola, Boyce’s first mount in a steeplechase race. During the race, Boyce lost her irons and left the course.

“There’s no blame attached to it,” said William Gallo Jr., director of racing for the National Steeplechase Association. “We felt a sense of urgency to make a change and tighten up our restrictions. We have restrictions for the horses, and we thought it natural to do something if we could improve the quality of riding and minimize the risk to horses and riders.”

Currently, horses need to have finished in the top three in a race in order to run in a Saratoga steeplechase race, regardless of the level.

“We’re under a lot of scrutiny here,” said Gallo, “and we’re trying to get horses and riders around safely.”

Fall Colors was the 10th horse at Saratoga to die during racing or training since training began in April. Since then, seven more horses have died. Fall Colors’ cause of death has not been determined; Brion believes she had a heart attack; the Gaming Commission’s injury database says that the cause of death was “trauma sustained in fall,” but offers no further details.

Stephen Lewandowski, the New York State Gaming Commission steward at the New York Racing Association tracks said, “We have a stewards policy for apprentice riders on the flat. Ten-pound bug riders can’t ride two-year-olds, they can’t ride on the turf, and they can’t ride first-time starters.”

“This policy brings us in compliance with existing New York rules,” said C. Beale Payne, the NSA steward. During flat races, stewards from NYRA, The Jockey Club, and the Gaming Commission officiate the races. During steeplechase races, Payne steps in for Edwards.

“It’s all for safety reasons,” said Jim Edwards, The Jockey Club steward at NYRA. “The most unpredictable horses are two-year-olds and first-time starters, and the turf is the more dangerous surface because of the tighter turns, bigger fields, and more competitive racing.”

Both the stewards and Gallo see the new policy as consistent with these other restrictions.

The NSA 2017 schedule has races at three racetracks: Saratoga, Belmont, and Parx, at which two steeplechase races were run in July. Gallo said that no determination has been made about whether the new apprentice policy will apply at other tracks as well.

“We’ll have to see as we move forward,” said Gallo. “If I had to guess, I’d say that this would probably be a good restriction at major racetracks.”

Brion doesn’t quite see it that way.

“Riders fall all the time,” she pointed out. “A rider fell at the last steeplechase race at Saratoga. I’m being penalized when everybody falls.”

As soon as she got the news that she wouldn’t be able to ride All The Way Jose in the Turf Writers, or at all at Saratoga, Brion filed an appeal. Initially told that she had no standing to appeal, she now has a hearing that she’s told will be in early September. She has retained a lawyer as well.

“My spring was immaculate,” she said. “I didn’t fall once, and I won three races. They have the right to say that I can’t ride, but I feel like it needs to be decided on a case-by-case basis, with some guidelines of what [the stewards] want to see. I’m allowed to ride at Far Hills in a $450,000 Grade 1, but not at Saratoga?”

The National Steeplechase Association lists a little more than 40 races on the schedule for this year; Gallo said that approximately 100 a year are run. In order to lose apprentice status, NSA riders have to win 15 races.

“If you’re racing cars, you can’t just jump into the Indy 500,” said Braulio Baeza Jr., the New York Racing Association steward. Edwards pointed out that harness drivers work their way through qualifying and provisional licenses before getting their permanent license.

Gallo said that it’s possible that next year additional restrictions might be put in place for steeplechase runners at Saratoga, mandating that a horse has to have an NSA win before being allowed to enter.

“There’s so much at stake,” he said. “Everything we do is examined carefully. If we can maintain the history of this sport in a safe manner, we’ll do everything we can to make it as safe as possible.”

The new policy affects three riders: Brion, Boyce, and Keith Dalton. Brion is the only one to appeal.

“Our belief is that she just needs a little more experience,” said Lewandowski. “We’re not doing anything against her license. We just want her to get a little more experience, and then come back and ride here.”