Billy Meister put a hand on Twill Do’s back, laughed and started talking.
“You know he had four broken ribs and is missing part of a lung, don’t you? You’d have never known it,” the trainer said as his horse walked past at the barn after Saturday’s Maryland Hunt Cup. “We turned him out every day and he bucked and played like normal. Like there was nothing wrong with him. How’d you like to run the Maryland Hunt Cup with only two-thirds of your lung function on one side?”
If you were Twill Do, you apparently would not mind.
The 12-year-old won the country’s most important timber race for the second time in three years, picking his way for 3 miles and then seizing control over the final six fences. Owned by Lucy Goelet, trained by Meister and ridden by James Stierhoff, the Maryland-bred held off Battle Op (Connor Hankin) by three-quarters of a length in 8:46 3/5 for the 4 miles and 22 fences. Bon Caddo (Sam Waley-Cohen) finished third in the $75,000 stakes at Glyndon.
Two years ago, Twill Do upset the Hunt Cup. People called it a fluke and credited the victory to circumstances (rapid early leader Across The Sky stopped at the 19th fence). Prepping for a defense of that victory in 2011, Twill Do lost jockey Erica Gaertner with a mistake early in the Grand National timber stakes and collided with another horse while running loose. The crack-up cost Twill Do his season along with the rib and lung injuries. Using ultrasound, veterinarians diagnosed one cracked rib, found three more as the months progressed and also discovered the diminished lung capacity
Brought back for 2012, Twill Do started his campaign at the Brandywine Point-to-Point in April and then returned to the National a week before the Hunt Cup. He finished fourth, beaten 20 lengths by Meister on stablemate And The Eagle Flys. Now tied for the most Hunt Cup mounts in history at 21, Meister studied the video of that race with Stierhoff and made some changes.
“We walked the course and had a meeting because there was a lot of concerns about going this week,” said the trainer. “He didn’t look as good as he can last week, but I thought we could fix it. James and I watched the films, I told him some things to do and I switched some equipment on the horse. It all came together.”
Meister went from a slow twist snaffle bit to a rubber snaffle and told Stierhoff to be more decisive at his fences, to ride into the Hunt Cup’s testing timber. Twill Do’s experience would minimize any problems. The result was a better jumping performance, as Twill Do rated off the early pace and worked into the race – much like he did in 2010.
“He’s a 4-mile, big-fence horse,” said Meister. “I told James to ride it from behind. Sit behind for six fences, then get yourself into the race and he’ll jump the big fences if he has to.”
Meister set the pace with And The Eagle Flys as the field reduced itself with jumping mistakes. Western Fling went at the second, Volle Nolle and Haddix at the fifth, More Fascination at the sixth, 2011 winner Private Attack at the 13th. From there, Twill Do went to work. At the massive 16th, And The Eagle Flys and Battle Op struggled mightily with the former lasting just one more fence. Twill Do and Professor Maxwell surged toward the 18th together, towing Bon Caddo and Battle Op along. Twill Do flew it, landed with a clear lead and powered to the 19th with a clear advantage. He turned the corner and reached 20 in control though the others crept back into contention. Twil Do led across Tufton Avenue, where Professor Maxwell slipped badly and lost all chance. A resurgent Battle Op climbed back into the race and challenged Twill Do coming to the 21st. At the last, Battle Op took a slim lead, but Twill Do leaned into that rubber bit and pulled away late.
“The third to last (20) there was nobody there coming into it and I was a little surprised,” said Stierhoff. “I just figured I’d keep on trucking from there. I went sooner than I did two years ago and maybe sooner than I planned but at that point he was going better than everybody else. I figured I’d kick on and take advantage of it.”
Stierhoff said Battle Op’s late challenge helped his horse focus on the final furlong.
“Coming into the water (21) I was pleased to hear Battle Op coming up behind me,” Stierhoff said. “I felt my horse pick up the bit again and saw Battle Op coming up on my outside. That was a blessing. We were head and head coming over the last, Battle Op actually beat me to it, but Twill Do got the better of him.”
Unraced on the flat, Twill Do was a $700 weanling purchase by Maryland horseman Joe Magner at Fasig-Tipton Midlantic’s sale in Timonium, Md. in 2000. Magner put some work into the son of Yarrow Brae and sold him to Meister, who took the long route via foxhunting, hunter trials, point-to-points, NSA timber races and then big Maryland timber. He’s won three races in his 20 starts under rules – two Maryland Hunt Cups and a maiden at Genesee Valley. Bred by leading Maryland breeders Tom and Chris Bowman, Twill Do is ideally suited to the rigors of a race like the Hunt Cup. He rises to the challenge, gets better over the course of a race and builds on his experience. He’s not as fast as Private Attack or Bon Caddo, but he can beat them in a race like the Hunt Cup.
“He’s so clever,” said Stierhoff, whose two wins under rules are both Hunt Cups. “The fences come up not perfect and he’s making arrangements before you’re even thinking about it. That horse has been around so many courses and hunted all his life. He knows how to do it. You’re so confident in him because he’s done so much. He’s a blast to ride.”
NOTES: The fallers were not seriously injured . . . Goelet became the fifth owner to claim two legs of the challenge cup, which can be retired with three wins by the same owner. The others are Arcadia Stable, Move Up Stable, Irv Naylor and Northwoods Stable. The latter owns Battle Op so missed by three-quarters of a length . . . There have been six Maryland Hunt Cup challenge cups, the fifth retired in 1983 by Joy Valentine’s Cancottage . . . Leading English amateur jockey Waley-Cohen enjoyed his first Hunt Cup try, aboard 2011 timber champion and Hunt Cup rookie Bon Caddo. The duo handled the fences, but not quite as well as Twill Do and stayed on late for third after looking like a player in the late stages. "It was a totally different experience (from English steeplechasing)," said Waley-Cohen. "He gave me a great run round, and I thought coming down the hill with three to go he was just galloping into the race and had a big chance. After crossing the road, he started to get a little bit tired. He was fantastic though, I’d love to come back."
PHOTO: Twill Do (left) holds off Battle Op near the finish of the Maryland Hunt Cup (Douglas Lees photo).