Frank Chapot, world-class show rider, took a swing at the Maryland Hunt Cup. So did world-class event riders Bruce Davidson, Mike Plumb and Kevin Freeman.
And that history is part of the reason eventer Jennie Brannigan will be aboard Joshua G. in the historic timber stakes at Glyndon, Md. Saturday. Brannigan, whose resume includes several wins at the CIC three-star level, would also like to improve upon the foundation left by her predecessors. Riding Tall Chief in 1965 and Evening Mail in 1973, Chapot finished third twice. Freeman was third aboard Morning Mac in 1971. Davidson could do no better than fifth with Appolinax in 1983 after pulling up Danny’s Brother in 1975. Plumb and Oliphant finished second to Fort Devon, one of the Hunt Cup’s all-time best, in 1976. A year later, the Olympic silver medalist fell at the ninth fence with Koolabah.
Brannigan knows she’s trying something different, is aware she’s following some legends and also has a keen grasp on how difficult it all might be. The Hunt Cup is the oldest, most historic and most arduous steeplechase race in the United States with 22 timber fences (some nearly 5 feet tall) and 4 miles to navigate.
“It’s my first time and I know enough to know I don’t know very much,” she said Tuesday afternoon. “I tend to be pessimistic and I’m not one to think I’m going to win, but I’m a very competitive individual when it comes down to it. I want to give him a good trip and I can promise you that if I make it over all the jumps, I will be trying very hard to win.”
Brannigan’s eventing career is well documented thanks to the success of Cambalda, the United States Evening Association’s Horse of the Year for 2010 among other achievements. She’s ridden at the Rolex International four-star event, and is a regular among the top riders in the world. She and an earlier mount, Cooper, won 19 individual events and she campaigns a stable of top horses from her base in Pennsylvania.
But, the Illinois native also rides racehorses as an exercise rider for Michael Matz at Fair Hill Training Center. She’s been there five years, and has long been a friend of jump jockeys Jody Petty, Willie McCarthy and others. The connection led to some discussion, and Brannigan rode two training flat races in 2015. This winter, she helped trainer Sanna Neilson put new timber horse Kings Apollo through some paces and was asked to help Neilson’s sister Kathy with Joshua G. The partnership clicked and Brannigan was aboard for point-to-point starts at Brandywine (a win) and Fair Hill (a third).
“We took it one step at a time and if I had been really horrible Kathy would have told me and I wouldn’t be doing this,” Brannigan said. “Josh and I got along right away. I trust Josh. I had never schooled a racehorse over jumps, and I’d never ridden a hurdle horse, but I trust that horse a lot in my limited experience.”
Brannigan has been getting advice from Petty, who won the 2014 Hunt Cup aboard Guts For Garters, and heard from 2013 and 2015 winner Mark Beecher after the Fair Hill race. Racing for his breeder Jason Cole, Joshua G. finished fourth in the 2015 Hunt Cup after opening a huge lead for jockey Sarah Shaffer. Neilson and Armata Stable bought the Pennsylvania-bred after that effort and he’s since finished fourth in the Grand National and My Lady’s Manor and was an unlucky faller when bothered by a loose horse at the fourth fence of last year’s Hunt Cup.
The 11-year-old won’t be considered a favorite in a potential field of 13 Saturday, but he’s proven to be capable over the big fences and would warrant consideration as a potential upsetter. The son of Run Softly can certainly jump and his running style should put him in the race.
“It was unusual to feel a horse leave the ground from that far away that easily,” Brannigan said of her first experience with the horse. “He is more comfortable doing that than event horses I’ve ridden. Straight away I love that he’s a bit strong. He seems like he really loves the job. He seems catty as well. He can come up and pop one. It’s a good feeling.”
Brannigan was there at last year’s Hunt Cup, to watch Petty finish second on Guts For Garters, and left with a planted seed.
“That’s something that will be on my bucket list of things to do someday,” she told herself. A year later, it’s a reality due to a variety of reasons – Joshua G.’s availability, Brannigan’s lack of a mount at Rolex this year, some clients who understand the allure of jump racing and her improvement as a rider.
“Nina and Tim Gardner are my main owners and they’re wonderful and have supported the idea,” Brannigan said. “Tim is very into the timber racing and winning the Maryland Hunt Cup is something he very much wants to do, so he understands. And I don’t have a Rolex horse. Cambalda (owned by Gardners) was in very good form this year and could have gone to Rolex and been competitive, but he’s been very good at three-stars and not quite as good at four-stars. I kind of promised him I wouldn’t ask him to do something like that, but it’s pretty tempting.”
For now, Rolex (which starts tomorrow in Lexington, Ky.) will have to wait. Brannigan walked the Hunt Cup course with Petty Monday and will be out there with Paddy Neilson Thursday.
She sees the Hunt Cup try as a mix of her lifelong riding experience and her more recent connection to racing. She grew up near Chicago and most of her family lives in Southern California – not exactly steeplechase country.
“I joke around that if I had known what this was when I was younger, I’d probably have become a jump jockey not an event rider,” she said. “I know I don’t know much about racing, but I do ride horses over pretty solid fences all the time. People have said the time I’ve spent riding racehorses has helped me. I think I’ve gotten a lot better. I had people teaching me how to be stylish and how to hold a horse. I’ve ridden a lot of work, where I didn’t before, and feel very comfortable at speed now.”
Brannigan hopes her decision might foster a bit more crossover, and won’t discount the opportunity to follow in some pretty big footsteps.
“It’s cool to be part of it, historically,” she said. “The fact that Bruce Davidson and Mike Plumb did it back in the day? That’s something that appealed to me. So many kids now have been brought up to be specifically good event riders and to perform in an arena. Riding over big timber fences in a group is very different from that and you don’t see many riders pushing themselves to do it. I want to give it a shot to be as bold as they were.”
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Hey Jennie Brannigan, could your Maryland Hunt Cup mount Joshua G. go eventing?
“He’s a good enough jumper that I would event him. He’d be good at that part. His dressage would need some work.”