Askim wins Maryland Hunt Cup

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As Ann Stewart jogged/walked/floated to the Maryland Hunt Cup winner’s circle, she laughed at the magnitude of it all.

“This is too much for a little old lady,” she said.

Little, maybe. Old, not really. And if it’s too much, then she’s fooling everyone.

Stewart won her fourth Hunt Cup as a trainer – all in the past 15 runnings – with Askim April 26. Ridden by Stewart’s son Charlie Fenwick III and owned by Irv Naylor, the 12-year-old New Zealand import completed a six-year trek to the Hunt Cup and did it with a performance that carried him from fifth to first over the final five fences

Askim ran down Coal Dust at the 21st of 22 fences, then held off a second challenge from that rival by a length at the wire in 8:53 1/5 for the 4 miles. Mr. Liberator finished third as the entire field finished for the first time since 1962.

Nothing if not patient, Stewart thought Hunt Cup from the beginning with Askim though she probably forgot it along the way too. Imported in 2002, the speedy son of Lord Ballina  made his American debut the next season and won the maiden timber at My Lady’s Manor. From there, the baby steps included a Mason Houghland Memorial stakes win at Nashville and a 2004 score in the Manor. Stewart didn’t question the horse’s speed or jumping, stamina was the concern. She stretched her horse to 4 miles in the Virginia Gold Cup (where he finished a well-beaten fifth). Off for nearly two years with leg troubles, Askim returned in 2006 and took the Grand National timber stakes in April. Again, Stewart bypassed the Hunt Cup and went the Gold Cup route, where Askim finished a distant third behind Miles Ahead. Extending his racing to the fall for the first time, Askim came back to take the Genesee Valley Hunt Cup and the Pennsylvania Hunt Cup (the latter at 4 miles), and claim the National Steeplechase Association timber championship.

He didn’t run in 2007 due to more soundness concerns, but Stewart no longer feared the Hunt Cup distance.

“You make plans, that’s what you do but I  had to change my plan too because I wasn’t sure he could get 4 miles,” Stewart said. “I had to do Pennsylvania (in 2006) to find out, and because I did Pennsylvania I didn’t get the next season. Then we came back this year. It worked and he won, but I didn’t get him here the other times when I was trying to.”

The 2008 season started with a point-to-point run at Cheshire, and then a second to Private Attack in the Grand National. Finally, five years after his first American start, Askim headed postward in the Maryland Hunt Cup. One of the favorites based on connections and form, the Hunt Cup rookie moved up on the opinion meter when two-time race winner Bug River and Grand National winner Private Attack were scratched.

In Private Attack, the race lost its likely pacemaker; in Bug River, its most accomplished starter (he’d been first or second in the previous four runnings).

Mr Liberator (Billy Meister) set the pace over the first few fences, but dropped back as Rosbrian (Jake Chalfin) took over at the seventh. Askim settled in sixth among the compact field of seven. At the 13th, Rosbrian led Foiled Again (Shane Burke), Coal Dust (James Slater), Mr Liberator, Make Your Own (Patrick Worrall), Askim and Lear Charm (Blake Curry). With a mile to go, just past the 17th fence, the pace quickened as Coal Dust moved to third behind  Rosbrian and Foiled Again. Taking the lead at the 19th, Coal Dust towed the field toward Tufton Avenue as Rosbrian kept pace and Askim crept past horses into third. In front over the 20th, Coal Dust left the ground in front at the 21st but landed in second as Askim pounced and drew away toward the final fence. Coal Dust landed 3 lengths down, but dug in again and got within a length of a jubilant Fenwick at the wire.

“I wanted to get a lead,” Fenwick said of his late-running strategy. “The water jump (fence 21) may have cost me two other Maryland Hunt Cups and for whatever reason Coal Dust did not jump it as well as he did the other fences. I gained some ground on him there.”

In the stretch, Askim felt the 4 miles.

“I hope I don’t get beat because it’s going to be a tough way to lose,” the jockey said of his thoughts at the time. “He was coming back on me where I was certainly worried. Any time you go to the front here, the horse sees the cars (parked beyond the finish line) and wonders what’s going on – especially a horse that’s never done it before. You can get caught in the stretch.”

In addition to his mother’s success, Fenwick joined a litany of family members to reach Hunt Cup glory. His father Charlie Jr. won the Hunt Cup five times as a jockey and six times as a trainer. Grandfather “Cuppy” Fenwick served as the race’s secretary for 30 years. Another grandfather, Redmond Stewart Jr., rode in the race six times and won three times as an owner. Great-grandfather Redmond Stewart Sr. finished second in the first Hunt Cup. Another great-grandfather, G. Bernard Fenwick, helped lay out the current race course in 1922. More recently, cousins Stewart Strawbridge, Sanna Hendriks and Kathy McKenna won the race as trainers and/or jockeys.

Fenwick grew up racing ponies and watching his father win the race, rode steeplechase races as a teenager, then moved over to flat racing (where he rode roughly 300 winners from 2,600 races while based in Maryland) before coming back to steeplechasing as an amateur in 1999. He didn’t miss the significance of the victory.

“It means a lot,” he said, pausing as the moment caught in his throat and leaning over to re-group. “It’s quite emotional – it’s just fun. Some of my earliest memories of childhood are right here. This was a childhood goal, the Kentucky Derby was a goal for a few years and then the Maryland Hunt Cup came back. My cousin (Strawbridge) winning it last year was a real thrill to watch.”

Fenwick tasted victory in his fifth Hunt Cup ride. Chief among the others were painful near-misses – in 2005, he parted company with Swayo while in contention at the water jump; in 2006, he lost by a head with Rosbrian after a mistake at the water.

There would be no such pain in 2008 as Askim delivered a sterling performance – rating off the pace, finding a rhythm over the testing fences and speeding home over the final half-mile.

“It went exactly the way we would have planned, somehow,” said Stewart. “It was easier to do what he did today when nobody fell in front of him. The field was prepared beautifully and that showed in the way the race turned out. I expected to do well but in this race you go in with fear and trepidation. Any trainer does.”

Even little old ladies.

NOTES: The win was Naylor’s second, alongside Make Me A Champ’s victory in 2005. Three victories by an owner retires the challenge cup, which was last claimed in 1983 by Joy Valentine (Cancottage). In addition to Naylor, Northwoods Stable, Move Up Stable and Arcadia Stable have two notches on the Cup. Since Blockade retired the first challenge cup in 1940, a Hunt Cup trophy has never lasted as long as the current one . . . Worrall returned to the Hunt Cup aboard fifth-place finisher Make Your Own after a lengthy break. Now 36, he won the race aboard Von Csadek in 1992.