The 7 a.m. text could have come from Ireland or Scotland, or maybe some mythical land with a made-up name. A lone horse stands in a field of spring grass. To the right, a fence line stretches, following the contour of the land, then disappears into the fog. The horse’s ears are up, alert, checking out the photographer or some far off interest. His blaze is the brightest thing in the photo.
He could be a warrior’s steed, released after a battle; or a wild thing that emerged from the woods for a look at another world only to vanish at the first sign of recognition.
Or, maybe he could be a Maryland Hunt Cup horse on the verge of history.
Senior Senator, an 8-year-old Domestic Dispute gelding whose flat career ended after seven fruitless tries, leapt out of that fog Saturday morning to win the storied Hunt Cup for the second time in three years Saturday afternoon. Jockey Eric Poretz put the Pennsylvania-bred on the lead and together they stayed there through 4 miles, 22 fences and 9:20 2/5. Joshua G challenged the winner over the final three fences, but finished 5 lengths back in second while Drift Society was a distant third. They were the race’s only finishers from nine starters as Sovereign Fund fell at the 20th, Derwins Prospector fell at the 18th, Prime Prospector lost his rider at the 14th, Gas Can Eddie fell at the 12th, Old Timer fell at the third and Wildcatter was pulled up late as the Hunt Cup course had its say once again.
Run for the 122nd time, the race has produced eight three-time winners – Princeton, Garry Owen, Blockade, Winton, Pine Pep, Jay Trump, Mountain Dew and Cancottage. Senior Senator, who won in 2016 and fell at the third fence in 2017, can try to join the all-time greats next year. If he repeats his 2018 effort for owner Skip Crawford and trainer Joe Davies, history is within reach.
Bred by Charles McGill, a Marylander who lives a few miles from the course in the Worthington Valley, Senior Senator won for the fifth time in 10 starts over timber. The bay has crossed the finish line first or second in nine of those races, the only blips coming via disqualification from first in a 2016 race and a fall in last year’s Hunt Cup.
That crash, at the 4-foot-9 third fence, left Senior Senator with a broken bone in his neck. Surgery by Dr. Dean Richardson at New Bolton Center and a prescription for months of stall rest produced plenty of doubt, until Davies brought out his horse this spring. Senior Senator won at the Cheshire Point-to-Point March 25 and finished second to Ebanour at Elkridge-Harford April 7. Next out, he overcame a momentum-stopping last fence to catch Raven’s Choice and win the Grand National going away a week before the Hunt Cup.
Then came Saturday.
In that fog and wet grass, Senior Senator got turned out early on his trainer’s Monkton, Md. farm and arrived at the Hunt Cup course at 1:10 Saturday afternoon. Wearing the bit and headpiece to his bridle (because he can be difficult to handle at the races), he walked the barnyard with Davies and donkey companion Fernando, picked grass, struck poses, resisted a curry comb and otherwise passed time. Davies talked about the horse’s problematic feet, and how the surgical recovery actually helped them.
“He’s wearing a full size bigger shoe than he wore this time last year,” said Davies. “All that time in the stall just let his feet grow out and get a lot healthier.”
Davies sent the 7 a.m. text, and fretted every detail in getting his mercurial horse back from an injury and to the races in 2018.
The Hunt Cup horses are saddled in the barn, and walk to the paddock as a group. For the second consecutive week, Davies drafted his friend Larry Smith for help. Smith gets along with Senior Senator, whose pre-race activity normally involves not entering the paddock at all and galloping to the start early. Smith, a former trainer, Cornell football player and Army veteran with tours in Afghanistan and Korea gets along with the feisty horse thanks to the right mix of height, harmony and horsemanship.
“We’re both big goofs you know, and I just do things with him that I know a big guy wants to do,” said Smith. “I let him have fun, we can look, we can stop, we can go over here, we can go over there – ‘If you want to do a little something I’ll wait.’ I can touch his ears, I can do whatever with him. It’s just a good fit.”
Saturday, Smith and Senior Senator entered the paddock with the others and handled it all, though (with the stewards’ permission) Poretz got an early leg up and the horse galloped off to the start ahead of the others. After a false start, Senior Senator lengthened stride to take the early lead over the first two fences. He cleared the third, his 2017 downfall, and you could almost hear the exhales.
“It was a very big relief, almost like something off my back, when we landed,” said Poretz. “Freak things happen. He got hurt, but he’s fine now. If it was my fault, the horse’s fault, who knows? Who cares? You’ve got to get over it, and he did.”
The race lost a major player when Old Timer and McLane Hendriks fell at the third as Senior Senator steamed on, as Gas Can Eddie (Bryan Cullinane), Drifty Society (Hadden Frost) and Joshua G (Eddie Keating) stalked. Gas Can Eddie fell at the 12th, the race’s midway point, and Prime Prospector went two fences later. Senior Senator still led over the 16th, an uphill beast at 4-foot-10, but struggled over the 17th as Drift Society, Joshua G and Sovereign Fund gained a little ground. A tiring Derwins Prospector, who won in 2017, fell hard at the 18th and nearly took Wildcatter with him. At the 20th, Senior Senator stuck to his spot on the lead but brought Joshua G and Drift Society along as Sovereign Fund fell. The winner led across Tufton Avenue and was briefly matched by Joshua G at the 21st. Senior Senator landed in front, then withstood the pressure to the last fence and through the stretch – drawing away late as the runner-up weakened.
“I was a little impatient coming into the last, I normally wait, but I was so ready,” said Poretz. “He gives you confidence and we just went on with it. (Joshua G) got maybe a little bit in front of me at the water, which was fine. I wanted a little bit of a lead or some company at that point. It’s a hard race, he got a little tired.”
Poretz said Hunt Cup week came with a bit of a different twist this time.
“At the beginning of the week, I was contemplating coming here,” he said. “I was worried about him. Usually the nerves get worse as the week goes on, but the nerves got better this year. After I walked the course, for some reason I just felt so comfortable. I can’t even explain it.”
Race day brought more of the same. Off the knockout Grand National score, and his 2016 win, Senior Senator was the race favorite – no matter what happened in 2017. Poretz just wanted the chance to prove it.
“I just got more and more confident as the week went on,” he said. “At the end, I was just happy. I want to be happy for the horse. For the horse. I’m just so happy for him. To go through what he went through and do this again, it takes some serious horse.”
Claimed for $7,500 by Davies from trainer Flint Stites at Penn National in 2013, Senior Senator collected $60,000 with the win and gave Crawford a second leg on the Hunt Cup’s seventh Challenge Cup along with several others since it was placed into service in 1984. A third win by an owner retires the trophy.
NOTES: Davies, who won the 2017 edition with Derwins Prospector, became the first trainer since Charlie Fenwick (Ben Nevis in 1977 and 1978, Dosdi in 1979) to win three consecutive Hunt Cups . . . Senior Senator is the first double winner since Twill Do in 2010 and 2012.