A.P. Smithwick the latest clash between two champions

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August 4th, 2015

Steeplechasing, like poi, is not for every taste. But more than four decades after it ceased being a staple of day-to-day racing at Aqueduct and Belmont Park, that branch of the sport remains one of the unique charms of racing at Saratoga.

That is not to say NYRA has not bent to commercial realities with respect to jump racing. In recent years the offerings have been pared down to two races a week, one each on Wednesday and Thursday and usually the first race of the day. An additional flat race is normally scheduled to accommodate bettors who want no part of trying to decipher which horses can jump cleanest and fastest.

As can be expected with anything associated with Saratoga, the Steeplechasing is of the highest quality. Of the division's six Grade 1 events two are run at Saratoga, so Eclipse Award implications abound in the Spa's two major hurdles.

The first of the meet, the $125,000 A.P. Smithwick Memorial (G1), is scheduled for Thursday at about 2 1/16 miles. The major contenders are Demonstrative and Divine Fortune, familiar foes that also happen to be the past two divisional champions.

Demonstrative's three-race win streak last season -- encompassing the New York Turf Writers Cup (G1) at Saratoga, Lonesome Glory (G1) at Belmont Park, and Grand National (G1) at Far Hills -- was enough to clinch the championship over Divine Fortune, who defeated Demonstrative by nine lengths in the season-ending Colonial Cup (G1) at Camden. Demonstrative has continued to thrive this year with a thrilling last-lunge victory in the May 9 Iroquois (G1) in Nashville, and most recently in a 1 1/2-mile flat allowance score for hurdlers at Parx.

Divine Fortune, now 12, finished on top in the 2013 balloting based purely on his 5 1/2-length victory in the division's most lucrative event, the Grand National. After winning last year's Iroquois, he finished, or not at all, behind Demonstrative in that rival's three wins before turning the tables in the Colonial Cup. However, Divine Fortune weakened to fourth behind Demonstrative after showing speed in the three-mile Iroquois last time.

Parker's Project, a multiple Grade 2 winner, finished only a length behind Demonstrative in last September's Lonesome Glory despite not having run in more than two years. He, along with recent National Hunt Cup (G3) winner Bob Le Beau, fits on his best form.

Other possibilities include Martini Brother, who won the Jonathan Kiser Novice and finished third in the Turf Writers Cup at Saratoga back in 2013, and Hinterland, who makes his U.S. debut for Jack Fisher after moderate success in England.

Thursday's feature on the flat at Saratoga is the $100,000 Quick Call for three-year-olds at 5 1/2 furlongs on the turf. It marks the return of The Great War, fourth behind Texas Red, Carpe Diem, and Upstart in last year's Breeders' Cup Juvenile (G1) and winner of the 96 Rock at Turfway Park in his season debut for trainer Wesley Ward. However, the son of War Front showed his distance limitations when faltering to last in the 1 1/16-mile John Battaglia Memorial on February 28, also at Turfway.

Ready for Rye, who the Swale (G2) in March, enters off a sharp seven-furlong turf allowance win at Belmont and is the likely favorite. Cyclogenisis won his first three starts, including the Laurel Futurity and Tom Ridge at Presque Isle Downs, but was overmatched in the inaugural Commonwealth Cup (G1) at Royal Ascot last out.

(Demonstrative photo: NYRA/Adam Coglianese Photography)