Acorn Hill Farm’s Northern Thinking is one of the most versatile horses in timber trainer Jack Fisher’s barn. A consummate professional, the horse tackles some of the most unusual fences on the steeplechasing circuit. However, in the past he has not always enjoyed much reward for his big jumping efforts.
But on May 13 in Kennett Square, Pa., there was ample reward as Northern Thinking and Blake Curry cruised to a win in the Willowdale Steeplechase more than 65 lengths ahead of King Lear and James Slater.
With a serious storm the night before, the well-irrigated course became very deep in places and entries scratched down from seven to a hearty six. The Willowdale Steeplechase is made up of stuffed brush fences (with water and ditches), large natural hedges and traditional timber fences.
Curry left Northern Thinking—a big 11-year-old son of Northern Baby—alone for most of the 31⁄2 miles, avoiding a near catastrophe at the first water fence involving another horse. Hotspur launched himself over the water fence and stuck the landing awkwardly, falling and losing Gregg Ryan in the process. Both rider and horse were unhurt in the mishap.
Next to come to grief were Big Is Best and Niall Saville on the backside of the course. The horse chipped-in and fell over a fence, knocking the wind out of him, but later got up unhurt.
Unfettered by the footing, Northern Thinking continued to eat up the ground, putting serious daylight between himself and the others. Soon the deep going sucked the try out of Royal’s Quest (Billy Meister) and Finhorn (Ivan Dowling) and they gave up the chase. Only King Lear seemed game to follow along several fences back. By the time Northern Thinking had crossed under the wire, he was almost 66 lengths ahead of King Lear.
Northern Thinking ran well in 2006, winning and placing in several races including the Alfred Hunt at Middleburg Spring Races (Va.), the Willowdale Stakes and the International Gold Cup Steeplethon (Va.), however he was ruled off course in all three.
Northern Thinking did officially win the Virginia Gold Cup’s 2006 spring Steeplethon and took second in the 4-mile Pennsylvania Hunt Cup later that fall. Had Northern Thinking gotten credit for those other three races, he would have been a serious contender for the National Steeplechase Association’s leading timber horse of the year.
Curry was a little concerned that he might be off course when he did not see any other horses behind him.
“I was a little panicky when I came in,” Curry said. “I have never, ever been in a race when I didn’t see any horses behind me. It was kind of scary. I almost didn’t want to face Jack, then James popped up over the hill and I felt a little better.”
Curry enjoyed Northern Thinking’s way of going. “He’s such a blast—a pure professional. I just left him alone. He sees the fences way out and plots his own course to them. I was very aware of that water fence. You don’t want to jump it too big or that will be the end.”
Another horse that likes the softer going is hometown favorite Armata Stable’s Toughkenamon. Trained by Kathy Neilson McKenna, the gray has been around for many years and run just about every kind of race including Grade I and point-to-point races.
McKenna entered Toughkenamon (Carl Rafter) in the conditioned claiming hurdle, where he stayed to win by a head over Blackwood Stable’s Motel Affair (Cyril Murphy).
“When the ground is soft, Toughkenamon shows up,” McKenna said after the 8-year-old son of Maria’s Mon’s race. “This is exactly the way he likes it. Last night we got all this rain and he was at his best today.”
Rafter rode two winners for McKenna, also claiming the maiden claiming hurdle with Crestview Farm’s Heros Among Us.
The Englishman was impressed with the little chestnut’s fortitude. “He’s long-running,” Rafter said. “The harder I tried, the harder he tried. We popped the last and he just dug in.”
McKenna added, “He’s really a nice horse. He has a lot more training to go, but is very sweet. He can run a little bit and he put in a real genuine effort thanks to Carl.”
McKenna’s sister, Sanna Neilson Hendriks, picked up another win, this time in the maiden timber with Augustin Stables’ Radio Flyer (Jody Petty).
With a full field of maidens, the race got a little dicey from the get-go. Several horses fell early, taking other horses with them. Others simply pulled up. In the end, only six out of the 14 finished. No jockeys or horses were injured in the mishaps.
Petty said he just kept Radio Flyer covered up for most of the race, then asked around the last fence and found he still had tons of horse. Hendriks said the horse is probably done for the spring.
Former stakes hurdler Michele Marieschi took his new owner, George Hundt Jr., for a wild ride to win the amateur highweight timber race.
Trained by Richard Valentine of The Plains, Va., Hundt said he and British-bred Michele Marieschi have had a great time in the series. “He’s such a great horse,” Hundt said. “In the point-to-points, he tended to be strong with me, but in this race I put him way in the back and just waited. Richard did a great job priming him for this.”
Hundt added, “I didn’t have to do anything, he jumped his way up to the front at the end, and he was doing it all by himself.
He was probably thankful I saved him in the early part of the race. I still think I have some serious homework to do on my stretch riding, I almost got beat.”
Sadly one horse did not come back to the stabling area. According to officials, EMO Stable’s Iron County Xmas (Garet “Woods” Winants), fell a short distance after one of the fences in that race and died of an apparent heart attack. Trained by Doug Fout, the 13-year-old son of Cox’s Ridge won $139,135 in lifetime purses.
Sarah L. Greenhalgh