Grand Marnan and Fritz Boniface (left) and Amelia McGuirk on Monstaleur finished the Willowdale Steeplechase in a dead heat, later sharing the winner’s circle. Photo by Marcell Peyre-Ferry.
A dead heat in the featured $25,000 Willowdale Steeplechase was a high point of the 24th running of the Willowdale Steeplechases, run Sunday, May 15 in Kennett Square, PA.
Fritz Boniface on Grand Manan showed the way for most of the 3.5-mile Amateur Steeplechase, often jumping alone well ahead of the pack, but Amelia McGuirk on Monstaleur caught him in the stretch to force a photo finish.
“My horse, he just likes to be comfortable so the best thing to do is drop your hands and let him go. He was going well, he had a couple of fences that were rough, but I was very happy,” Boniface said. “The last fence, he jumped that great. Going down to the wire I saw her behind me, I was riding, riding, riding.”
“He beat me one time. That wasn’t going to happen again,” McGuirk said. The same two horses and riders raced at Fair Hill a month earlier with Grand Manan taking the win that time. “I sat third most of the way. I didn’t want him to get too far in front of me. I knew that horse can run and keep running. My horse jumped well. The third last (jump) I was second,” McGuirk said. “I knew my horse has a bit of a kick, so I rode as hard as I could without making the horse too mad, because he’ll pick his head up and stop running. He gave me all he had.”
Grand Manan is owned by Donald Reuwer, Jr. and trained by William Meister, while Monstaleur is owned by Black and Blue Stable and trained by Forrest Kelly.
The jockeys did not seem to mind sharing the winner’s circle. “A win is a win,” Boniface said. “They’re two really nice horses. They both deserve a win and they got it today.”
There were a few changes to the race course at Willowdale this year, including the rebuilding of the water jump. The location of jumps turned into a problem at the end of the final race when three of the first finishers, including the winner, went on to jump a closed off hurdle. After going under the wire, the horses kept going straight ahead and over the jump and the plastic wings that had been laid over it.
“You’re driving hard towards the wire, you’ve got your head down, everyone’s trying as hard as they can. It’s a bit too close to the wire I guess. I was thinking about winning,” jockey Darren Nagle said following his win in the Rose Tree Cup.
Nagel was aboard Tafawuk, owned by Blyth Miller Davies and trained by Joseph G. Davies. “He’s a lovely, lovely horse. They’ve done a really, really nice job with him,” Nagel said.
There were also some close calls for spectators following two races where loose horses jumped the fence between the course and the crowded hillside, dodging through cars and tailgates as they ran back toward their trailers.
Falls and one horse off course cut the field from eight starters to four finishers in the $15,000 Landhope Cup Maiden Timber race. “I made a few right decisions. Thankfully I was staying wide and clear,” said Jeff Murphy, who piloted Canyon Road to the win for owner Gordonsdale Farm and trainer Christopher Kolb.
A jockey down at the first fence, which was also set to be the last fence in the opposite direction, could not be cleared before the horses came to it again, so the remaining horses were flagged around it.
“There was no jump there. The jump would have helped me, but I wasn’t disappointed it wasn’t there to be jumped, because I knew he was going well,” Murphy said. Canyon Road had no problems with the course. “These fences jumped really good. All the hedges are really fun to ride. I was riding a really good horse.”
Willowdale was also a day for firsts, with Casey Pinkard earning her first sanctioned win on Frank Bonsal, Jr.’s, Terko Service in the $7,500 Marshall W. Jenny Memorial Foxhunter’s Chase.
“I’ve done a lot of point to points and a few sanctioned races,” Pinkard said after the traditional water drenching for her first win.
Terko Service ran well out in front for most of the race, at a distance from the rest of the field. “We planned for him to go out in front. He settled well. He’s got a big old stride on him and he galloped comfortably,” Pinkard said. “He picks his distances and jumps well. He’s a fairly steady horse. He goes on with it and settles himself.”
Willowdale was also the first sanctioned win as a trainer for William Dowling who sent Naturally Won to a win for Northwoods Stable in The Folly, a $15,000 Maiden Claiming Hurdle.
“I just dropped him in and he’s a great jumper, so I was happy to let him jump away. He kept going, he liked that longer two and a half miles,” jockey Connor Hankin said. “I’m really thrilled because this is Dowling’s first sanctioned win as a trainer, so I’m happy I could be on the horse for that occasion.”
There were two fallers in the stretch well after the last fence that were cause for concern, but both horses eventually got up. “I was in the lead at that point,” said Hankin, who was not affected by the horses that went down. “That’s always hard to see. It was the last fence and tired horses.”
Hankin also had a win in the Liam Magee Amateur Training Flat Race on Mr. Jenney for owner Michael Moran and trainer Jack Fisher.
Usually run on Mother’s Day, Willowdale was scheduled for the following weekend this year, but will return to the holiday next year for the 25th running of the races.’