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Willow she get a Camden hat trick?

Two-time Springdale winner Willow U stepping up in class, takes on the guys, in Carolina Cup feature

Posted: March 30, 2017 11:25 a.m.
Updated: March 31, 2017 1:00 a.m.
Tom Didato/C-I

WILLOW U CARRIED JACK DOYLE to victory in Camden last spring and fall for trainer Richard Valentine. On Saturday, she will attempt to become only the second mare to win the Carolina Cup feature with Shane Crimin aboard.

Sired by a horse bred in Japan out of a mare hailing from France with one  grandfather from Great Britain and another born in Kentucky, Willow U has a lineage which would keep the fine folks at up to their eyeballs in background checking for days upon end.

Yet, it is not her varied international breeding which led trainer Richard Valentine to entering the 6-year-old mare into the $75,000 feature of Saturday’s The Mullikin Law Firm Carolina Cup. Where her parents and grandparents were bred and raced notwithstanding, one only needs to take a look at Willow U’s form at the Springdale Racecourse to learn why she is perceived to be a threat in the first of three National Steeplechase Association spring novice chases.

In two starts over fences in Camden, the daughter of Japanese-bred graded stakes winner in both his native country and America, Utopia-Overextended (France) has gone two-for-two. The most recent of those victories came in last fall’s Colonial Cup when she carried Kieran Norris to a 1 ½-length win in the $30,000 Springdale Stakes chase for fillies and mares. In April of 2016, Willow U took Jack Doyle to an 8 ¼-length score in the $20,000 Woodford Reserve chase for fillies and mares on Carolina Cup day.

Willow U’s two Springdale triumphs accounted for both her wins in a five-start campaign a year ago. Valentine is hoping for the hat trick with the Check Mark Stables mare which has spent the winter training on the grounds of the Springdale Racecourse. The caveat in this start is that she will be stepping out of her perceived comfort zone and will test herself against the guys come Saturday.

“That’s the reason were running her back here,” Valentine said of the decision to send Willow U’s name into the Carolina Cup feature field. “I don’t know about taking on the boys for the first time but for some reason this course suits her running style so, I figured we may as well take a chance.”

A New York-bred, Willow U stayed in South Carolina following her win here last fall and was sent to freshen in Aiken. She returned to Valentine’s barn, located beside the National Steeplechase Museum, on Jan. 15. She was given one last work before Saturday’s start which, Valentine said, would have Willow U “ready to roll”, even if it is her first time jumping against the boys.

“Yeah, there is (a concern),” Valentine said of running his mare in a field of 10 entries which included one other mare, Get Ready Set Goes. Only once has a mare won the Carolina Cup. That came in 2008 when the race which, that year, was also run under novice conditions, was won by six-year-old Imagina. 

Willow U gets a 10-pound break in weights from the five highweights in the field which will be asked to carry 153 pounds. Included in Willow U’s 143 weight limit will be jockey Shane Crimin, who  arrived in Camden from his native Ireland just last week to ride on this side of the Atlantic.

In bracketing her 2016 campaign with wins in Camden, Willow U sat and rated in running fourth in the five-horse field of jumpers in the spring race at Springdale before moving second behind Give Us a Reason at the top of the stretch. Willow U would draw clear in the two-mile chase to break her maiden at second asking. In last fall’s Colonial Cup, she was third of six jumpers when the group reached the top of the stretch before rallying for the victory in a chase which went 2 1/8 miles, the same distance as Saturday’s feature chase will be contested.

Valentine was unable to put his finger firmly on why Willow U runs so well in Camden. After pausing for a moment, he said it probably has to do with her ability to come up big near the end of the races here.

“I don’t know. Maybe because there is plenty of speed in front of her,” he said of Willow U’s Springdale success. “She tends to run in snatches and she always seems to be doing her best bit late. And, she can come up that little bit of a rise from the last (fence) here and it doesn’t seem to bother her.”

Her recent form over fences shows that Willow U likes to settle in and then rely on a strong closing kick. That is in stark contrast to her runs on the flat. In three starts in Saratoga in the summer of 2015, Willow U was never worse than second at any marker and won two of those races before being claimed by Check Mark Stables for $35,000 from trainer George Weaver after winning a $35,000 non-winners of three claiming race on Sept. 4, 2015. 

Valentine was watching from the grandstand at the Spa that day and was there for the claim but said he knew nothing about the horse before that race. He credited one of Check Mark Stables’ Aiken-based owners, Elizabeth “Biz” Carey, for following Willow U at the Saratoga meet and then, making the decision to claim her and send her to Valentine to become a jumper.

“She picked the filly out, liked the filly and was the one who wanted to claim her. I really didn’t do any investigating,” Valentine said in crediting Carey for what now looks to be a wise purchase. “Biz spends the meet in Saratoga and follows the horses and looks for prospects to come over jumps.

On Halloween day of that year, Willow U made her debut over jumps and finished second behind Barbara’s Smile in a $20,000 maiden chase for fillies and mares at the Aiken fall meet. It would be her only start before winning in Camden last spring.

“She did it very quickly,” Valentine said of Willow U’s switch to jumping fences after having run on the flat in her first 19 career starts. “That was a quick turnaround, for me. I think if they have the right attitude, it’s easy to make that transition. She was very good.”

When the conversation switched to how Willow U’s pedigree fit with her making a smooth change to jump racing, Valentine smiled. This is his first time training a progeny of Utopia, who was sired by 1987 Eclipse Award winning 2-year-old colt Forty Niner. One of his workers, Jason Ruch, worked with jumpers sired by Utopia whilw eorking for trainer Arch Kingsley Jr. “There’s a lot of interesting angles to her pedigree. I’ve never been around the Utopia’s but Jason said Arch had a few of them,” Valentine said. “She’s keen. I wouldn’t say that she’s a nervous filly but she can be quite aggressive.”

What Valentine learned from having watched Willow U race six times over jumps is that she favors the rather flat going of courses such as Camden and Aiken as opposed to the hilly terrain at the Iroquois Steeplechase in Nashville. In last spring’s $50,000 Margaret Currey Henley Stakes for fillies and mares there, Willow U tired in the latter going of the 2 ¼-mile race and after having been second at the two-mile juncture, faded to fifth in the field of seven.

Given the warm spring in the Palmetto State and running over a surface which fits her style and at a distance ---2 1/8 miles --- which she has traveled and won at before, it was almost a no-brainer for Richard Valentine to pull the trigger and give Willow U another start in Camden, even if it comes in the company of, mostly, guys.

“She didn’t really seem to handle Iroquois very well so, this seemed like a very logical place to send her,” Valentine said.

And why not take a chance in the Carolina Cup feature, especially when all signs point toward Springdale being squarely in Willow U’s wheelhouse.



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