Ireland-based champion jumps trainer Willie Mullins is sending at least one and possibly two contenders to Nashville for the American leg of the million-dollar Brown Advisory Iroquois-Cheltenham Challenge.
The winner of both the $200,000 Calvin Houghland Iroquois (Gr. 1) and the Ryanair World Hurdle at Cheltenham Racecourse in England next March would win approximately $1 million, including the $500,000 Challenge bonus.
Mullins, champion jumps trainer for the past nine years, has nominated Nichols Canyon and Shaneshill to the three-mile race over National Fences at Percy Warner Park on Saturday, May 14. Expected to ride Nichols Bay is champion jockey Ruby Walsh.
“Both horses are well and could potentially go out to the USA. At the moment, probably Nichols Canyon is the horse we would hope to get out there, if not the two of them,” Mullins said. “I think we need to internationalize jump racing, and so I am happy to support the Brown Advisory Iroquois-Cheltenham Challenge.”
His two nominees to the Calvin Houghland Iroquois would be looking to win in Nashville and then target next year’s Ryanair World Hurdle with a total potential payday of approximately $1-million. Both the Calvin Houghland Iroquois and the Ryanair World Hurdle are three-mile races.
Both Mullin nominees are owned by Andrea and Graham Wylie, an English technology entrepreneur. Nichols Canyon finished third to Mullins-trained champion Annie Power in Cheltenham’s Champion Hurdle and the Aintree Hurdle. Last season, Nichols Canyon won five of six starts.
Shaneshill has had a busy 2016 with a victory and two second-place finishes in five starts. The seven-year-old finished second to 2016 Ryanair World Hurdle winner Thistlecrack in the Liverpool Stayers Hurdle at Aintree on April 9.
Also nominated to the Calvin Hougland Iroquois were two former Iroquois winners and Eclipse Award champions: Jacqueline Ohrstrom’s Demonstrative, a two-time Iroquois winner (2013 and 2015) and Mary Ann Houghland’s Pierrot Lunaire (2009).
Also nominated was Irv Naylor’s Rawnaq, an impressive winner of the Temple Gwathmey Handicap (Gr. 3) on April 23. setting up the trans-Atlantic rivalry the Brown Advisory Challenge was designed to promote.
Iroquois Steeplechase Chairman Dwight Hall, himself a trainer, former jockey and National Steeplechase Association board member, said the Challenge appears to be tapping in to the competitive spirit of owners and trainers on both sides of the Atlantic, which ultimately benefits the sport worldwide.
“Throughout history, we’ve seen horses go back and forth and win, and we want to stoke that rivalry,” Hall said. “Launching this on the 75thAnniversary of the Iroquois is poignant – the race’s namesake came to Nashville from England in the 19th century.” Iroquois, who was bred in Pennsylvania, won the Epsom Derby in 1881. He spent his stud career at Belle Meade Plantation and was the U.S. champion sire in 1892.
Over the last 25 years, a handful of American horses and riders have competed with credit overseas, including George Sloan, who became the only jockey from the United States to win the British Amateur Championship in the 1970s. The legendary Flatterer, a four-time consecutive Eclipse Award winner, ran second at Cheltenham in the 1980s, and Blythe Miller on Lonesome Glory won at both Cheltenham and Iroquois in the 1990s.
The Cheltenham Festival has become one of England’s largest sporting events, attracting nearly 250,000 spectators to its annual four-day meet in March. The Challenge is an opportunity to attract more American horses to compete there, and to offer English, Irish and European horses a larger opportunity on the world stage.
Baltimore-based Brown Advisory has offered the Challenge to stoke international competition. The company’s CEO, Mike Hankin, is a respected owner known for fielding competitive horses on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean.
Single tickets and limited infield tailgating spaces are still available for the Iroquois Steeplechase, known as “Nashville’s Rite of Spring Since 1941,” on May 14. For more information or to purchase tickets, go to www.iroquoissteeplechase.org.