Maryland Hunt Cup: Questions abound in final hours

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In 24 hours we’ll know if. . .Guts For Garters is as good as he looks, Twill Do can join the immortals as a three-time winner, 15 horses can put on a show worthy of the overflow entry box, Battle Op can get over the hump, experience counts for Bon Caddo, Professor Maxwell was just unlucky last year.

Pick a story line, the 2013 Maryland Hunt Cup has it. The historic race – worth $75,000 and run for the 117th time – drew a huge field of 15 (with the scratch of Justpourit) and even more angles.

First and foremost, Twill Do attempts to join a legendary list of triple winners. The 2012 and 2010 victor could match the greats Garry Owen, Princeon, Blockade, Winton, Pine Pep, Mountain Dew, Jay Trump and Cancottage as a three-time winner. The 13-year-old Maryland-bred did not impress in his prep last week at the Grand National, but he rarely does. In 2010, he lost that race by 39 lengths. Last year, it was 20. He won both. This year, the margin was almost 52 lengths, but none of that matters to Twill Do, who races for Lucy Goelet and trainer Billy Meister.

“We’ve always looked at (the Grand National) like ‘if we’re in the right place at the right time fine, but our goal is the following weekend,’ ” said jockey James Stierhoff. “All I’m looking to do is have a good trip and a school. I was pleased with last weekend. He likes big fences and he likes the distance (of the Hunt Cup). It feels like he’s just getting warmed up after 3 miles.”

The son of Yarrow Brae will likely be in the back of the big field, avoiding trouble, taking advantage of some broken rails if he gets them and surviving long enough to be in contention with a mile or so remaining. If he is, he’s dangerous.

“Everyone knows where I’ll be, in the back doing my thing,” said Stierhoff. “We’ll just see what happens.”

While Marylander Twill Do makes his third Hunt Cup appearance, a rookie draws attention while shipping in from Pennsylvania for trainer Sanna Hendriks. Foxy Stable’s Gut For Garters won the Grand National’s allowance timber last week in a professional, polished, promising effort only to be disqualified for missing a beacon late. Technically off course, he gained little advantage and looked plenty capable of stepping up in distance and fence height. The Irish import was bought as a Hunt Cup prospect nearly two years ago and has been carefully managed while proving his quality.

Jody Petty, a champion as a professional several years ago, took out his amateur license for 2013 and relishes the chance to try American jump racing’s most storied race.

“I didn’t start out riding over timber much but I’d much rather ride over timber than hurdles,” he said. “I like the slower pace, the jumping, the longer distances. I like to help a horse at his fences. The closest I’ve ridden to this is the Pennsylvania Hunt Cup, but that is not in comparison to Maryland when it comes to jumping.”

Petty has enjoyed his rides aboard Guts For Garters.

“The jumping seems pretty effortless for my horse,” he said. “He has some scope to him and that’s a nice feeling. It feels like he could jump anything and you want a horse like that.”

Petty expects the trip to matter, and hopes to stay out of trouble – though that does not mean what it does in a hurdle or flat race.

“It’s not going to be about saving ground or anything,” he said. “It’s going to be about the jumps, about staying clear. I don’t think you want to be too far out of it but you don’t want to be in front either. You wan to be handy, avoid the traffic as best you can. With that many horses we will be pretty fanned out early, we’ll probably use every panel of the third (fence).”

Like Stierhoff, Petty knows the history behind what he’s about to do.

“I watched the history video the other day just as a reminder,” he said. “I’m a Maryland boy so it matters. When you watch that video, it gives you cold chills.”

Two owners, Goelet and Northwoods Stable, can retire the Hunt Cup’s challenge trophy with a third lifetime victory in the race. Battle Op goes out for Northwood, which won in 2004 and 2006 with Bug River. Battle Op finished second in 2012 and third in 2010 and will be ridden again by owner Mike Hankin’s son Connor. The gray 13-year-old comes off a third in the Grand National last week for trainer Jack Fisher.

Merriefield Farm’s Bon Caddo won the 4-mile Virginia Gold Cup and the NSA timber championship in 2011, but altered goals and tried the Hunt Cup last year. He was third under English amateur Sam Waley-Cohen and returns this year with the experience and a new English rider in Michael Ennis. Third at My Lady’s Manor two weeks ago, the 12-year-old should be sitting on a big race though he’ll again need a career-best jumping effort.

Veteran Professor Maxwell slipped while crossing Tufton Avenue – and making a big run – when fourth last year. He returns for trainer Richard Valentine and will be ridden by Mark Beecher. The 14-year-old also made it around much of the course in 2010 when he made a mistake late and lost his jockey.

The field for the 117th Maryland Hunt Cup in Glyndon, Md. 4 miles. 22 fences. Post time 4 p.m. Amateur jockeys.

  1. Fort Henry. Ivan Dowling.
  2. Battle Op. Connor Hankin.
  3. Guts For Garters. Jody Petty.
  4. Brands Hatch. Jackson Roberts.
  5. Bon Caddo. Michael Ennis.
  6. And The Eagle Flys. James Slater.
  7. Prospectors Strike. Justin Batoff.
  8. Professor Maxwell. Mark Beecher.
  9. Sand Box Rules. Diana Gillam.
  10. Bug Eyed Willy. Suzanne Stettinius.
  11. Woodmont. Martin Rohan.
  12. Catch The Echo. Jeb Hannum.
  13. Twill Do. James Stierhoff.
  14. Subprime Lending. Chip Miller.
  15. Voler Bar Nuit. Billy Meister.