Jack Fisher would ride Battle Op. Or maybe Twill Do. Either way, he wants experience because experience matters at the Maryland Hunt Cup. Like no other place.
Fisher, who rode Revelstoke to victory in the 1994 timber classic after placing second the year before, trains two of the 15 entrants in Saturday’s 2014 version in the Worthington Valley of Baltimore County near Glyndon, Md. Battle Op, 14, has been around the course twice. Delta Park, 10, is a rookie. They’re in with solid chances along with two-time Hunt Cup winner Twill Do, 2013 runner-up Sand Box Rules, 2013 third-place finisher Guts For Garters, two-time course completer Bon Caddo and 2013 timber champion Foyle (a Hunt Cup rookie).
The 4-mile, 22-fence race carries a $75,000 purse but is worth even more in Maryland Thoroughbred magic, lore and history. The race, for amateur jockeys, was first run in 1894 and has called the same course home since the 1920s. Post time for the 118th running is 4 p.m. but get there early – they close Tufton Avenue.
The 15 entrants is three more than last year, when just six finished. Attrition could play a role again this year as horses and jockeys try to find comfort zones amid the traffic, the fences (some approaching five feet in height).
Owned by Northwoods Stable, Battle Op was traveling up front when he lost jockey Connor Hankin late last year. The gray son of Ops Smile has never won an NSA race, but did finish third in the 2010 Hunt Cup and was second in 2012. After a pull-up at My Lady’s Manor, Fisher and Hankin regrouped and gave their charge a spin at Fair Hill Point-to-Point Easter Sunday. Battle Op responded with an inspired effort, outrunning former top hurdler Nationbuilder late to get the win in the open race.
“I was going to suggest retiring him, but then (owner) Mike Hankin said to give him one more trial,” said Fisher. “I wouldn’t run him in Grand National or the Hunt Cup as a trial because the fences are so tough, so we went to Fair Hill. He loved it. I thought Nationbuilder was going to run over top of him, but he dug in. He’s going to be in front. Well, I’m not going to give instructions but he’ll be up close.”
Battle Op has made four Hunt Cup starts and finished twice, the best a three-quarter length defeat to Twill Do in 2012. University of Virginia student Connor Hankin, son of the owner, will be aboard again.
Fisher’s second entry, Delta Park, lacks the experience of his stablemate but brings more raw ability with six jump wins and 19 top-three finishes. Arcadia Stable’s 10-year-old converted to timber in 2009 and has won three stakes. The son of Johannesburg chased Foyle home in the Pennsylvania Hunt Cup last fall, losing by a half-length and shifting the target somewhat. Last week in the Grand National, Delta Park settled for third behind Spencer Road and Foyle after being bothered at the second-last.
“I’m thinking he’s not winner of Virginia Gold Cup (another 4-mile timber classic, over smaller fences) so we needed to try something else with him,” said Fisher. “He ran great in the Grand National. He got messed up at the second-last and for a big horse like that to re-go is a tough one.”
Hankin rode the Kenetucky-bred in that race, but gives way to Mark Beecher for the Hunt Cup. Beecher won the 2013 race aboard the experienced Professor Maxwell. Fisher hopes for some magic, but also knows his horse will benefit from a trip around the Hunt Cup.
“Being around it is an advantage,” he said. “Every year I rode in it, the third fence was a shock to the horses I was on. They’ve never jumped anything as big as the third fence (4-foot-9).”
Hunt Cup horses rarely if ever school over anything as formidable as the fences they face in the race, Fisher said. The sixth, 13th and 16th are also massive but there are no easy ones on the last Saturday in April.
“The only thing that does is mess them up,” Fisher said of schooling over big fences. “You’re not going to duplicate the Hunt Cup because they get their blood up. There blood’s up, they’re in with other horses and they go on and do it. Schooling at home wouldn’t be the same.”
Twill Do has been around the course three times, winning in 2010 and 2012 and finishing fourth last year. Lucy Goelet’s Maryland-bred normally races toward the back, and picks his way through the field. He’s at his best when the others start to weaken or make jumping mistakes. He pulled up in the Grand National last week, but the Hunt Cup is his game. James Stierhoff will ride the 14-year-old son of Yarrow Brae for trainer Billy Meister.
On the subject of Meister, he will be aboard And The Eagle Flys in what the veteran horseman says will be his final mount before retiring as a jockey. One more Hunt Cup start would give him 22 for his career, breaking Paddy Neilson’s 21 career mounts for the record (Jervis Spencer Jr. rode 20 back in the day). Meister has won the Hunt Cup three times as a jockey – with Freeman’s Hill in 1988, The Hard Word in 1990 and Hello Hal in 1996.
Meister also entered NoGo Stable’s Bug Eyed Willy, who lost jockey Suzanne Stettinius in last year’s Hunt Cup and is winless in 15 career steeplechase starts.
Trainer Bruce Fenwick, based next to the Hunt Cup course at his Belmont Farm, aims two stars at the big race for owner Merriefield Farm. Bon Caddo, 13, won a timber championship in 2011 and has jumped around the Hunt Cup twice. The Canadian-bred son of Bon Point was fifth last year and third behind Twill Do and Battle Op in 2012. Fenwick went the conservative route with the veteran, who prepped with a second to Incomplete at point-to-point last week at Loudoun in Virginia. James Slater takes the riding assignment for Fenwick, who sounded confident after a training session Thursday.
“He’s the sleeper,” Fenwick said. “He is good, my God he is good. Slater just got off him and they went great. That race in Virginia was a very good effort. He was in front the whole way and hooked up with Incomplete, who is still a nice horse. Bon Caddo will run well.”
Bon Caddo may indeed run well, but it might not be enough to beat his stablemate Foyle. The Hunt Cup newcomer has done little wrong in a timber career that began for real with his NSA debut in 2012. He broke his maiden late that year, and was a champion with two stakes wins last year. The 9-year-old Yarrow Brae gelding, one of four Maryland-breds in the race, looked sharp when just missing by a nose in the 3-mile Grand National timber stakes this past Saturday.
Top English amateur Sam Waley-Cohen flies in for the ride, his second in the Hunt Cup (third on Bon Caddo two years ago) but first on Foyle.
“Foyle is tough and if he gets a good trip he could be very tough,” said Fenwick. “You’ve got to hold him up the first mile and then he’ll run on well. The experience is going to help Bon Caddo though.”
Despite Fenwick’s pronouncement, the real sleeper might be Virginia shipper Sand Box Rules, who closed from well back to finish second behind the retired Professor Maxwell last year. Trained for Kinross Farm by Neil Morris, the 10-year-old tuned up with an easy win in an allowance timber at My Lady’s Manor two weeks ago. Diana Gillam takes the return riding assignment.
“My horse is well, we had a good spring,” said Morris. “I was very satisfied with his trip around the course last year. The instructions were to treat it like the local horse show. We wanted a clean round and and he did it nicely and closed quite well in the stretch. It’s hard to prep for that first time. You cannot mimic that. My horse will curl up over 5-foot single rails in an indoor arena, but that does not quite get you ready for the third, the 13th, the sixth or the 16th and all the other horses out there with you. It’s a tricky race to think you can run well in.”
Third last year, Guts For Garters will also benefit from the experience and a cleaner trip. The Irish import was bothered at the last fence in 2013 and is plenty capable for owner Stewart Strawbridge and trainer Sanna Neilson. Jody Petty takes the ride on the 11-year-old, who was eighth in an allowance timber last week at the Grand National.
The field with owner, trainer and jockey in post position order.
- Imperial Way. Merriefield Farm. Elizabeth Voss Murray. Bethany Baumgardner.
- Fort Henry. Welcome Here Farm. Blythe Davies. Annie Yeaker.
- Bug Eyed Willy. NoGo Stable. Billy Meister. Suzanne Stettinius.
- Foyle. Merriefield Farm. Bruce Fenwick. Sam Waley-Cohen.
- Catch The Echo. Gerry Brewster. Blythe Davies. McLane Hendriks.
- Embarassed. Armata Stable. Kathy Neilson. Cormac Farrell.
- Battle Op. Northwood Stable. Jack Fisher. Connor Hankin.
- Mach Ten. Upland Partners. Todd McKenna. Alice Mills.
- Sand Box Rules. Kinross Farm. Neil Morris. Diana Gillam.
- And The Eagle Flys. Jean Class. Billy Meister. Billy Meister.
- Bon Caddo. Merriefield Farm. Bruce Fenwick. James Slater.
- Twill Do. Lucy Goelet. Billy Meister. James Stierhoff.
- Brands Hatch. Gerry Brewster. Blythe Davies. Adair Stifel.
- Delta Park. Arcadia Stable. Jack Fisher. Mark Beecher.
- Guts For Garters. Stewart Strawbridge. Sanna Neilson. Jody Petty.
Post time is 4 p.m.