Two black-and-white photos, grainy but matted and framed, sit on the table in front of Dr. John R.S. Fisher. He’s in the 50-year-old images, the jockey aboard Landing Party at the 17th fence of the 1971 Maryland Hunt Cup, and tries to conjure the feeling of flight.
“That’s the greatest fence I ever jumped,” he says, slowly, as if he’s feeling it again. Must be some feeling.
In the photo on the right, Landing Party takes off from far back, farther than he should at the 4-foot-1 fence. Fourteen people watch up close, just to Fisher’s left. A mass of stripes, checks, shorts, sport coats, handbags and knee-high boots, they obscure the fence but there are four thick rails, braced by stout posts.
Landing Party, the winner in 1969, looks to be in total control. The power of his hind legs, his hindquarters, his back is obvious. He has surprised Fisher, rising up so early and the jockey does his best to stay out of the horse’s way – going with him instead of working against. Just behind is 1968 winner Haffaday, only his front half visible, about to try to match that leap. He won’t. He can’t. He must know he’s beaten.
In the photo on the left, Landing Party is high in the air. His girth is a foot above the fence. He’s about to land running, while Haffaday rises from a much safer approach. Landing Party will keep powering on, see out the race’s fourth mile and remaining five fences. He wins by 10 lengths, geared down by Fisher at the finish, and breaks the great Jay Trump’s course record. Haffaday settles for second.
“He’s the reason we set the record,” says Fisher of his rival. “They were two very good horses, and he was right there, right there the whole way. I had him. I knew I had him, but he was right there. I probably asked Landing Party after the 16th (a 4-foot-10 monster) and that’s why he jumped the 17th like that. He ran down there like it was just a fence and boom, left the ground. There was a roadbed there and he left the ground before the roadbed.”
Also owned and trained by Fisher, Landing Party could do that. His 1969 Hunt Cup win had come by an even more lopsided if less spectacular 25 lengths when just two of the eight starters finished. Nephew of six-time Hunt Cup winning trainer Janon Fisher Jr., John Fisher went to Gilman School, learned all he could from Hall of Fame trainer Mikey Smithwick, became a veterinarian, rode as an amateur before and after college, trained steeplechasers and flat horses. Fisher won more than 800 races and multiple graded stakes. His son Jack is in the midst of a historic career as a steeplechase trainer.
But there was only one Landing Party.
“He was a lifetime horse,” Fisher said Thursday morning. “It was pure serendipity that I bought him. Why would I pick that horse out? I have no idea. And why would he turn out like that?”
Then just starting out as a trainer, Fisher went to Keeneland in 1966. He was looking for clients, not horses. Maybe somebody would buy a horse and need a trainer. Maybe somebody else would want a horse and need help to buy it. Whatever, Fisher went and saw a dark bay “just as plain as could be” 4-year-old colt. Unraced, the son of Beechpark had some pedigree as his dam Blue Sloop was out of P T Boat, whose stakes-winning dam Speed Boat was by Man o’ War. Another daughter of Speed Boat, Level Best (by Equipoise) raced for Man o’ War’s owner Samuel Riddle and won a dozen races including the 1941 Coaching Club American Oaks.
Bred in Maryland by Fendall Clagett, Landing Party simply looked the part to Fisher. And the price was right.
“Eight-hundred dollars,” Fisher said. “I could talk like Wayne Lukas and tell you I saw the lion or the gazelle or whatever it is in the horse, but I couldn’t. I just felt he was an attractive horse, and he was going really cheap. I bought him walking out the door. That was my last bid.”
Fisher took the horse home to Pennsylvania. The first day started with bucking and “this and that” and ended with blood trickling out of the horse’s nostrils. A sales purchase could be returned if bleeding was reported in the first 48 hours. Fisher called Dr. William Wright for a second opinion and Wright arrived the next day. Landing Party went through some paces, galloped and looked good doing it. No bleeding.
Wright was blunt.
“You know, this is a really nice horse for $800,” he told Fisher. “If he was mine, I’d keep him.”
Landing Party never bled again. He learned to jump, went foxhunting and was aimed at the 1968 timber racing season. Fisher got his horses fit by jogging them on the Pennsylvania roads over the winter, “vigorously” as he put it. Landing Party, and stablemate Island Stream, missed the spring because they were lame from all the road miles. It was October, and the two-day Rolling Rock meeting in western Pennsylvania, before Fisher’s horses got to run. Island Stream, owned by George Weymouth, won on Wednesday. In his career debut at age 6, Landing Party won on Saturday. He won again at Red Bank in New Jersey, but closed the year with a fall in the Pennsylvania Hunt Cup.
Back for the spring of 1969, Landing Party finished second in the My Lady’s Manor, but rebounded to take the Grand National a week later (under Paddy Neilson as Fisher rode runner-up Island Stream) and the Hunt Cup with Fisher back aboard the week after that. The victory was efficient and, in the end, dominant. Landing Party appeared to get a break when Moonlore wrecked the 13th fence, breaking the post and dropping rails, but stood back and jumped it at full height anyway. It was a sign of things to come two years hence.
“He was a horse who didn’t have a lot of personality,” Fisher said. “He just got things done. No bad habits or anything, but he wasn’t a cuddly kind of horse. And he jumped those two fences (the 13th in 1969 and the 17th in 1971) the same, just rocked back and boom.”
It was Fisher’s first ride in the race in 14 years. He’d finished fifth aboard Edward M. in 1954 and second with Lancrel in 1955. Neither ride was anything like Landing Party. The pre-race prep for Edward M. came from owner Ben Griswold III.
“Don’t get excited, because you’re not going to win but you’ll get around,” he told his young jockey, leaving out the part about falling with the horse himself in 1950.
The Virginia Gold Cup winner in 1954, Lancrel was more of a contender though regular rider Frank Bonsal chose Philstar for the Hunt Cup. In addition, and perhaps more importantly, Lancrel was owned by Hugh O’Donovan whose niece Dolly had Fisher’s attention.
“Of course I was sweet on Dolly, so I said I’d ride Lancrel,” Fisher said. “I was in the paddock, I figured there was a slim chance to none that I was going to complete the course.”
They were second. Lancrel and Bonsal won the Hunt Cup together the next year, but Dolly and Johnny Fisher have been married for decades.
After the 1969 Hunt Cup win, Landing Party didn’t race in the fall and returned with lofty goals – again – in 1970. He won the Manor April 11, captured his second Grand National April 18 and was headed for another Hunt Cup try the next Saturday when Fisher the veterinarian had bad news for Fisher the trainer.
“It was a check ligament, an upper suspensory,” he said. “He wasn’t lame, but I was concerned. It had filling and it had heat, so we didn’t run.”
Landing Party took his spring/summer break a week early, got fit in the fall, went foxhunting and arrived for the 1971 season in top form. He won the Voss Memorial at the Elkridge-Harford Point-to-Point April 3, added a third consecutive Grand National two weeks later and headed to the Hunt Cup. Awaiting him there were two other Hunt Cup winners – Haffaday from 1968 and Morning Mac from 1970 – in a field of 12.
Fisher was confident.
“I remember walking the course with Mikey Smithwick early on and stopping at each fence to talk about it and by the time you got to the 16th you’d want to go home,” he said. “But walking it before I rode Landing Party the second time, that was fun. I couldn’t wait.”
Landing Party hardly put a foot wrong, taking over from Whackerjack and Kathy Kusner (who’d made history as the race’s first woman rider the year before) at the fourth fence. Haffaday followed and they drew off from the rest of the field. Fisher let out that notch after the 16th fence, got rewarded with that leap in the photos, and Landing Party won with ease. He claimed the course record from an all-time great and provided his rider with a seminal moment.
“Winning a Maryland Hunt Cup is huge; it stays with you forever,” Fisher said. “I don’t know why, but the fact that you won a Hunt Cup sticks with you. It’s OK to ride a Hunt Cup, but to win a Hunt Cup is a big deal in your life unless you have such an extraordinary life that it’s beyond that, which isn’t my life by any stretch.
“Touching the void, isn’t that name of the book about things like that? That’s the feeling.”
Indeed, “Touching the Void” is a book written in 1988 about the harrowing experience of Joe Simpson and Simon Yates when they climbed 20,814-foot Siula Grande in the Peruvian Andes and barely survived the descent. The book has sold more than a million copies and been translated into more than 20 languages.
The Hunt Cup is American steeplechasing’s Siula Grande. Fisher and a special horse conquered it twice.
Landing Party’s tale could end there, with retirement, hacks in the country and all the other perks of steeplechase royalty. He had won his last seven starts counting that point-to-point at Elkridge-Harford, nine of 11 overall, and set the course record in America’s toughest and oldest jump race.
But he was relatively young at age 9. There were more challenges, and a wild offer. Maryland racing enthusiast and Baltimore radio station owner Tom Tinsley had witnessed the two Hunt Cup wins, and wanted to win the English Grand National at Aintree. Jay Trump had done it in 1965, and been the toast of the racing world. Tinsley wanted that feeling, figured Landing Party might be the horse to provide it, and contacted Fisher.
“Would you sell the horse?” Tinsley asked.
“No, he’s not for sale,” Fisher replied.
“Well, I’d really like to buy him.”
“Well, he’s not for sale.”
“Can I look at him? Can I come see the horse?”
“Yes, you can come see the horse.”
Tinsley knew little about horses, but saw Landing Party and listened to Fisher’s explanation of the tricky suspensory and the delicate nature of getting a horse to a target such as Aintree. Tinsley patted Landing Party on the neck, and turned to Fisher.
“I’ll give you fifty-thousand.”
Dollars. In 1971. The Maryland timber races carried no purses then. Landing Party’s lifetime earnings were $3,251. He’d cost $800 less than five years earlier.
“In those days I didn’t have any money and $50,000 was a lot of money, a lot of money,” Fisher said. “That’s basically the farm, it was the farm. So I said ‘OK, but I get to ride him and I get him back when he’s through racing.’ ”
Tinsley hesitated and didn’t agree at first, but the two men signed a deal spelling out the terms with the help of attorney Richie Jones. In June 1971, Landing Party left for England to join the stable of trainer David Nicholson and prep for the 1972 Grand National. Fisher was to fly over for races. Whenever the adventure ended, the gelding would return to Fisher’s Glenderro Farm in Pennsylvania.
Unhandicapped because he had no English or Irish starts, Landing Party needed to qualify for Aintree. He was pulled up after six fences at Chepstow and finished last (with Fisher aboard) at Lingfield. Deal be damned, Tinsley said Nicholson would be the jockey. Fisher protested, Tinsley argued that he could do as he pleased. Landing Party fell in his next start, but Nicholson and Tinsley went in search of one more try. American owners Martie Sanger and Joy Valentine were at the races and relayed to Fisher another poor effort and Nicholson’s disgust at the result.
Fisher called Tinsley.
“You can do what you’re going to do,” Fisher said, “but the horse is going out of Nicholson’s yard.”
He didn’t make the trip, but called on a veterinarian friend to evaluate the horse. The English vet got Landing Party to his clinic, and gave a thorough examination. At first, everything was fine.
“He wanted to keep him for a little bit to be sure, and two or three days later he called and said the horse was circling in his stall,” Fisher said. “He thought he had a neurological problem.”
The condition worsened and Landing Party was ultimately euthanized. A post-mortem revealed a herniated portion of his brain, likely suffered in that fall, which caused the neurologic failure. He’d run once with the injury. Nobody in England saw the real Landing Party, the one who flew fences with daring ease and abandon.
“Tough end to the story,” said Fisher. He regrets selling, still. Who wouldn’t, knowing all that? But he probably would make the same decision, in the same circumstances. Adjusted to 2021 dollars, that $50,000 check in 1971 was worth more than $327,000.
“If I had the money, I wouldn’t have sold that horse,” he said. “But, I didn’t have the money, it was 1971 and it was $50,000. And I could ride him and would get him back afterward. I was in the horse business. This is what you did.”
Fisher stayed in the horse business, and became a pioneer of sorts as the founder of the Fair Hill Training Center among other achievements in a long career. Landing Party helped, every step of the way.
“I learned to be patient,” Fisher said when asked what he learned from the horse. “Have patience, have confidence. I learned that I knew what I was doing. That was a confirmation of a lot of things. You’re flying blind for much of the time with horses. You do this and you do that. It made me a much better horseman. I can remember when I first started training, my attitude about a horse was that they were there and they would do what you wanted them to do. They were to do it. They were going to do it, and it took me a while to figure out that that was not the right way. If they didn’t do what you wanted them to do, either they didn’t have the capacity to do it or they had an issue, which in most cases was pain of some sort, that didn’t let them do it. You had to sit back and let them tell you what the issue was. He helped me learn that.”
And that was more than enough.
• • •
Dark bay/brown gelding, 1962, Beechpark-Blue Sloop, Blue Larkspur. Bred by Fendall Clagett in Maryland.
Won all three Maryland timber stakes – My Lady’s Manor (1970), Grand National (1969, 1970, 1971), Maryland Hunt Cup (1969 and 1971).
One of two horses (with Winton, who won each race three times) to win the Grand National three times, the Hunt Cup at least twice and the Manor at least once. Set Maryland Hunt Cup course record of 8:42 in 1971. Still eighth fastest all-time.
American record (including one point-to-point start): 11-9-1-0. $3,251.
*The photos mentioned at the start of this article are framed, with glass, and don't reproduce well. They're also 50 years old. Let the description be your eyes.