Throwback Thursday: Fort Devon was an international star

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When it comes to American steeplechase success in England, a handful of names and achievements quickly find the way forward:

American steeplechaser Fort Devon jumps at Kempton in 1978. Sporting Pictures UK/Timeform
  • Jay Trump’s 1965 Grand National win at Aintree.
  • Ben Nevis’ 1980 National triumph.
  • Flatterer’s second to See You Then in the 1987 Champion Hurdle at Cheltenham.
  • Lonesome Glory’s novice hurdle score at Cheltenham’s December meeting in 1992, plus a handicap chase win at Sandown three years later.
  • Soothsayer’s 1974 win in Cheltenham’s Cathcart Chase and the following year in the Cheltenham Gold Cup.
  • Tingle Creek’s fearless fencing en route to 23 English victories, a huge fan following and a race named in his honor.
  • Inkslinger’s 1973 Cheltenham double – victories in the Queen Mother Champion Chase and Cathcart Chase three days apart – plus a start in the 1974 Gold Cup.

But don’t forget Fort Devon. Bred in England, he won two American timber championships, captured the 1976 Maryland Hunt Cup and – returned to England – proved to be a top-class chaser with two starts in the Cheltenham Gold Cup.

“He was pretty special, but of course I am somewhat biased about that,” said Buzz Hannum, Fort Devon’s American jockey through 21 starts over timber at point-to-points and NSA meets, during a conversation this week. They won nine together, chief among them that Maryland Hunt Cup in 1976, the Pennsylvania Hunt Cup in 1975 and the Maryland Grand National in 1975 and 1976.

Trained by Betty Bird for her husband Charlie, Fort Devon didn’t exhibit that promise from the start and came to the United States with a reputation for being a rogue.

“He would bite the —- out of you, you had to pay attention,” said Hannum. “He had a devilish eye and he would take advantage of you if he could. On his back though, he was absolutely easy and a dream to get along with.”

That attitude would have intrigued Bird, whose skills as a horsewoman were unparalleled. She grew up in Maryland as Betty Bosley. She starred as a show rider, and missed a spot on the U.S. Olympic team because she appeared in an advertisement (in riding attire) for Herbert Tareyton cigarettes. She trained 1954 Maryland Hunt Cup winner Marchized and taught scores of people and horses how to be better.

“Betty Bird probably encouraged Fort Devon’s personality a little bit,” said Hannum. “She had a way with animals that was beyond anybody else’s ability I’ve ever seen. She had horses and dogs and I don’t know what else and they all had great personalities and I guess that was part of her training. She liked to see that personality come out.”

Bird and Paddy Neilson did much of the early work with Fort Devon, whose potential shined through the bad behavior.

During a podcast in 2019, Neilson summarized the horse:

“He wouldn’t leave the barn, wouldn’t go down the driveway . . . once we got past that he was great. I rode him in hunter trials and he got ribbons . . . very impressive, beautiful, big chestnut. Betty always groomed her horses and they were turned out beautifully. He had this copper sheen to him. He looked like a Munnings print.”

Neilson died a few months after that interview, Bird 10 years before that. Their partnership still resonates with Hannum, who picked up the Fort Devon ride when Neilson chose another mount, the forgettable Dooberg’s Dare, at Pennsylvania’s Rolling Rock Races in 1973.

“Paddy never tried to get back on him,” Hannum said. “That was pretty kind to allow me to get all the fun out of Fort Devon.”

The fun really started in 1974. Fort Devon finished third at the Cheshire Point-to-Point in March, but missed the rest of the spring season. He kept a busy schedule in the fall – with a third at Fair Hill Sept. 7, a win there a week later, a second at Rolling Rock Oct. 2, and a win there over the talented Perfect Cast three days later. Fort Devon finished second at Far Hills and fell in the Pennsylvania Hunt Cup. Fort Devon tied Still In All for the seasonal timber championship and headed to 1975.

He made eight starts total. Point-to-point wins at Cheshire and Elkridge-Harford got things started, then came a course record in the 3-mile Maryland Grand National. Bird thought big, aimed for the 4-mile Maryland Hunt Cup a week later and even put England on the horizon.

“It was the plan to win the 1975 Maryland Hunt Cup and then go over for the Grand National at Aintree,” said Hannum. “Then he didn’t win.”

Jacko, a three-time timber champion who would add a fourth crown in 1976, prevailed by a head in a duel – and Fort Devon stayed home. He rewarded the decision by winning at Rolling Rock in October and adding a Pennsylvania Hunt Cup in November to claim a second timber title.

For all his difficulties in the barn, Fort Devon was fairly simple to ride.

“You had to kind of steer him and there were tactical implications about putting him where you thought he ought to be, but it was pretty easy to get him there,” said Hannum. “He was as easy to ride as any horse I’ve ever ridden.”

Fort Devon reached another level in 1976. Second at Elkridge-Harford, he dominated the Maryland Grand National – setting another course record while winning by 8 lengths. A week later in the Maryland Hunt Cup, Fort Devon put on a show – winning by 25 lengths. He hacked across the finish line with ears pricked.

Fort Devon and Buzz Hannum win the 1976 Maryland Hunt Cup (Douglas Lees photo).

“It was flawless, but with all due respect to the competition it was not the most difficult group he had run against,” said Hannum. “He was never under any pressure and was able to win very easily.”

Hannum never rode Fort Devon in a race again, but won’t forget the feeling.

“He was on the bridle, but he didn’t pull and concentrated on his business,” he said. “Like the majority of the horses under Betty Bird’s instruction, he was a perfect jumper. He knew exactly what he was doing, had an ability to outjump his mistakes. Also, he was pretty fast and he stayed really well. You put all those things together and you get a pretty good steeplechaser horse.”

England beckoned for the son of Fortina.

Bird sent Fort Devon to Fulke Walwyn, trainer of the great Mill House and other stars, and Fort Devon got back to work. In November, carrying top weight, he won a handicap chase at Wincanton. Next he finished second (a half-length behind Royal Marshal) in the King George VI Chase on Boxing Day and settled for the runner-up spot again in January, when Pendil scored by a short head at Wincanton.

Against the likes of Lanzarote, Bannow Rambler and Tied Cottage, Fort Devon started as the 5-1 third choice in the Cheltenham Gold Cup and looked poised for a victory when he fell at the 17th of 22 fences.

Hannum thought his old mount was in with a major chance.

“I was there in 1977, the first year he ran in the Cheltenham Gold Cup,” he said. “Tied Cottage went way to the front and at the top of the hill the last time, Fort Devon had just caught him and appeared to be going by him and fell. It really seemed to me he had every chance to win.”

As the Timeform Chasers and Hurdlers Guide put it, “With . . . only Tied Cottage and Summerville in front of him, Fort Devon was well-placed to realize the long-term plans of his owner. But the fences have to be jumped. He fell at the ditch, and that was that.” Davy Lad won in a race the Daily Telegraph’s John Oaksey called “the saddest steeplechase I ever saw” after Champion Hurdle winner Lanzarote fell at the ninth fence and took Bannow Rambler with him, Fort Devon fell at the 17th and Summerville lost his action while leading late.

By season’s end Timeform rated Fort Devon at 160, just behind Bannow Rambler’s 163 mark among staying chasers.

Fort Devon tried again the next season at age 12. He won three of his four preps and was considered a contender for both the Gold Cup and the Grand National at Aintree. Snow postponed Cheltenham to April 12, after the National, scrapping Aintree thoughts and forcing Fort Devon to try the Gold Cup off a lengthy break.

Away from the races since Feb. 25, he led much of the way and was still up front four fences from home before fading to fifth behind Midnight Court. Post-race reports said he bled.

The Timeform book devoted three pages and four photos to Fort Devon, summarizing with: “And so an enterprising and greatly welcome American effort to win the Cheltenham Gold Cup is surely at an end, with younger horses now holding the stage. Fort Devon did more than enough in his two seasons to show the effort worthwhile, even though his two attempts came to nothing.  In 1976, don’t forget, he ran Royal Marshal to half a length in the King George VI Chase. Hopefully, others from the United States will follow . . . the less parochial the sport is, the better it must be.

Fort Devon in 1978. Finona Vigors/Timeform photo

“. . . A rangy gelding, who did very well physically during the summer of 1977 and kept his condition afterwards, Fort Devon puts his physique to good use on the track. He is a bold, sure jumper of his fences and willing to take the best of fields along under big weights when asked to do so.”

Hannum knew that from the beginning.

“He’s a milestone horse in my world, by far the best horse that I ever had the chance to ride and I rode some not-too-bad ones,” he said. “His talents were so all-around. He could do it all. I am extremely complimented whenever anyone mentions my name in association with Fort Devon.”

Fort Devon came back to America in retirement, first as a foxhunter for Betty Bird – who will be remembered at this year’s Cheshire Foxhounds Point-to-Point March 26 – and later as a mount for Bob Crompton, the huntsman with the Andrew’s Bridge Foxhounds in Pennsylvania.

Listen to Paddy Neilson and Buzz Hannum discuss the Maryland Hunt Cup.

Watch Fort Devon lead the 1978 Cheltenham Gold Cup.