by Keith McCalmont
Hurricana Farm’s Merry Maker rallied from the back of the pack under Parker Hendriks to capture Thursday’s Grade 1, $150,000 Lonesome Glory Handicap, a 2 1/2-mile steeplechase for older horses on Opening Day of the Belmont at the Big A fall meet.
The 6-year-old Irish-bred son of Malinas topped an Archibald Kingsley, Jr.-trained trifecta over stablemates L'Imperator and Barbados as they successfully thwarted the return of multiple Grade 1-winning 1-2 mutuel favorite Snap Decision, who led the field throughout much of the running over the good going.
“It doesn’t get any better," said Kingsley, Jr. on the personal trifecta. "We didn’t want to leave Snap Decision alone and go too easy on the front. I thought, of my horses, L’Imperator was the best one that had a chance to keep it honest and yet, you don’t want to sacrifice any of them because they all had a good shot. I think everybody rode their horses to give them the best chance and it worked out. L’Imperator ran a winning race and Parker got him at the last run."
The Graham Watters-piloted Snap Decision, assigned a field-high 162 pounds, carried 20 pounds more than the vast majority of his six rivals as he led the field past the wire for the first time with Restitution to his outside in second and L’Imperator saving ground in third. City Dreamer and Barbados tracked in fourth and fifth respectively in front of the tandem of Proven Innocent and Merry Maker.
Merry Maker was still last-of-7 as Snap Decision took the field past the wire for the second time, but the competition started to gain ground on the frontrunner approaching the final fence with Proven Innocent looming large to the outside of L’Imperator. Hendriks gave Merry Maker his cue approaching the far turn and had plenty of ground to make up as L’Imperator took over from a tiring Snap Decision at the stretch call. Hendriks kept to task aboard Merry Maker with a seven-wide charge down the lane, quickly closing the gap on a game L’Imperator to secure the half-length win in a final time of 4:41.02.
It was a further 5 1/2-lengths back to Barbados in third with Snap Decision, City Dreamer, Proven Innocent and Restitution rounding out the order of finish. The Kingsley, Jr.-trained Cibolian was scratched.
The victory marked the first Grade 1 score for Hendriks and also his first win since recovering from a concussion.
“After we jumped the last, I kind of got a bit light and I went for him [Snap Decision],” Hendriks said. “Half-way around the bend I was like, ‘I could get here.’ I knew the horse to beat was Snap Decision, and I could see he was fading and L’Imperator, who I had ridden previously, I thought he would run a big race today, too. He stopped a little bit and my guy just kept grinding to the wire. He was all guts and all heart to get it done today. It’s a massive credit to the team.”
Stephen Mulqueen, who piloted the runner-up L’Imperator, said his charge traveled gamely to keep Snap Decision honest.
“I followed the one [Snap Decision], who I thought was the one to beat. We turned in and I quickened up to go on and win the race, but I just got beat late,” Mulqueen said. “It’s difficult when on paper there’s one horse to beat like there was in here. I didn’t want to let him [Snap Decision] have a freebie in front. Ideally, we’d drop him a little further back and make one big run. If Graham was getting a freebie in front, someone had to put the pressure on him. But he ran a great race to finish second.”
The lightly-raced Merry Maker, who launched his career in his native Ireland, won his stateside debut for Kingsley, Jr. in October 2021 at Great Meadow but was off-the-board in both of his starts last season. He kicked off his current campaign with an allowance win at Great Meadow in May ahead of a distant third in the Jonathan Kiser Novice in August at Saratoga Race Course. He entered from a rallying fourth on August 23 in the Spa’s Grade 1 Jonathan Sheppard Handicap in which he closed from last-of-10 to finish 8 1/4-lengths back of the victorious Awakened.
Kingsley, Jr. said Merry Maker benefitted from his first Grade 1 experience.
“The horse is relatively lightly-raced next to a horse like City Dreamer or Snap Decision,” Kingsley, Jr. said. “He ran down a little bit in front in the Sheppard so I had rundowns on everybody today. I have to believe that probably took a little bit away from him. It’s a journey with these horses, they develop over time and it takes time to grow into this kind of horse. You’re looking at a progression of a horse in his development.”
L'Imperator, who captured last year’s Grade 2 Fort Marcy on the flat at Belmont Park for trainer Chad Brown, was purchased by his owner Hudson River Farms for $75,000 in November at the Keeneland Horses of Racing Age Sale.
He has since made six starts over the jumps, including a sharp 8 3/4-length allowance win in July at Saratoga. The 6-year-old Holy Roman Emperor gelding entered from a fifth-place finish in the Jonathan Sheppard.
“[L’Imperator] is a horse that’s been thrust into Grade 1s probably before you would ideally do it, but it’s a confluence of circumstances that make it possible,” Kingsley, Jr. said. “With the last jump so close to the wire, you’re inclined to take a shot with a horse like him. I wouldn’t want to run down two fences in the stretch toe to toe with Snap Decision. Experience counts for so much in steeplechasing and with the format at the major tracks now, it’s a little better for the lesser experienced horses to take a shot in a race like this."
Kingsley, Jr. said he would like to point all four of his Lonesome Glory entrants to the Grade 1 American Grand National on October 21 at Far Hills.
Bred in Ireland by Matthew Hayes, Merry Maker banked $90,000 in victory while improving his 2023 record to 4-2-0-1. He returned $33.80 for a $2 win bet.
The Lonesome Glory was the first of four Grade 1 events at the Belmont at the Big A fall meet which runs through Sunday, October 29. The 28-day meet offers a total of 44 stakes worth $9.275 million in total purses and six Breeders’ Cup “Win and You’re In” qualifiers.
Live racing resumes Friday at Belmont at the Big A with a nine-race card featuring the $135,000 Winter Memories in Race 8. First post is 1:05 p.m. Eastern.
America's Day at the Races will present live coverage and analysis of every day of Belmont at the Big A on the networks of FOX Sports. For the broadcast schedule and channel finder, visit https://www.nyra.com/aqueduct/racing/tv-schedule.
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