The International Gold Cup's $50,000 timber stakes have a true European flavor this year.
Father Sky, who flew across the Atlantic with trainer David "Dai" Williams last month specifically to run at the Great Meadow course Saturday, never had jumped over the American timber until an outing at the Virginia Fall Races Oct. 2. Should the former hurdle and English steeplechase winner do well Saturday, Williams will continue to run him in the United States until the spring.
"I think a lot of horses in England could compete and win here, but they have to be tough--not just classy," said Williams, whose jockey--American Michael Traurig--has ridden many races in England. "You really have to understand the requirements of timber racing."
Of the 16 races Father Sky has won in the United Kingdom, nine were steeplechases and three were hurdles. This will be Father Sky's second run over an American timber course since Virginia Fall Races; he won a flat race last weekend at the Morven Park Races.
Saturday's field of four includes three other horses that competed against Williams's 8-year-old at the Virginia Fall Races: winner Gold Quoit (ridden by Matt McCarron), runner-up Saluter (Jack Fisher) and Buck Jakes (Arch Kingsley Jr.).
* Saluter, known for his winning prowess at the spring meet (The Virginia Gold Cup) and his 19 solid timber victories, has won only once at the fall meet--and that was last year, with another jockey, Chip Miller, standing in for an injured Fisher.
* The Maryland Hunt Cup and Pennsylvania Hunt Cup champion Buck Jakes has won this particular meet twice (1994 and 1995). He was second in 1996.
* Gold Quoit is coming off the win against Saluter and was second in the spring meet over the same course.
While Middleburg's Virginia Fall course was three miles, Saturday's race is a half-mile longer--but Williams is not worried.
"If I didn't think I could win, I wouldn't be here," Williams said. "I am a true sportsman, and I am as good a loser as I am a winner, but I am confident I have the type of horse to win here."
Williams, who has been interested in timber racing since American timber horses Jay Trump and Ben Nevis ran in England during the 1960s and 1970s, is finding new respect for the American sport. But this entry is more of a scouting mission for Williams than an excuse for English and American racing rivalry--he wants a chance at the Marlborough Million (formally the World Timber Championship).
That new challenge involves four races, starting with the spring Gold Cup, then two races in England and one in France. If Father Sky were to finish with the most points, he would capture a $1 million bonus for owner Lucy Horner, who is just 23 and a lieutenant in the Irish Royal Guard.
Horner's horse may have the advantage in the traditionally harder going of American courses because unlike many typical English steeplechasers, Father Sky has a penchant for harder ground.
"He is a very unusual type of horse," Williams said. "He likes the fast ground--the faster the better. He is a safe, reliable jumper and very much a thinking horse."
Note: Williams has a second horse he would like to see race. The 6-year-old Bavario flew over as a quarantine companion for Father Sky and seems to have blossomed into a steeplechaser. He, too, ran at Virginia Fall, and now Williams would like to see him run either over the Steeplethon course (hurdles and timber) or in the main event. At press time, the decision had not been made.
INTERNATIONAL GOLD CUP
Where: Great Meadow racecourse in The Plains.
Post time: 1:30 p.m.; gates open at 10 a.m. Scheduled are seven highly contested steeplechase races--including the Steeplethon and the $50,000 timber stakes--to be held over timber, hurdles and on the flat. There are terrier and pony races at 11:30 a.m. and noon.
Info: 540-347-2612 or on the Internet at www.vagoldcup.com; tickets are not available race day.
History: First established as a hurdle race in Tennessee in 1930, this is the 16th running of the race at the Great Meadow course.
Tips for spectators: Traffic can be tricky--arrive early, stay late.
CAPTION: Trainer David "Dai" Williams's horse, Father Sky, brings a record of 16 victories in the United Kingdom to Saturday's International Gold Cup.
CAPTION: Saluter, far right, which was second at Virginia Fall Races Oct. 2, is among horses scheduled to compete at Great Meadow Saturday.