At about 7 Saturday morning, trainer Joe Davies took race favorite Senior Senator out of the barn and turned him loose in a paddock. The move went against the instructions of Davies’ wife Blythe and assistant Ashton Williams, but the horse loved it.
The 2016 and 2018 Maryland Hunt Cup winner pawed a sand pit once or twice, then flopped down on his right side. He rolled, flipped to his left side without rising and scratched all over. Then he bolted to his feet and reared, flicking his white bell boots like a boxer hitting a speed bag. While his mascot Fernando the Donkey looked for something to eat in a fence feeder, the horse came down on his front hooves, auditioned for the rodeo with two twisting bucks and cantered away with a squeal.
Davies smiled, texted a video of the antics to a select few and went to look for the brushes. He had to get rid of the evidence – er, sand – before the women got to the barn.
“At least he doesn’t seem too dull,” Davies texted.
Not even close.
Nine hours and change later, Senior Senator won the Hunt Cup for the third time in four years – thwarting a late-race move to the front by Drift Society and overcoming a nearly disastrous slip on the mulch while crossing Tufton Avenue the second time. In the end, nothing could stop Senior Senator – not a determined rival, not the road crossing, not 22 stiff timber fences, not 4 miles of Maryland turf, not even history. He won by 4 lengths, as Drift Society placed in his fourth Hunt Cup but settled for second and Joshua G. finished third after 9:16 4/5. Eric Poretz, the only person to ride Senior Senator in a timber race, was aboard again for owners Skip and Vicki Crawford. Prime Prospector refused at the third fence, Battle Aray lost his jockey at the 11th and Our Town fell at the 19th as six of the nine starters finished.
Senior Senator set the pace throughout, but was pressed enough by Our Town (McLane Hendriks) and Drift Society (Hadden Frost) through the early stages. The winner landed a little steeply at the seventh fence, but otherwise kept making alert, electric and elevated leaps. He soared the 4-foot-9 third and 13th, led over the massive 16th (an uphill 4-foot-10) and was still dictating after fence 17 and the 3-mile mark. Frost made an inside move to challenge the winner after landing over the 19th as the pace increased. Just behind them, Our Town fell. Third in 2016, second in 2017 and third again last year, Drift Society cut the corner after the 19th, led over the 20th and approached the road crossing – spread with mulch on race day – with a 1-length advantage. He reached the other side up by 5 lengths as Senior Senator stumbled and nearly fell.
“He loves for horses to come to him,” said Poretz of Senior Senator. “I heard them chirping behind me and knew they’d come up. At the 19th, (Drift Society) jumped the inside panel, he got a good jump over the (20th) and he was going, he was rolling man. I was right behind him and he got away from me a little bit going to the road. Going across the road, I dropped my hands like I always do and (Senior Senator) lost his hind end. He was on the ground, or it felt like it anyway. I don’t know how he did it but he got back up.”
Trailing late in the race, to a legitimate Hunt Cup horse, after nearly wiping out, Senior Senator gathered himself and went back to work. He cut into the margin at the 21st, but was still in trouble on the uphill run to the last fence. With Poretz asking for everything, Senior Senator locked onto the fence, lengthened stride and attacked – challenging Drift Society in the final strides before the fence. Senior Senator left the ground first, landed running and powered home.
“We finally got back to him stride for stride at the last,” said Poretz. “We jumped the last and I just knew. I could see the stride, I lifted up my chest and we both just rose up to it. My horse really responded when he needed to.”
Senior Senator, a Pennsylvania-bred who was too much of a rogue to be successful (or even useful) in an eight-start flat career, joined Garry Owen, Princetwon, Blockade, Winton, Pine Pep, Jay Trump, Mountain Dew and Cancottage as three-time winners of the storied race. The son of Domestic Dispute won the 2016 Hunt Cup in an upset Davies still calls a “Hail Mary,” fell at the third fence in 2017 (breaking a bone in his neck) and has won the last two. No horse has won four, and it had been 36 years since Cancottage claimed his third.
Hence the comparisons to legends.
“It’s sinking in now,” said Joe Davies back at the barn afterward. “You just hope. We knew we had the best horse, we knew we had the best rider, but the course is the course. It always has its say, it always makes an impact. He gave me a moment of fright across the road.”
The near calamity was just one more in a racing career full of them. Senior Senator tested every human who tried to make him a flat horse, and did the same to the Davies team in jump racing. He wears a bit and bridle headpiece all day when he runs, because they’re too difficult to put on at the races. For his sanity, he lives with a donkey. He broke his neck and had delicate surgery after the fall at the 2017 Hunt Cup. He went to New Bolton Center with colic twice over the winter. Ten days ahead of this year’s race he was lame behind – for about 24 hours.
“It’s been the story of this horse’s success,” said Joe Davies. “He’s been a fraction of an inch from losing or from disaster even. He was hopping lame 10 days ago. The vet came and he was sound. We can see him from our bedroom, his head sticking out the window. Every day, we get up and look out there. Nighttime too. We finally got to today, and I turned him out. Blythe and Ashton still haven’t seen it, but I felt like he needed it.”
While holding Senior Senator so Williams could put on shipping bandages, Blythe Davies gave credit to the individualistic approach to training a quirky horse.
“It’s a ‘you-be-you’ sort of thing,” she said. “We don’t force him to be any way. It’s his way, all the time.”
With that, the big bay shoved her with his head and started walking toward the ponies turned out in a nearby paddock – a new Maryland Hunt Cup legend doing his thing.
The $60,000 payday pushed Senior Senator’s lifetime earnings to $289,756 (all but $9,756 of it over jumps). Excluding point-to-points, he’s made a dozen starts over timber with seven wins and three seconds. The only real blemishes are the Hunt Cup fall and a disqualification for interference in 2016.
Based on stride, scope and appearance, Blythe and Joe Davies claimed Senior Senator for $7,500 at Penn National in 2013. They wanted a timber prospect, and got one albeit one with a reputation for bucking off jockeys and making life difficult for any human in his life. For his new connections, Senior Senator started twice more on the flat at Timonium (where he unseated the rider beforehand) and Penn National in 2013 before starting a new career as jumper in 2014. He started once over hurdles at Fair Hill, and lost his jockey, then went timber racing.
The rest is history.
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Senior Senator's activity on Hunt Cup morning.