Jockey Eddie Keating doesn’t think he’s much of a historian, but he knows he made history Sunday.
Keating steered the first horse over the first hurdle in the first race contested over American steeplechasing’s brand new jumps; he finished first place in the first race held at Leesburg’s historic Morven Park since 2010.
Keating partnered Gill Johnston’s Lost Story to win the Loudoun Hunt Point-to-Point opener April 18, going wire-to-wire in the first division of the maiden hurdle.
Lost Story’s was the first race ever run over the brand-new EasyFix jumps, plastic and rubber simulated brush “hedges” that provide a challenging jump racing test but provide more inherent safety to both horses and riders, say EasyFix designers.
From the sidelines, the 4-foot-tall obstacles look pretty much like the “National Fence” which debuted on the American circuit at the Fairfax races in 1972. They’re still twigs of plastic “brush” affixed to the top of a banked, green take-off roll. But, inside, the new jumps are safer because of their design, said EasyFix developer Bill Price, with one-piece construction and no metal frame like the old jumps.
“I found no issues with the new jumps,” said Keating, 30. A native of Wexford, Ireland, Keating has ridden, and won, on the American steeplechase circuit since 2018. “I would happily say it was a successful day.
“The horses handled (the slightly different appearance of) the new fences smoothly. I was very happy with how the day went.”
Keating followed up the opener a race later with E Squared Stables’ Mr. Singh, and won on the turf with Bill Price’s Boss Man. Keating had won two races at the Maryland Grand National meet Saturday, and one at My Lady’s Manor April 10, to take the early lead on the National Steeplechase Association jockey table.
Graham Watters, who also won two hurdle races and one on the turf at Loudoun, explained that steeplechase horsemen have had several months to practice over EasyFix fences since they’ve been available in the sport’s three centers – Unionville, Pennsylvania, Camden, South Carolina and The Plains, Virginia. But, Watters said, schooling isn’t the same as racing. It took a real, legitimate day of racing – Loudoun had five full-field hurdle races – for horsemen to gauge how EasyFix would work.
“The meet was very well run, and (it) was nice, safe jumping ground,” said Watters, 30 and a native of Navan, Ireland. “The new hurdles jumped very well, and my horses (hurdle winners Withoutdestination and Animal Kingston) had no issues negotiating them.”
National Steeplechase Association president Al Griffin reported that the new EasyFix fences “were jumping even better than expected. It looks like the horses are jumping better and better through the day” as horses and riders learned what to expect.
Loudoun Fairfax Hunt joint-master Donna Rogers said her club was honored to provide the venue for the EasyFix debut. “It is so important for horsemen to have the chance to race at a point-to-point over these new fences before the NSA circuit starts up next week. It was the perfect opportunity to introduce the design.”
The Fairfax Hunt, now merged with Loudoun West, played a key role in the last steeplechase innovation nearly 50 years ago, in 1972 being the first racecourse to utilize the then-new National Fence designed by longtime Fairfax master and Virginia steeplechase Hall of Famer, the late Randy Rouse. “It’s fitting we’re part of the change this year,” Rogers added.
Virginia brings home Maryland Grand National trophy for the first time since 1956
Mike Smith’s Le Chevalier became the first Virginia-owned, Virginia-trained winner of the prestigious Maryland Grand National Saturday, winning the $30,000 timber stake by an easy six lengths from Royal Ruse (Skylar McKenna.)
The 12-year-old veteran is trained near Upperville by Julie Gomena for his Middleburg-based owner. Amateur McLane Hendriks had the call.
The steeplechase circuit shifts to the National Steeplechase Association sanctioned circuit this week, Saturday, April 24, at both the Maryland Hunt Cup and the Queen’s Cup in Charlotte, North Carolina. Racing returns to Virginia for the May 1 Middleburg Spring Races and the May 9 Middleburg Hunt Point-to-Point, both at Glenwood Park, before the Virginia Gold Cup, May 29 at Great Meadow.