And Hunt Cup Week is here.

THE INSIDE RAIL | by Sean Clancy

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Road trip. Keeneland Friday. Maryland Hunt Cup Saturday. Middleburg Point-to-Point Sunday. Who’s in? Full tank. Iced coffee, on ice. Pistachios. Clif Bars. Audio books. Suits hanging on the driver side. Extra coats in trunk. Binoculars. Money.

Round trip: 1,152.57 miles. Estimated 18 hours, 42 minutes of travel. What a game, the Elkhorn at Keeneland will take about 2 ½ minutes. The Maryland Hunt Cup, about 9 minutes (at least the winner, with 15 entries, it will take much longer for others). And the maiden hurdle at Middleburg will consume about 4 ½ minutes. So, doing the math, we’ll travel (hopefully my nephew Ryan will be co-pilot) for nearly 19 hours for 16 minutes of action, 1,152 miles of road for 7 ½ miles of track. And I’m excited about the prospects.

Yes, it’s spring, weekends booked until December.

Eagle Poise is set to run in the Dixiana Elkhorn Friday. Number 12 of 14. Whoa. And who says we don’t have distance horses and desires in America? The mile and a half turf feature attracts a seasoned group. My kind of horses – when the entries hit the Internet, I had Stable Mail alerts for nine of the 14. I’ve enquired about Old Time Hockey, Unitarian, Suntracer, I’ve made money on Rapscallion, Tricky Hat and Royal Bench, watched in awe of Tattenham, wishing he would finish fourth and come up for sale and bought Forte Dei Marmi’s brother, just trying to replicate his million dollars in earnings. Eagle Poise has been on my Stable Mail since he was a 3-year-old with Frankel. Fortunately we were able to buy Eagle Poise as a 4-year-old, he’s made us proud over his 11 starts. Want consistency? Good horses are consistent, his Beyer Numbers have ranged from 80 to 93 in those 11 starts.

The Elkhorn goes at 5:13, then we might stay for the Concert on the Lawn featuring Laura Bell Bundy and Sundy Best or get back on the road to tick off a few hours on the second leg.

Up early to get to Glyndon Saturday, taking advantage of the one-race card and its 4 p.m. post time. Imagine riding the Maryland Hunt Cup – 4 miles of fair hunting country, 22 fences that stare back at you like you slapped them in the jaw, 15 entries of varying degrees of ability and then having to wait until 4:00…butterfly jamboree. I haven’t seen the Hunt Cup in person for many years, maybe all the way back to when I had a broken wrist and Paddy Neilson put on a clinic aboard Uncle Merlin in 1989. Can it really be 1989? Can it really be 25 years? I figure I’ll tag along with a Fenwick, a Meister, a Fisher, a Martin or a Davies and figure out where to view the 4-mile classic. If I remember, it requires running.

An eclectic mix of horses and riders converge for this year’s Maryland Hunt Cup. As enthusiasm seems to have waned in other aspects of steeplechasing, the Maryland timber circuit has blossomed. Stalwart Marylanders have injected time, money and effort into the Maryland timber game. The season basically lasts a month out of every year but consumes and defines careers, lives.

This year’s field ranges from 9-year-olds Imperial Way and Embarrassed to 14-year-olds Twill Do and Battle Op. In between are Irish-breds, past winners, runners up, homebreds and blue-bloods. Brands Hatch is a Kentucky-bred son of A.P. Indy, Foyle is a Maryland-bred son of Yarrow Brae, Catch The Echo is a West Virginia-bred by Eastern Echo. Breeders include McMahon of Saratoga, James Karp, Sez Who, Marablue, Dr. and Mrs. Thomas Bowman and Gaines-Gentry. The jockeys range from college students to mothers to a former champion steeplechase jockey to a winner of the Cheltenham Gold Cup to a British amateur who saw her horse for the first time this week.

When you call for a report of the Maryland Hunt Cup, the person who was there live rattles off the winner, the second horse, sometimes the third, then stumbles – “Uh, I think he refused at the fifth…he might have gotten to the water…um, Dad, what happened to Billy’s horse...I never saw him…I think he got around…he might still be out there…” And that’s when less than 15 run. You’ll need a stenographer and cartographer for this.

It’s a classic.

Sunday will be more subdued. I’ll take Miles to the races, give his mother a break, he can climb on the rocks at Glenwood Park and we’ll watch Hockey Pop make his hurdle debut. By my favorite sire Empire Maker (Eagle Poise!), the 4-year-old won twice on the flat before making the well-worn emigration from flat trainer Alan Goldberg to jump trainer Jack Fisher.

Then it’ll be Sunday night. Maybe some winners registered, certainly miles logged.

Then it’s back on the road for the Derby sometime next week. Full tank. Iced coffee, on ice, Pistachios. Clif Bars. Audio books. Suits hanging on the driver side…

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My Flag, Grade 1 winner and dam of champion Storm Flag Flying, died April 12, after producing a healthy Bernardini colt. My Flag was 21.

The Saratoga Special talked to trainer Shug McGaughey about My Flag and 31 of his best horses in 2004, the year he was inducted into the Hall of Fame. The collection is part of the Best of The Saratoga Special, a book we produced after five years of publishing The Special.

The big mare was buried at Claiborne Farm.

(Shameless promotion: click here to order the book).

Here's Shug:

"My Flag came in and, of course, she was by Easy Goer out of Personal Ensign so we had tremendously high hopes for her. It took a while to get her off the sides of the barn at Belmont, but she could run. She won her first start, came from way back, and (Jerry) Bailey rode her. And then we ran her up here (Saratoga) in an allowance race and she was really tough in the paddock and she finished third.

“Then we took her back to Belmont, she finished third in the Matron. So we were pretty happy because at least we got some black type on her. Then I ran back in the Frizette and she was second. So we went to the Breeders’ Cup, you know, we had pretty high expectations for her. And it was at Belmont, came up an off track. She came from the back and she was able to get up in time to win the Breeders’ Cup as a 2-year-old.

“That was pretty exciting because her mother had won, and now the daughter had won. Especially with a filly with that kind of pedigree, to win a race of that significance. Then we gave her a little bit of time in the winter and I brought her back and I ran her in the Davona Dale and she finished second. I ran her back in the Bonnie Miss and she won. And then she won the Ashland and I took her to the Kentucky Oaks and I’m sure she was the favorite, and didn’t run a jump over that track. Easy Goer wouldn’t run over it either. I don’t think Personal Ensign particularly liked it, even though she won, that was not her best race.

“And then Mr. Phipps wanted to run her in the Belmont which I didn’t really have a problem with. She ran credible, she was third (to Editor’s Note and Skip Away). And then she ran back in the Coaching Club (American) Oaks and she won that, pretty handy, too. I was kind of looking forward to that, going a mile and a quarter . . . I’d skipped the Mother Goose cause it was close to the Belmont, and brought her up here and ran her in the Alabama and she finished third, kind of got in a tangle. She was big, and from where she came from she shot into trouble and couldn’t get her going again. So, we were disappointed, kind of had a bit of a reason. Then we ran her back in the Gazelle and she won that.

“She was a mix of both (parents). She was big, she looked more like him color-wise and stuff, but she was bigger. Sort of had both their running styles, coming from the back. Natural distance horse. She really wanted to run a long way. Still was pretty rough to be around, she was big, but she got better the more we raced her. Took her to Canada and ran her in the Breeders’ Cup, she finished fourth. I was hoping she’d do better but when you look back on it, it probably wasn’t that bad of a race. And then her 4-year-old year, she didn’t run much, she had some ankles on her and I guess they were probably bugging her a little bit. Then we retired her, and for her first foal, we bred her to Storm Cat, and her first foal was a filly called On Parade that had her running style.”

Next insertion will be Shug talking about On Parade. The next one will be Shug about Storm Flag Flying, then Personal Ensign and, why not, Easy Goer after that...

• Watch My Flag win the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies.

• Watch My Flag win the Ashland. 

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Guess, I’m supposed to write something now. This started out as a feature on the front of the website, then it became a blog, then I gave up and started scrolling Facebook (snow in Kentucky, orange moon last night, Shirley stubbed her toe…) and now it’s back as a blog.

Here’s the deal, I won the David F. Woods Award for the best Preakness story. My fourth Woods Award. I have the record. Yes, I’m Crash Davis.

The first, awarded in 2004, covered Funny Cide’s Preakness. I got lucky and wound up next to Mike Sellitto, agent for Jose Santos as Funny Cide won the Preakness. Sellitto wrote the lede, Barclay Tagg filled in the rest.

The next one, awarded in 2007, covered Barbaro’s Preakness in 2006. It was one of the few times as a writer I didn’t know what to do, I sat upstairs between my friend Tim Keefe and my future wife Anne. I was trapped, a million miles from the action, as Barbaro limped past us. It was the last time I watched a race I was covering with my friends instead of with the action. I ran through the crowd, got as close to the horse as I could stand, interviewed a mother and her kids holding a sign on a windy overpass off I-95 and wound up in the dark, on the loading chute of Michael Matz’s barn at Fair Hill. Buckets, webbing, brush box sitting in a mound of sadness.

The next one covered Curlin. Again, I got lucky as I ran into Carl Nafzger walking back to the barn to see Street Sense hours before the Preakness. He gave me everything I needed, inside the eighth pole, the story was written. Then Curlin came back and pulled the tablecloth. Steve Asmussen re-set it, in the dark outside the stakes barn, talking about Curlin for as long as I wanted.

The latest, Gary Stevens and Oxbow. Again, lucky. I had done an interview with Stevens for this website, months before, the quotes hadn’t even been transcribed. So good, they sat, waiting for the right moment. When Oxbow won, I scrambled, so much Orb stuff – now what? – then I thought back to the Stevens’ interview – hopefully still on my recorder – and the conversation I had with Stevens Preakness morning. That will work.

Access and openness writes stories, over the years, that’s what wrote these four stories – whether it was Barclay Tagg in his moment of greatness or Michael Matz in his moment of despair or Steve Asmussen in his moment of reflection or Gary Stevens in his moment of reclamation.

Ten years of covering the Preakness. Lucy Acton was my first editor. Now, it’s my brother. Well, he was always my editor, reading all my stuff before Lucy saw it – if she only knew how bad it was before it got to her... A decade has come and gone. Lucy’s gone, so are many of the beat writers who used to cover the Preakness and Crash Davis just hit another homer into the emptying bleachers.

Like Davis, I'm honored.

• Read the award-winning story at Mid-Atlantic Thoroughbred.

• Read more about David F. Woods.

 

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Disappointing weekend on the racing front. Just one runner, Valdez, at Ayr. Five of us huddled around Racing UK, ready for splendor. Instead, it was sputter.

Well, Valdez finished second, but beaten a long way and never providing the spark he showed earlier in the season. A month after Cheltenham, perhaps, that effort still lingering. The winner, Eduard, primed for it, nice horse.

So far, eight of the nine starters in the Arkle have returned to the races. The winner Western Warhorse finished a non-threatening third at Aintree and is out with a tendon injury. Third-place Trifolium finished third behind Balder Success at Aintree. Dodging Bullets finished last of five at Aintree. Grandouet finished last at Aintree. Brick Red was turned over at Ascot. Rock On Ruby, who nearly fell at Cheltenham, returned to run a blinder over hurdles at Aintree. Ted Veale, who fell late in the Arkle, returned with tepid sixth of seven at Aintree.

Champagne Fever, second in the Arkle, is the only horse who hasn’t returned to the races. Willie Mullins waiting for Punchestown in May.

It takes me weeks to recover from Cheltenham – clothes to the cleaners, the continuous discovering of betting slips and ATM receipts, the urge to drink Guinness at 10 a.m. – perhaps it takes Valdez longer than a month. Plenty of horses from other races have returned with big efforts (Uxizandre, Whisper, Grand National winner Pineau De Re…), but Valdez looked like a spent horse at Ayr. He’ll take the summer off and hopefully return for a fall campaign. The Cheltenham hangover will have passed by then. Good season, three wins, a second and a fifth in five starts.

Couple of runners at Middleburg Saturday. A few maidens to unleash later in the spring. Eagle Poise aiming at the Elkhorn at the end of the Keeneland meet.

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“What do you want for your birthday?” At 44, it’s a throwaway question, because none of it is really going to happen. You get a card and a cake and move on, another day, another year gone. At 44, you start to want less and think more. The birthdays coming fast, years tumbling over the ledge. You begin to look back as much as you look forward. There are things I’d like today and there are things I’d like from yesterday.

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