Beecher wins PA Hunt Cup in likely career finale

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After riding Mystic Strike to victory in the 85th Pennsylvania Hunt Cup Sunday, Mark Beecher climbed down, patted his horse on the shoulder, unbuckled the girths and headed for the scale to weigh-in. On the way back to the trophy presentation, he made a declaration.

“That’s me. Over and out.”

Five words, and he was retired – even if he wouldn’t quite close the book completely.

“I think so,” he said when pressed. “I’m pretty sure. This was the only race that kept getting away from me. I’ve won all the stakes, except this one. I said I can’t retire without getting this one. I was second twice. The training is taking over, the weight is tougher and tougher.”

Judging by Sunday, the riding is still just fine. Beecher, 34, engineered a perfect trip around the 4-mile, 22-fence course as Mystic Strike followed Grand Manan most of the way before making an inside play at the 20th fence. Grand Manan fought back and led after the second-last, only to be challenged again at the last. Mystic Strike took a slim lead and saw it out – winning by 2 1/4 lengths. Grand Manan stayed for second, with Super Saturday third. Trained by Todd McKenna for Upland Partners, the winner added a Pennsylvania Hunt Cup to his My Lady’s Manor win in April.

“He jumped super, it was the horse today,” said Beecher. “He ran and he jumped. I know this horse now and sometimes if he hits the front too early he has a bit of a look. I wanted to go a bit earlier, but I knew I couldn’t. To be fair, he kept his head down and went on after the last fence. He was super.”

The 10-year-old Smart Strike gelding won for the fifth time since switching to timber in 2016 and delivered a fun local win for his ownership group of Bill Wylie, Pete and Mary Mather, Sally Wood and Ian and Mary MacKinnon.

“Everybody’s local to this race and this place,” said Wylie, “We all foxhunted together. We’ve all lived close by each other. It’s fun to do with friends. Grand Manan wasn’t stopping and our horse looked like he was getting tired with a mile-and-a-half to go. He had a bad fence the first fence the second time around. He’s a really smart horse and when he knows he’s better than the other guy he doesn’t stop. He and Mark get along so well and we couldn’t be happier.”

Beecher, arguably (but who would argue?) the top timber jockey of the last 10 years, came to the United States for what was supposed to be a few weeks in 2010. He quickly found a niche on the timber circuit and stuck around. He won the Maryland Hunt Cup in 2013 and 2015, Virginia Gold Cup in 2015, International Gold Cup in 2011, 2012, 2014 and 2015, My Lady’s Manor in 2015 and 2019, Grand National in 2016. Other key timber wins came in the New Jersey Hunt Cup, Genesee Valley Hunt Cup, Mason Houghland and Radnor Hunt Cup. Pennsylvania proved to be elusive, as Beecher finished second in 2014 and 2015 with Cornhusker and was third in 2017 with Where’s The Beef.

“When I came over it was to win the Hunt Cup,” the Irishman said. “I did that and you know how it goes. You start winning and you want to keep doing it. It’s still fun. There’s no better buzz. But I couldn’t quit without having this. The Grand National eluded me. I got that. The New Jersey Hunt Cup. Then I got that. I kept coming back here and just getting beaten.”

Beecher paid credit to his horse, and the course.

“It takes as much jumping as any of them,” he said. “I walked the course and I put my hands to some of them and they’re solid. That was his element today, the jumping. I’m so happy for the horse and for everybody with him.”

• Beecher wasn’t the only Irish jockey to come up with an important win Sunday as Jack Doyle teamed up with Just Wait And See to win the allowance timber. The victory gave Doyle a 20-19 lead in the race for champion jockey with Michael Mitchell, with two weeks to go in the season.

Trained by Richard Valentine for Kinross Farm, the winner scored by 8 3/4 lengths over El Jefe Grande but had to survive a mistake at the fifth fence. Just Wait And See made a mess of it, but stayed on his feet with Doyle somehow staying in the saddle.

“We got our wires mixed up,” Doyle said. “He was running a little bit keen with me and I was trying to get him back and we got over the brow of the hill and he just went completely dead on me. We went to the fence and I kind of half had to press on him to jump. Just a bit of confusion. To find a leg, he was clever. I just had to stay on him.”

Doyle stayed put, Just Wait And See jumped well from there and won for the second time this year. For Doyle, it completed a double on the weekend (he won one at Montpelier Saturday) and produced a narrow gap on Mitchell – not that Doyle is thinking like that.

“Look, the jockey championship would be great,” said Doyle, who lost by a single victory last year. “Every race is as important as the last one. I’m always trying to ride as many winners as possible and if it happens, it happens. There’s no point going out and trying to force things you just change your style of riding then. I’m going to ride the races the same every day of the week and if the winners come, they come. If not, there’s always next year.”

Doyle and Mitchell will be in action at Callaway Gardens Nov. 9 and Charleston Nov. 17 to settle things.

• Trainer Sanna Neilson legged up her niece Skylar McKenna on Royal Ruse in the first, a maiden timber, and everybody came through as Charlie Fenwick’s 5-year-old Hat Trick gelding won by 2 3/4 lengths over Doyle and Forever Bernardini. The winner was third at Shawan in September and third (moved up to second by disqualification) again at Genesee Valley last month.

• Elizabeth Scully guided Morningstar Farm’s Good And Proper home first in the finale, an amateur/apprentice training flat race going 1 3/8 miles.

Amschel shines at Montpelier

Saturday’s Montpelier Hunt Races closed up the Virginia steeplechase season, and showcased the historic course’s natural brush jumps in thee featurerd Noel Laing Handicap. Irv Naylor’s Amschel picked up his first American win for trainer Cyril Murphy – handling the fences and defeating Stooshie by 3 1/4 lengths. Graham Watters rode the winner, a 5-year-old English-bred son of Nathaniel.

Other winners on the day included Aydoun in the 110 handicap hurdle for William Buyck, trainer Arch Kingsley and jockey Archie McCauley; a double for trainer Jonathan Sheppard and jockey Darren Nagle with Anticipating in the maiden hurdle and Attracting in a maiden claimer; Maggie Bryant’s Eve’s City in the filly/mare allowance for trainer Doug Fout and jockey Ross Geraghty; I Am Not Here for Doyle, trainer Todd Wyatt and owner Kristian Strangeway in a maiden claimer; Buyck, Kingsley and Skylar McKenna won the training flat opener on the dirt with Tolaga Bay.