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Trainer Keri Brion will hold a strong hand in a prestigious stakes that bears the name of her long-time mentor, saddling half of the eight-horse field in Wednesday's Grade 1, $150,000 Jonathan Sheppard Handicap (Race 1) in a 2 3/8-mile steeplechase contest at Saratoga Race Course.
The 80th edition of the race formerly known as the New York Turf Writers Cup will be run for the first time under its new name, which honors the Hall of Fame trainer who won this race 15 times and trained at least one winner at Saratoga every consecutive year from 1969-2015. It will be the opener of Wednesday's 10-race card with a 1:05 p.m. Eastern post time.
Race 1 at Saratoga on Wednesday, August 18 - Post 1:05 PM
|1||City Dreamer (IRE)||15-1||Parker Hendriks
|2||Gibralfaro (IRE)||9-2||Graham Watters
|3||Baltimore Bucko (GB)||5-2||Richard Condon
|4||French Light (FR)||6-1||Jamie Bargary
|5||A Silent Player (IRE)||20-1||Barry Foley
|6||The Mean Queen (IRE)||2-1||Thomas Garner
|7||Recent Revelations (IRE)||15-1||Harrison Beswick
|8||Redicean (GB)||5-1||Gerard Galligan
Brion, a longtime assistant to Sheppard, took over the training responsibilities for many of his horses upon his retirement and has started to carve out her own reputation, saddling the top-two finishers of the Grade 1 A.P. Smithwick on July 22 at Saratoga when Baltimore Bucko and French Light ran 1-2 going 2 1/16 miles in the first Grade 1 hurdle race of the meet. In addition to that stellar pair, Brion will also send out The Mean Queen and A Silent Prayer.
"It's incredible that it shaped up the way it has with having half the field," Brion said with a laugh. "When I heard the race was renamed, I was actually still in Ireland and I said to myself I was just hoping I would have a horse for that race. Now, I'm sitting here really hoping I win the race. It would mean a lot for me but I would love to win it for owners who were so supportive of Jonathan for so many years. Everything I know about steeplechase racing came from Jonathan, so it would obviously mean a lot to me to do it."
Buttonwood Farm's Baltimore Bucko topped his stablemate by 5 3/4 lengths last out, building on his runner-up effort going 2 1/4 miles in the Green Pastures at the Nashville-based Percy Warner in June.
"It's amazing how fast he's come through the ranks," Brion said. "I had both of these horses [French Light] in Ireland with me over the winter and they ran over there, so they have that added experience, which I think helped bring them along a lot quicker than maybe some others."
Baltimore Bucko, a 5-year-old gelding, will now carry the high weight of 156 pounds with Richard Condon set to ride from post 3.
Irvin Naylor's French Light, carrying 152 pounds, will be looking to build on his stellar effort in his graded stakes debut, drawing post 4 with Jamie Bargary on the call.
"They went from being bottom-weight end to being top weight and second top weight, so that changes things a little," Brion said. "But the way they were first and second, you'd like to believe the weight shouldn't bother them too much."
French Light raced five times for Brion in Ireland to start his 6-year-old campaign before making a statement in his return to North America. Brion said that race last month has only expediated his progress.
"His first race back in the states was the Smithwick, so I think he has a lot of improvement in him, just having that run in him," Brion said.
The Mean Queen, also owned by Buttonwood Farm, appeared on her way to beating the boys before unseating rider Thomas Garner in deep stretch in the Jonathan Kiser Novice on July 28 at Saratoga.
The 5-year-old Doyen mare has already helped Brion accomplish something unprecedented when she captured the Slaney River Hurdle in April in Ireland, making her conditioner the first U.S. trainer to win a hurdle race in the country. She will re-team with Garner again, carrying 147 pounds from post 6.
"She made history for me," Brion said. "She wasn't the winner of the novice stake, but she was by far the best in that race. There wasn't really anywhere else for her to run until September. She's doing really well. Her name fits her very well; she isn't easy to train, so it's easier just to run her. But she gets some weight off the boys and she's in a good spot. I think she's in with a shot as well."
A Silent Player, also owned by Naylor, was fifth in the Jonathan Kiser last out in his stakes bow and will carry the co-field-low weight of 142 pounds with Barry Foley set to ride from post 5.
"He suffered an injury to his hind leg in his win in November, so his run back last time was his first time since his injury," Brion said. "It's a lot harder to have a horse ready to go in Saratoga off an injury. He had to rehab off it, so I think he will be much improved this time around. He's pretty similar to Baltimore Bucko, to be honest. He's the bottom weight at 142, and I think that will really help. I think he'll run a lot better than he did in his last start."
Hall of Famer Jack Fisher will send out two contenders in City Dreamer and Gibralfaro from posts 1 and 2, respectively.
Riverdee Stable's City Dreamer ran second to Bodes Well in the Jonathan Kiser Novice and will step up to graded stakes company for the first time, carrying 146 pounds with Parker Hendriks in the irons.
His stablemate, the Riverdee-owned Gibralfaro was third last out in the A.P. Smithwick and will be competing in the Jonathan Sheppard for the third consecutive time, running fourth last year following a runner-up effort to Winston C in the 2019 edition. Gibralfaro will carry 148 pounds and have the services of rider Graham Watters.
Sharon Sheppard's Redicean, second in this stakes last year, two lengths back to winner Rashaan, returned off an 11-month layoff to run fourth in the A.P. Smithwick for trainer Leslie Young. After knocking off the rust, the 7-year-old British bred will break from post 8 carrying 150 pounds with Gerard Galligan aboard.
Half Married Syndicate's Recent Revelations made his first 23 starts in Europe and will look to make his mark in his North American debut, carrying 142 pounds in drawing post 7 with Harrison Beswick up.
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