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High Flyer: Jump jockey McCarthy wins bareback competition

As an exercise rider at Fair Hill Training Center, Willie McCarthy rides valuable racehorses every day. His other job involves riding steeplechase races, where the purses reach six figures and the potential of a nasty fall lurks every time he gets a leg up in the paddock.

But last weekend, he did the most nerve-wracking thing he’s ever done on a horse.

McCarthy took part in the bareback puissance competition at the Plantation Field Horse Trials in Unionville, Pa. Aboard IBella, McCarthy outlasted two other competitors in the high-jump competition to take first place and a lifetime of bragging rights. I Bella handled every jump with aplomb and cleared 6-foot-1 in the final round to take the crown for owners Tim and Nina Gardner. The Dutch Holsteiner mare is an eventer with Jennie Brannigan, and finished seventh at the open preliminary level earlier in the weekend. Sunday, I Bella came back to Plantation Field and dazzled everyone – especially her rider.

“The horse is the hero,” said McCarthy, who rides out in the mornings for Michael Matz. “It was one of those days I will never forget. Unbelievable. She’s a super jumper, on springs.”

McCarthy got to know Brannigan, who also gallops for Matz and the idea of trying the bareback competition – where competitors tackle a single jump, which is raised each round much like a human high-jump competition in track and field – hatched over some simple conversation. A former winner of bareback puissance, Brannigan told McCarthy about I Bella. A show jumper with Ashlee Bond before being purchased by the Gardners, I Bella can jump – high. Convinced by some practice sessions this summer, McCarthy agreed to give the competition a try.

Not that he didn’t think about it.

 “I got up Sunday morning and went to work for Michael,” McCarthy said. “I was stressed as you couldn’t believe. I ride races for a $150,000 and it doesn’t bother me. I was riding that thing, for $2,000, and I couldn’t look at food, nothing. I was really worked up about it.”

McCarthy got to Plantation Field at about noon and the nerves built up some more.

“It’s something different,” he said. “I wasn’t afraid of jumping the wall or anything, I was worried about messing it up. It’s a big deal and I just didn’t want to look like an idiot. Jennie put me up for the ride and if I messed it up it would come back on her. The pressure was on.”

He shouldn’t have worried. The warm-up went well, the nerves settled and I Bella went to work. She cleared the fence with ease and put the pressure on the others. Liz Stewart went out with a refusal. The winners cleared 6-1 and Tik Maynard clipped the top of the wall to give McCarthy the win.

With no previous show-jumping experience, McCarthy would seeming be at a disadvantage against the others but made it work. The transplanted Irishman rode pony races at home and never jumped a fence until he turned to point-to-points and steeplechase races – where the object is to get over the fence as quickly as possible. Height matters, but only to a point.

“ It was the biggest thing I’ve ever jumped, by a long way,” McCarthy said of the wall. “When we ride the jump races, we’re jumping as fast as you can go and we’re looking for strides four, maybe three, strides back.”

Despite a lack of stirrups, McCarthy said the difficult part had nothing to do with trying to stay aboard.

“The biggest thing is the approach to the wall, getting them on the right stride and getting the horse going down to it on a good pace and on her hocks,” he said. “I was just riding with the reins, riding heavy-legged I suppose. When they were building it up (between rounds), intentionally I was not looking at it. I tried to take the same route, a short route, to the fence and just tried to get the pace right.”

McCarthy said I Bella could probably jump even higher, just not with him on board. And his bareback career is most likely finished.

“I’d say she’d probably jump a little more, with the likes of Jennie on her she could definitely go higher,” he said. “I was getting to my limit for getting her there on the right stride. I’m not going to help her as much as somebody else and I won’t be doing it again. I’m going to retire on a win. You can’t do any better than that.”

McCarthy turns to his other job, steeplechase jockey, this weekend at Shawan Downs (Saturday) and Foxfield (Sunday). A winner of three races this year, after taking 10 last year, McCarthy has 10 rides at the two meets including a flat spin aboard 2012 steeplechase champion Pierrot Lunaire at Shawan. All being well, McCarthy will ride the Grade 1 winner at Far Hills in the $250,000 Grand National Oct. 19.

He won’t be nervous.

 

Bareback puissance video.

 

Willie McCarthy, what’s it like to jump a 6-foot-1 fence on a horse? Bareback?

“It was a big wall, now. You’re up there for ages.”

 

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