A pair of controversial rules, both concerning the $75,000 Mrs. Ogden Phipps Filly and Mare Stakes at Saratoga on Aug. 3, has created controversy in the steeplechase community.
First, the Nation Steeplechase Association ruled that Forest Boyce, a flat jockey who had never ridden in a steeplechase race, could ride in that stakes race at Saratoga.
That ruling alone had trainers, riders and fans scratching their heads and worrying that it would turn out badly.
And it did turn out badly, both for Boyce and, unfortunately, for another female apprentice rider, Keri Brion, whose horse fell at the second fence, apparently through of fault of Brion's, as, although the results of the autopsy are not in yet, most felt the horse died of a heart attack..
Boyce was completely out of control throughout the race and did not finish, thus costing those who had bet on her.
Continuing steeplechase racing at Saratoga has always been a bit questionable, and NSA, with two non-finishers, almost immediately ruled that apprentice riders could not ride at either Saratoga or Belmont, a ruling many felt was a knee-jerk reaction and way too onerous.
As the race progressed, first Bruce Smart Jr.'s Fall Colors, trained by Jimmy Day and ridden by Brion, was neck and neck for the lead when she fell at the second fence.
After watching the rerun and interviewing a good number of people who had watched the race, and some who had even watched the rerun in slow motion, it seemed clear that Fall Colors never even attempted to take off over the fence.
THE CONSENSUS, an opinion also shared by at least one veterinarian, was that Fall Colors had suffered a heart attack before the fence and was probably dead before she landed, although she did apparently also break her neck in the fall.
Then Boyce, riding Mrs. S.K. Johnston's Amnicalola, trained by Jack Fisher, was clearly out of control throughout the race, veering out to the outside hedge at times in an effort, apparently, to slow her mount and regain control.
She went to the lead very wide on the course after the fourth fence, appeared to leave the course on the turn after the sixth fence when she missed a cone, then went back into the lead.
Over the seventh fence, Boyce was jumped completely out of the saddle, flying stretched out flat with her legs horizontal behind her, but she kept hold of the reins and sonehow managed to land back in the saddle, although she lost both stirrups.
Without stirrups, she was s even more out of control and left the course again before the final fence, eventually being expertly picked up by an outrider, who managed to slow and stop the horse.
Mrs. Thomas Voss' Swoop. trained by Elizabeth Voss and ridden by Bernie Dalton, won the Mrs. Ogden Phipps Stakes, with Jonathan Sheppard's Wigwam Baby, trained by Sheppard and ridden by Darren Nagel, in her first start over fences since May, 2016, finishing a close second, beaten by 3/4 of a length.
Steeplechasing has held a precarious position at Saratoga for a number of years, as fans seem leery of betting on those races because of falls, even though favorites in jump races are statistically more apt to win than in flat races.
So NSA almost immediately published a rule that apprentice jockeys could no longer ride at Saratoga or Belmont.
Apprentice riders have to win 15 races to lose their bug, a feat which can take years to accomplish due to the small number of steeplechase races held in this country.
Nagle, who currently leads in Jockey, Races Won, has only won 10 races this year, while another top rider, Gustav Dahl, has only won four races this year, so that shows how hard it is for an apprentice to break thorough.
Brion, who has won five races, including the featured race, a handicap, at Fair Hill on All the Way Jose this spring, was going to be named by Hall of Fame trainer Sheppard to ride All the Way Jose in the New York Turf Writers at Saratoga, but now, following NSA's ban on apprentice riders, Brion is not allowed to ride.
Also affected is Brendan Crowley, who won a race at Saratoga last year, and Keith Dalton.
Brion filed an appeal but she said that NSA has told her that it wouldn't even hear her appeal until after the Saratoga meet is finished.
"MOST OF us in the steeplechase world felt allowing Forest Boyce to ride in a stakes race at Saratoga was a bad decision," said Sheppard in comments that summed up the reactions of almost all of those interviewed. "We felt it was a risky decision, and that turned out to be true."
"Forest Boyce had no credentials to ride at Saratoga," said Sheppard.
"(NSA's ruling on apprentices riding at Saratoga) was a bit of a knee-jerk reaction,: said Sheppard. "We're all very conscious of our rather shaky relationship with NYRA, So NSA was anxious. They thought they needed to do something radical."
"In my opinion, it was pretty arbitrary and not thought out," said Sheppard. "I think these decisions should be made on a case by case basis."
"Keri has been riding well in races," said Sheppard. "I think banning all apprentices is a little over the top. It's pretty drastic."
"I feel badly for Keri," said Sheppard. "She's so enthusiastic. She was the victim of Forest Bryce's bad ride."
"I think the filly was dead when she hit the ground," said Day. "This decision was a harsh move, considering that one affected, Brendan Crowley, won a race at Saratoga last year. And through no fault of Keri's, she's being penalized."
"I would ride Keri again," said Day. I had one other horse I had planned to ask her to ride. I like the way she rides certain horses. She rides as good as any of the jockeys."
"It was a bad move on the part of Fisher (to put Boyce on Amnicalola)," said Day. "It was a bad call, and it ricocheted onto Keri. Keri's horse going down had nothing to do with her riding."
"Forest Boyce was approved by NSA's Stewards Advisory Committee," said Bill Gallo, NSA director of racing. "She is licensed on the flat and Jack Fisher was the trainer. She schooled that filly and schooled satisfactorily. They deemed her capable of riding."
The Stewards Advisory Committee consists of Dwight Hall, Chairman, Francis H. Abbott, Jr., RCI Accredited Steward, and W. Duncan Patterson, Delaware Racing Commissioner.
"Forest Boyce is a very experienced rider," said Patterson. "She fox hunted (as well as riding lfat races). We had Ross Pierce watch her school in company, We thought she could ride. Obviously, we were wrong."
As far as banning apprentice riders, Patterson said, "We felt we had to do something proactive."
NSA was worried that, without doing something major that Saratoga would eliminate steeplechase racing.