Md. Hunt Cup: Timber classic takes practice

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"boncaddo"You know the race is just a little bit different when horsemen are taking about practice, not workouts, not schooling sessions, practice.

“He’s been practicing over some bigger, bigger fences,” is the way trainer Dawn Williams put it. “He’s very switched off, which is a good thing, very calm. Everybody’s good. Everything’s good. Tensions are always high this time of year.”

Williams trains Bon Caddo, 2011 timber champion and 2012 Maryland Hunt Cup rookie. The 11-year-old faces 12 rivals in the world’s oldest, most important and most treacherous timber race. Of course, there’s no timber racing in other parts of the world but there will only ever be one Maryland Hunt Cup. First run in 1894, the race carries a $75,000 purse but decades and decades of history and lore and legend. The test includes 4 miles and 22 fences – some of them nearing 5 feet in height. The Hunt Cup is so special jockeys walk the course twice (at least) beforehand. It’s the only race of the day, post time 4 p.m. No sponsorship, no commercials, only reputation.

Saturday, Bon Caddo puts it on the line along with 2011 race winner Private Attack, 2010 race winner Twill Do and the rest. As per the custom, they’ll be ridden by amateur jockeys though Williams and owner Charlie Noell have gone to leading English amateur Sam Waley-Cohen to partner Bon Caddo. The jockey has won the Cheltenham Gold Cup and tackled the Aintree Grand National. The Hunt Cup presents a unique challenge.

Waley-Cohen arrived Thursday and rode the horse Friday to get acquainted.

“He’s not difficult to ride,” Williams said of Bon Caddo. “They got along great, perfect, had a great school together. I think (the race) will go well.”

Bon Caddo’s timber career includes trips around some of the country’s biggest timber courses including the Pennsylvania Hunt Cup, Grand National, My Lady’s Manor and Virginia Gold Cup. Maryland was always on the secondary agenda for the Canadian-bred who raced on the flat and over jumps for breeder Marablue Farm. For some that enter the Hunt Cup, the distance is the concern. For others, it’s the jumps. For still others, it’s both.

Bon Caddo thrives at 4 miles, has won a Gold Cup and a Manor and been second in two Pennsylvania Hunt Cups. He’s earned his chance at the big one.

“If you isolate his three efforts where there were vertical fences like this, he’s brilliant,” said Bruce Fenwick, who bought the horse as a timber prospect. “He has jumped these kind of fences well, we know he likes 4 miles. The staying part is no problem. It’s just a question of whether he adapts to the bigger fences.”

Fenwick has ridden in the great race and is the clerk of the course, responsible for much of its maintenance and upkeep. His Belmont Farm, where Bon Caddo is based, overlooks much of the course. Fenwick’s father, Charles “Cuppy” Fenwick, was the Hunt Cup’s executive secretary for many years. Fenwick’s brother, Charlie Fenwick Jr., won the race five times as a jockey. Being this connected to a horse with a real chance means something. Winning would mean even more.

“It would be a culmination to a successful lifetime of pursuing it,” he said. “I didn’t think this was quite the right horse early on, but he’s doing well and he’s good enough to win it. It’s the logical next thing to try.”

Bon Caddo opened 2012 with a run at Green Spring Valley Point-to-Point and then a good third to Incomplete and Bubble Economy at My Lady’s Manor. Since then, he’s trained steadily at Fenwick’s farm and sharpened his jumping form in the ring.

“Nobody practices at 5 feet,” said Fenwick. “You gymnastically get them as high as you can, the rest will be up to them when it comes to the Hunt Cup.”

The Hunt Cup’s fences pose unique questions to horses – with a mix of height, positioning and construction. The fences are substantial, vertical and there’s no real ground line. Truly bold jumpers can approach some like hurdlers, stand way back and let fly. That approach can take a toll, however, especially at a few bears like the third, sixth, 13th and 16th. Some students of the race talk strategy and hope to get over Fence 19 within striking distance of the lead. From there, it’s less than a mile and just three fences to the finish. A horse with the stamina and speed of Bon Caddo would be tough to handle from there. Ditto Private Attack. But that’s no easy feat.

“We want to get (Bon Caddo) to slow down and jump the fence when he has to, not out-hurdle the situation,” said Fenwick. “Some bold horses can hurdle the third but when they get to the sixth fence, they have to downshift and jump differently, jump a little bit off all fours. They learn to jump bigger and slower at certain fences. We’ve had some moments in the ring where he holds himself in the air a little longer, which is good to see.”

Private Attack proved plenty capable of that and more in the 2011 Hunt Cup, running away to win by 60 lengths. The faster horses couldn’t jump with him and the better jumpers couldn’t run with him. The 2012 group looks a little different with Twill Do, Western Fling, And The Eagle Flys and Battle Op bringing Hunt Cup experience to go with the form of Bon Caddo and Professor Maxwell.

Owned by Sportsmans Hall and trained by Alicia Murphy, Private Attack blends the best of both requirements and will be tough to handle on his best form. The 13-year-old New Jersey-bred started 2012 with a fall at Elkridge-Harford, but rebounded with a second in the Grand National last week. Patrick Worrall takes the return riding assignment, while looking to win his second Hunt Cup – 20 years after the first as a teenager aboard Von Csadek.

Jean Class’ And The Eagle Flys galloped in behind Private Attack in last year’s Hunt Cup, a survivor more than a contender, for trainer/jockey Billy Meister. The 10-year-old aims to reverse that opinion in 2012 after turning aside Private Attack in the Grand National. And The Eagle Flys set a mild early pace and had plenty left for the favorite in the stretch. Private Attack got to the winner’s flank, but no closer as And The Eagle Flys pulled away to win by 3 lengths. Meister, who makes his 21st Hunt Cup start as a jockey, paid partial credit to a myectomy (throat surgery) for the improvement.

Meister also entered Twill Do, who won the 2010 race after inheriting the lead when Across The Sky refused late. Lucy Goelet’s 12-year-old finished fourth in the Grand National and has turned in some solid efforts over his career. James Stierhoff, aboard for the 2010 ride when Meister was injured, gets the call.

Western Fling (fourth in 2010), Battle Op (third in 2010), More Fascination (third in the Grand National), Haddix (a winner at Shawan in 2011), Prospectors Strike (who’s failed to finish the last two Hunt Cups), Voler Bar Nuit (probably insurance if And The Eagle Flys doesn’t make it), Professor Maxwell (a stakes winner who made it to Fence 16 in the 2010 race), Fort Henry (third vs. allowance company at the Grand National) and Volle Nolle (a distant third last year) fill out the field.