09/17/2013 3:58PM

Belmont Park: Sheppard has strong hand in steeplechase stakes

Tom Keyser
Italian Wedding enters Thursday's Grade 1 Lonesome Glory Handicap off a victory in the Grade 1 New York Turf Writers Cup Steeplechase at Saratoga.

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ELMONT, N.Y. – Thursday’s 10-race card at Belmont Park will have a Saratoga look and feel to it, with four stakes, including two steeplechase events, highlighted by the Grade 1, $150,000 Lonesome Glory Handicap at 2 1/2 miles.

To no one’s surprise, Hall of Fame trainer Jonathan Sheppard appears to hold the strongest hand in both the Lonesome Glory and the $75,000 William Entemnann Memorial at 2  1/4 miles.

In the Lonesome Glory, Sheppard sends out a trio of horses led by Italian Wedding, who won the Grade 1 New York Turf Writers Cup Steeplechase at Saratoga last out. Italian Wedding will be coupled with Divine Fortune, seventh in the Turf Writers, while Hunt Ball, Sheppard’s third entrant, runs as an individual betting interest in the field of 10.

Early in his steeplechase career, Italian Wedding was not highly regarded, with just one win from 10 starts from July 2010 through 2012, when Sheppard stopped on him due to some minor issues.

“Truthfully, he’s been a pest around the barn – no one thought him a top horse,” Sheppard said. “We put that [one win] down as a fluke. Now, he’s obviously established himself very much in the top echelon – hope he can keep it going.”

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In two starts this year at age 8, Italian Wedding finished second in Saratoga’s A.P. Smithwick at 2 1/16 miles before winning the Turf Writers at 2 3/8 miles.

“The longer, the better, as far as he’s concerned,” Sheppard said. “He’s got a lot of stamina. Until recently, he hadn’t shown quite as much speed. It’s a pleasant surprise how he’s come into himself this year.”

Italian Wedding will carry 150 pounds under Bernard Dalton, the second-highest impost behind Demonstrative, who carries 156 pounds. Demonstrative didn’t have the best of trips when sixth in the Turf Writers, and it wouldn’t be surprising if the eight-time steeplechase winner rebounded in this heat for trainer Richard Valentine.

Sheppard wasn’t particularly fond of the inside trip Divine Fortune received in the Turf Writers and is hoping that reuniting him with Darren Nagle could make a difference Thursday. Prior to the Turf Writers, Divine Fortune had a win, three seconds, and a third, all with Nagle aboard.

“He’s a horse that loves to be out in the clear,” Sheppard said. “He’s got a big, long stride. Zipping around the cones with horses outside of him, he’s never run well that way. Unless he runs another clunker, we’re inclined to draw a line through that race. The horse has trained very well since.”

Hunt Ball is an 8-year-old gelding who will get Lasix for the first time after racing primarily in Great Britain before coming to Sheppard for two less-than-stellar races at Saratoga. While Sheppard is expecting improvement over the larger course at Belmont, he believes Hunt Ball will excel next month at Far Hills in New Jersey, where the ground tends to have a bit more cut to it.

All Together finished second to Italian Wedding in the Turf Writers, but his trainer, Jack Fisher, thinks 2  1/2 miles “is a little further than All Together wants to go. We’re really taking a shot.”

Martini Brother tops Entemnann

The Sheppard-trained Martini Brother was third in the New York Turf Writers but still is eligible for novice stakes, which makes him the horse to beat in the Entemnann Memorial, where he will be coupled with Powerofone.

Martini Brother won three straight steeplechase events, including the Jonathan Kiser Memorial at Saratoga, before his good third in the Turf Writers.

“You’re only eligible for the novice races for so many months after you break your maiden,” said Sheppard, who co-owns Martini Brother with William Pape. “We probably should take advantage of a little easier spot.”

Sheppard said Powerofone got badly interfered with when he got pulled up in a stakes at Nashville in May. Sheppard said Powerofone was making “quite the move” before falling over the ninth fence in the Michael G. Walsh Stakes last out.

Cat Feathers and Extraextraordinary look to be the major threats to Martini Brother in the Entemnann.