A week after trying to run two rivals off the race course - and succeeding with one - at the Grand National, Senior Senator became the youngest Maryland Hunt Cup winner in 53 years Saturday with a front-running, logic-defying triumph for raw ability.
The 6-year-old rated deep in a field of 13 over the first two fences, then began to work toward the front at the third, a 4-foot-9 beast of full rails and solid posts. In front over the fourth, where a loose horse caused calamity for some, Senior Senator added to his lead with big leaps at the fifth and sixth and was 20 lengths clear over the seventh and eighth.
He was six seconds in front, literally, at the ninth. More importantly, he was under control, locked in and using his spring-heeled jumping. Senior Senator jumped a post at the 13th, but lost little. Last year's winner Raven's Choice, second most of the way, clouted the 14th and lost precious ground. Guts For Garters, who won in 2014, kept pace and moved to second at the 15th.
At the 16th fence, which stands 4-foot-10 but plays even higher, Senior Senator and Guts For Garters flew it. Raven's Choice got in too tight and fell, as did Almarmooq. Serene Harbor closed in, and Imperial Way reached contention for the first time. Drift Society kept building on a good race. Foyle began to tire. Separated by about 5 lengths, the top three (Senior Senator, Serene Harbor and Guts For Garters) stood back and hurdled the 17th. The 18th fence claimed Foyle, leaving just five. Senior Senator led over the 20th and crossed Tufton Avenue in front, but he had company. To the inside, Guts For Garters drew even. Behind them, Drift Society advanced to third as Serene Harbor and Imperial Way came under pressure.
Guts For Garters landed running over the second-last, the trappy water fence, and set sail. Senior Senator wasn't finished though, and reached even terms just before the last - right about the same time Drift Society closed rapidly. They approached the last on even terms, Senior Senator jumped best and landed in front. Guts For Garters dug in and went up by about a neck, only to be challenged again by the winner.
Senior Senator and jockey Eric Poretz prevailed by a half-length after 4 miles in 9:11. Guts For Garters, completing his fourth trip around the course for jockey Jody Petty, settled for second with Drift Society (Connor Hankin) third. Serene Harbor was 18 lengths back in fourth, just ahead of Imperial Way. Though eight horses failed to complete the 22-fence course, there were no injuries to horses or jockeys.
The moment was not lost on Poretz, a 20-year-old who gallops for flat trainer Tim Keefe at Laurel Park.
"It's the most amazing feeling, just a dream come true," he said. "Coming into the last, he did something he's never, ever done. Jody was a half-length in front and my horse bolted forward for the fence, got a good jump going home. Jody came back and got half-a-head in front again and my horse just went on again. He was great. He's just an amazing horse."
Owned by Skip Crawford and trained by Joe Davies, Senior Senator is the first 6-year-old to win the historic race since Jay Trump in 1963. Jay Trump, of course, won twice more and also captured England's famed Grand National at Aintree. You have to go back to 1916 to find another 6-year-old winner, Burgeois, and beyond that the records get really sketchy. The 1912 winner, Conbe, is listed as a 5-year-old mare while 5-year-old gelding Judge Parker won in 1908 - though there are numerous years where the winner's age is not recorded.
Regardless, the 2016 race was quite a feat as Senior Senator made up for his bad behavior a week earlier - he won the allowance timber but was disqualified for the interference - and then some.
"The horse never, ever has turning problems," said Poretz after the Hunt Cup. "When horses challenge this horse, he bites down on the bit and he launches. He has no brain, no nothing. When he's on the front end like he was today he's in a zone, he listens to me, he turns, he settles. But when people mess with him and come on his outside, that's when the trouble happens."
Trouble might as well be Senior Senator's middle name.
Davies and his wife Blythe claimed him at Penn National for $7,500 in 2013 based on some video research. On the computer, he looked like a big, rangy horse with a great stride. In reality, he was a headcase who tested trainer Flint Stites every day. On the night of the claim, Senior Senator dropped his jockey in the post parade and finished second. Stites warned the new owners, as did their friend (and Penn National-based trainer) Bernie Houghton a day later. For the new connections, Senior Senator ran twice on the flat, unseating his rider before finishing sixth for $5,000 at Timonium in August and repeating the performance when sixth for $7,000 at Penn National in September.
Two weeks after the latter, Senior Senator showed up at the Shawan Downs steeplechase meet for a training flat race. It took 45 minutes to put the bridle on. He finished third. Jockey Ross Geraghty could barely pull up afterward, got off and said something to the effect of, "Nice horse, don't ever call me again." Third in another training flat race to close the season, Senior Senator had a reputation and little else.
"We were very close to giving him away or something," said Joe Davies. "People told us to get rid of him, that he was going to kill someone."
But somewhere along the line, they reached the bay gelding, who was bred in Pennsylvania by Marylander Charles McGill. Senior Senator liked farm life, enjoyed the jumping lessons, the quirkiness of riding out with ponies and going for van rides to nowhere and began to bond with the people in charge of his life. Crawford, who campaigned novice hurdle champion Motorcade with Joe Davies in 1993, bought the prospect along with another new horse Touchdown Tony.
In 2014, as a 4-year-old, Senior Senator finished third over hurdles at a spring point-to-point. At Fair Hill, Poretz was unable to ride due to National Steeplechase Association apprentice rules about first-time starters. Partnered with Gus Dahl, Senior Senator lost his jockey with a mistake at the fifth fence, then jumped the outside rail while trying to get back to the paddock.
Flat racing failed. Hurdle racing failed. Timber was the last option, even though 4-year-old timber horses are as common as Bernie Sanders supporters on the first tee at Trump National. Senior Senator won at the Pennsylvania Hunt Cup in November and finished second in three starts (two NSA, one point-to-point) to the likes of Grinding Speed and Serene Harbor last year.
Then came 2016. Senior Senator defeated Grinding Speed at the Cheshire Point-to-Point, dealt with a foot abscess and a quarter crack for 10 days afterward (with help from blacksmith Barry Schwartz) and handled everyone but the stewards at the Grand National.
Davies still doesn't agree with the disqualification, or maybe just the way it all happened. Two horses challenged Senior Senator on the outside at an odd spot on the course and the horse responded.
"He definitely drifted out and bumped one, but I don't think they should have been where they were at that point," said Davies, who was fined $250 for a confrontation with Forrest Kelly, one of the riders fouled, afterward. "When they came to him, he locked on to the fence that was straight ahead and then when it came time to turn left to go to the fence in the race, he was way out there to the right."
Davies said stewards questioned trying the Hunt Cup a week later, over bigger fences, going a mile farther, but the trainer thought it might actually help matters.
"We were hoping the setting was the perfect place for this horse," said the trainer, who won the race three times as a jockey. "He just likes to run and jump. There's space, there's room, it's wide open. We believed the Hunt Cup would suit his jumping. There, maybe they wouldn't be able to come to him. We just felt like that setting, if we were right, plays to his strengths. He's got an endless gallop and he can just jump out of stride like no horse I've ever seen."
Davies, who puts the bridle headpiece on his horse at home before shipping to the races, was right. Once in front, Senior Senator put on a jumping clinic. Challenged on the outside 3 miles in, he responded without fouling anyone. Challenged on his inside after the third-last and into the stretch, he again reacted the right way.
"Ashton Williams rides him most every day at home for us, and if he ever gets upset, starts to buck or anything, she'll just turn to the nearest fenceline she sees and head at it," Davies said. "He starts jumping and he just calms down. We are so lucky we found him and he's lucky he found us. He was at Penn National, freaked, with a bad reputation. Now he lives in a field and is happy. We love him."