07/30/2013 12:26PM

Saratoga: British import Hunt Ball among Sheppard trio in A.P. Smithwick Steeplechase

Barbara D. Livingston
Divine Fortune, training with Edgar Prado up on Monday at Saratoga, will try to win the A.P. Smithwick Memorial Steeplechase for the third time.

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SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. – Thursday’s $100,000 A.P. Smithwick Memorial Steeplechase will have a familiar look as well as an international flavor when Jonathan Sheppard, the perennial king of the jump races at Saratoga, sends out three entrants, including the Irish-bred Hunt Ball in the Grade 1 fixture to be decided at 2 1/16 miles over hurdles.

Sheppard, who has won the Smithwick a record six times, will send out Hunt Ball for his United States debut, along with the old pro Divine Fortune, a two-time winner of this event, and Italian Wedding. The field also includes likely favorite Demonstrative, last year's winner, Spy in the Sky, along with a second European invader, Meganisi, who like Hunt Ball will make his first start in North America.

Hunt Ball was regarded to be among the top jumpers in Britain last year after running off four consecutive victories, each of those wins coming at distance beyond 2 1/2 miles. He had won once in four starts this year before being purchased by Atlantic Equine and turned over to Sheppard two months ago.

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“He was well regarded and a very popular horse over there last year,” said Sheppard. “He was kind of a people’s horse because he was rather inexpensively purchased at some auction, for about $1,000 or something, and then won all those races. Since then he went way up in the weights and has won only one race recently. A friend of mine put a group of people from Maryland together and purchased this horse as a syndicate and asked me to take him.”

Sheppard said he believes the 2  1/16 miles of the Smithwick might be a little too short for Hunt Ball.

“I don’t think he’s got quite the speed to win a big race going 2 1/16 miles going around such a tight track,” said Sheppard. “But he does have a lot of stamina and the main thing Thursday is to get a race under him, get a handle on him, and get a tune up for the New York Turf Writers, which is 2 3/8 miles and should suit him better.”

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Divine Fortune continues to hold his form at age 10. He won the 2010 and 2011 renewals of the Smithwick, finished fifth last year, and comes in Thursday off a narrow, second-place finish behind Demonstrative going a grueling three miles in the Grade 1 Iroquois.

“He’s a class act and is coming up to the race well,” said Sheppard. “I think he’s been beaten by Demonstrative every time they’ve met but with this race going under allowance conditions, he will get a nice break in the weights from him.”

Divine Fortune will carry 146 pounds while Demonstrative gets in at 158.

Demonstrative, who lost the 2012 Eclipse Award as top steeplechase horse by just 16 votes to Pierrot Lunaire, has won four of his last five starts, including the Grade 1 New York Turf Writers here last summer.

Spy in the Sky is winless in five starts since rallying to a stunning and well-earned nose decision at odds of 25-1 in the 2012 Smithwick.

Meganisi won once in four starts earlier this year in England but has not started since finishing far back in a Group 3 flat race at Newbury in April.