10/14/2009 11:00PM

This time, American National up for grabs

Tod Marks
Pierrot Lunaire (3) ended Good Night Shirt's six-race winning streak in Grade 1 stakes when he upset the Iroquois over heavy ground in May.

In 2002, Tom Brady won his first Super Bowl. Lance Armstrong won his fourth Tour de France. Volponi upset the Breeders' Cup Classic. And a horse other than McDynamo or Good Night Shirt won American steeplechasing's biggest race.

Thanks to the two superstars McDynamo (2003-07) and Good Night Shirt (2008), the sport's signature stakes turned into a game of "Who's going to finish second?" That changes Saturday as 14 horses signed on for the $250,000 American Grand National at the 88th annual Far Hills Races in Far Hills, N.J.

The Far Hills card features five other steeplechase races. The secondary feature, the $100,000 Foxbrook, attracted a standout group of nine novice hurdlers, including division leaders Left Unsaid, Tricky Me, and You the Man, plus Saratoga winner Terpsichorean and the accomplished Seer.

For the first time, parimutuel wagering will be available on the Far Hills races. Woodbine Entertainment near Toronto will serve as the wagering hub for additional outlets, including the account-wagering services Twinspires, XpressBet, and Youbet. The races will be broadcast live on NBC Universal Sports beginning at noon Eastern and can be streamed over the internet at universalsports.com

The 2 5/8-mile Grand National has lured all manner of Thoroughbreds - from title contenders Pierrot Lunaire, Red Letter Day, Spy in the Sky, and Mixed Up to unknown foreign invaders General Ledger - an Irish-bred whose last race was in Norway - and Your Sum Man, purchased by trainer Tom Voss. The Grade 1 Grand National is scheduled for 3:55 p.m. on the six-race card, which begins at 12:45.

Billed as the U.S. Steeplechase Championships (with racing also at Great Meadow in Virginia), the Far Hills card features $550,000 in purses, an expected crowd of 50,000, television coverage on Universal Sports, and the historic addition of parimutuel betting via account -wagering platforms.

Hall of Fame trainer Janet Elliot won the 2002 Grand National with Flat Top and brings Red Letter Day into Saturday's race. The 6-year-old Red Letter Day aims to repeat his Grade 1 victory in the Lonesome Glory Stakes a month ago at Belmont Park. Bernie Dalton has the return call at 156 pounds, the same as all runners except the mare Sweet Shani, who gets a six-pound allowance.

Elliot likes her horse's chances, but also realizes the field's competitiveness.

"I knew it would be a lot of horses because there's no standout, but I'm not sure I expected 14," she said. "It's such an even race, anybody's race. A horse could run really well and finish sixth. That's what happens in a year like this."

McDynamo won five in a row, but retired after the 2007 season. Good Night Shirt dominated the 2008 race in the midst of a seven-stakes win streak but is out for the year after undergoing ankle surgery last month. A two-time Eclipse Award winner, Good Night Shirt won his 2009 debut in March, but finished second in the Grade 1 Iroquois in May before his usual summer break. Trainer Jack Fisher discovered the injury after some early work this fall, sending his stable star to the shelf and elevating the remaining stakes horses to title contenders.

The champion's conqueror, Pierrot Lunaire, steps in as a major player in the Grand National. The English import handled soft turf in the three-mile Iroquois and took a planned vacation over the summer. Trained by Bruce Miller, Pierrot Lunaire carries a question mark after a subpar race on the flat at Monmouth Park on Sept. 26, but will benefit from the expected rain this weekend.

"He's been training well, but I was very disappointed that he didn't seem to handle the firm ground at Monmouth," said Miller. "I'm hoping that's all it was. It looks like he'll get his weather. It's a tough race. All these horses have won one big race so we'll see what happens."

Spy in the Sky upset the Grade 1 New York Turf Writers Cup at Saratoga, but flattened out behind a slow pace when fourth in the Lonesome Glory. Trainer Jimmy Day hopes for more pace Saturday, and also changes jockeys to Richard Boucher after an injury to Liam McVicar.

With such a deep field, 2009 earnings leader Mixed Up must battle for attention. The 10-year-old Mixed Up leads the group with $124,495 this year, but has lost his last two starts, has never appreciated soft ground, or the extended autumn distances. His trainer, Jonathan Sheppard, also entered Three Carat (second in 2005), Sweet Shani (second in 2007), Arcadius (third in the Lonesome Glory) and Sermon of Love (second in the Turf Writers). First-call jockey Danielle Hodsdon rides Three Carat.

* Steppenwolfer, third in the 2006 Kentucky Derby behind Barbaro, makes his steeplechase debut for trainer Sanna Hendriks in the second race, a $50,000 maiden hurdle.