The My Lady's Manor timber course puts up a big screen to help spectators see the meandering, undulating, historic track. Saturday, trainer Eddie Graham stood with his wife Wendi - ready to watch Nat Grew go in the featured Manor timber stakes.
Graham saw the start, the first fence or two, then nothing.
"I stopped watching, I couldn't watch it," he said. "I was standing there talking to Wendi about how he was going. He was under control and going fine, then he was 20 lengths in front. I couldn't watch. I walked away from the screen and didn't look up until he went under the wire."
Graham missed a spectacle.
Nat Grew built on that initial lead, opening 40 lengths by the official chartcaller's standards, jumping boldly and coasting home by 10 1/2 lengths in the $30,000 feature. Owned by Caves Farm, the 10-year-old won for the second time in three NSA timber starts - all after almost four years away from the races. Jody Petty rode the winner, who was well clear of Old Timer and Grinding Speed in second and third after 3 miles.
"I've just learned to not pull him in," said Petty. "I let him break out of there sharply and he did it without pulling. It didn't feel like we were going that quickly. When you jump the fifth fence, you make a sharp left turn and I turned around to look. I could not believe how much I'd opened up. I was embarrassed."
He was also a winner. The others never really got close. Petty tapped Nat Grew on the shoulder after the second-last fence and he sprinted to the last and won while being geared down.
Nat Grew was bred in Kentucky-bred by Runnymede Farm, Catesby Clay, Joe Clay and Wendy Clay. His pedigree (Broken Vow-Ascot Starre, Ascot Knight) screams distance racing and the bay gelding got his chance with Pennsylvania trainer Michael Moran, who spent $130,000 on the yearling at Keeneland September 2005. Nat Grew ran twice at 2, finishing seventh and eighth late in the year at the Meadowlands for Moran and partner Windmill Hollow Stable. Moved to trainer Sanna Hendriks' barn midway through 2007, Nat Grew won on the turf at Laurel in October and then went hurdling - he finished second in a 3-year-old stakes to close 2007, second to begin 2008 and second again at Saratoga that summer. Nat Grew dominated a September maiden hurdle on yielding turf at Shawan Downs, but missed the next year with a tendon injury. He came back for three starts in 2009, and placed in a stakes, but was eventually injured again. Out of options and patience, Moran and company gave the horse to Petty as a project.
By autumn 2010, Nat Grew was for sale as an event prospect. Petty showed him to his friend Katie Cooper, the trainer at high-level show operation Caves Farm in Owings Mills, Md. Caves bought him as a show hunter and - renamed Petty Cash - Nat Grew took to his new job like a goat to mischief. He won a championship in his first go, added the Maryland Thoroughbred Classic in 2011 and starred on hunt night at the 2012 Pennsylvania National Horse Show in Harrisburg.
Then his racing career came back to haunt him.
Under control at one show, and out of control at the next, Nat Grew became too unreliable and too much work for Cooper and her team. There were others in the barn that needed attention, care and work too. Nat Grew, 9 years old and literally years removed from his racing career, faced another crossroads.
"What are we going to do with this horse?" Caves owner Howie Wolfe asked Petty.
"Run him over timber," Petty suggested.
The talk turned to the horse's age, soundness, mind and ultimately they decided it was worth a try. Petty suggested Graham, who worked with Nat Grew at Hendriks' barn, as the trainer.
"He must have grown two hands as he got older, that five-year gap or whatever it was since I'd seen him made him grow so much," Graham said. "I didn't know how much would be left in the gas tank. He'd had colic surgery, he'd gotten hurt a couple times over hurdles. He had his issues."
The issues haven't been issues, and Nat Grew finished second in his timber debut last September (three months after leaving Caves). It had been 46 months between races. He easily won a maiden timber at Pennsylvania Hunt Cup in November and went into the off-season as a top timber prospect, despite his inexperience. Nat Grew spent the winter jogging the roads of Chester County and opened his year with a point-to-point win at Green Spring Valley. Then came the Manor, where he dispatched seven others.
The winner is a half-brother to 2005 Illinois Derby winner Greeley's Galaxy, who finished 11th behind Giacomo in the Kentucky Derby.
- The win started a double for Petty, who steered Irish-bred Organisateur around in a $15,000 maiden timber for trainer Ivan Dowling. The 9-year-old placed in a Grade 1 over hurdles in 2011 for owner Irv Naylor, but was sold as a foxhunting prospect to Phoebe Fisher. The 9-year-old didn't readily take to that career, and Fisher called on Cheshire Foxhounds huntsman Ivan Dowling for help.
Dowling, who rode the horse in the morning for trainer Bruce Miller in 2011, solved some problems with the horse's feet, did loads of flat work and talked it over with Fisher.
"Can we run him?" Dowling asked fairly early in the process. Fisher, sister-in-law of leading trainer Jack Fisher, somewhat reluctantly agreed. Organisateur won over timber at the Cheshire Point-to-Point in March as a tightener and dominated at the Manor. He won by 11 1/4 lengths over Raven's Choice with Class Brahms third.
"We worked hard with him and he turned around, he's a good horse," said Dowling. "His problem was his feet mostly. He'd always pat the ground, even in his hurdle races. He'd be very careful. One day exercising and schooling this winter, he left out of my hands and I figured he must be feeling good."
The win was Dowling's first as a trainer. He won three NSA races and several point-to-points as a jockey, but expects to hand the reins to others for now while keeping a horse or two to train to go along with his job with Cheshire.
- Newcomer City Press, twice a winner over chase fences in England last year, handled American timber with ease in another $15,000 maiden. The 8-year-old Irish import handled nine others while winning by 2 3/4 lengths for Bruton Street-US, trainer Jack Fisher and jockey Connor Hankin. Durer was second with Dax third.
City Press won National Hunt flat races at Lingfield and Kempton in January 2013, then added the chase victories in April at Huntingdon and in June at Stratford. The son of Presenting spent the winter with Fisher, learning timber and gave University of Virginia student Hankin his second win of the season.
- The finale, a highweight amateur timber, went to Kinross Farm's Sand Box Rules and jockey Diana Gillam. The 10-year-old won by 3 3/4 lengths in a tuneup for the Maryland Hunt Cup. Trained by Neil Morris, Sand Box Rules was second in the Hunt Cup last spring. The winner charged through the stretch to catch Illustration with Cold Water Spring third.