Oh what a difference a year makes. In 2015, Raven’s Choice made his timber stakes debut in the Grand National. The Maryland-bred finished a solid third, learned plenty of lessons and earned a spot in the Maryland Hunt Cup a week later. But it was all part of a process.
He won the Hunt Cup by disqualification after losing by a half-length on the race course, and returned this year as an established player at the top of the Maryland timber division. And left no doubt he belonged with a 3-length win in the $30,000 Grand National for owner Ann Jackson, trainer Todd Wyatt and jockey Mark Beecher Saturday at Butler, Md.
“Last year Todd was more like ‘We’ll try to win this and maybe we’ll go to the Hunt Cup, maybe,’ ” said Beecher afterward. “I wasn’t going to win it from two out last year so we minded him and he finished third and came on the following week. But if you’re in with a shout like today, you might as well take your shot. There’s no point in saving for next week.”
Tossing aside any thought of rustiness or inexperience or anything really, Raven’s Choice sat second behind And The Eagle Flys through a slowly run first half. At the 13th fence, the last before making a left-handed turn to a half-mile straight with five fences to the finish line, Beecher said go. Raven’s Choice flew two fences and led by 7 lengths. Last year’s winner Serene Harbor made up a little ground late, but – like everyone else – was no match for the winner. Raven’s Choice jumped the last two in command and won by 3 over And The Eagle Flys with Serene Harbor third. All starters finished, including major Hunt Cup player Imperial Way who was last of seven.
Raven’s Choice won for the fourth time in seven timber starts (to go with single wins on the flat and over hurdles). Give equal credit to Wyatt and Beecher for having the horse ready.
“Mark’s biggest strength is he’s not afraid to make decisive, game-winning decisions,” Wyatt said. “He threw the hammer down and was like, ‘If you want to beat me you better come with me.’ That takes the heart out of other horses.”
Raven’s Choice enjoyed a typical Hunt Cup winner’s schedule – lots of time off over the summer and then a gradual work back into shape. He went for hacks in the woods, did some foxhunting, participated in the Foxhall Farm team race, went to a hunter trial, ran in the Elkridge-Harford Point-to-Point. Then he came to Butler for the Grand National, run for the 114th time. Not that everything was perfect. Raven’s Choice grabbed himself on the coronet band in the team race March 20 and got backed up a little bit.
“We lost a little time and it didn’t go as smooth or work quite the way I wanted,” said Wyatt. “He was fine, but we had to nurse that a little bit. He had a good race at Elkridge-Harford (April 9), got a little tired at the second-to-last. I thought he’d get tired around the last, but I don’t know, you kind of need a hard race to get to these races. That’s the way it works.”
Off that fourth at Elkridge, Beecher won his first Grand National (about the only major timber race to elude him) and was impressed with his horse’s acceleration when the time came.
“It was a bit slower than I’d want to be going (early), but I know I’m not going to pick it up two out and quicken so I quickened five out. I knew I could use his jumping and he did it well. He pulled the run out of the others. There’s no doubt he has class. To win over hurdles at the Gold Cup (2011) and win on the flat (2010 at Belmont Park) you have to, and he’s got the good jumping too.”
Raven’s Choice heads to this Saturday’s Hunt Cup, the 4-mile, 22-fence classic now worth a record $100,000.
“I think it should help him,” said Beecher. “Last year, he didn’t jump as well here as he did today because I think he was a bit run off his feet. He went to the Hunt Cup and was actually sharper for it because he’d learned how to jump fast. This year he was good all the way around here.”
Bred in Maryland by Jackson’s late husband Cary, Raven’s Choice is one of 13 in the Hunt Cup entries. Others include the hard-luck Imperial Way, who crossed the wire first last year only to lose when his jockey lost her lead pad late in the race; 2014 winner Guts For Garters, 2013 timber champion and Hunt Cup veteran Foyle, Pennsylvania Hunt Cup winner Almarmooq and recent winner Drift Society. Post time for the one-race card in Glyndon is 4 p.m.
Leffingwell Lion wins allowance
Raven’s Choice took over the Grand National at the 12th fence. One race later, Senior Senator tried to do the same thing – only his move was against the rules. Racing powerfully throughout, the 6-year-old lugged to the right on the approach to the fence, forcing Monstaleur off course and bothering Class Brahms.
The move happened a good half-mile from the finish of the $20,000 allowance, but was more than enough to force a disqualification after a stewards’ inquiry and two claims of foul. The beneficiary of all that was Leffingwell Lion, who stayed inside at the 12th to take the lead and fought on to safely hold second over Our Town. James Slater rode the winner for owner/trainer/breeder Elizabeth “Wis” Korrell. The 13-year-old won for the second time over timber, after breaking his maiden last fall, and got rewarded for a solid effort.
“We bred him, raised him, broke him, ran him on the flat, did everything with him,” said Korrell’s husband Brian. “He’s never been off the farm except for a few months at Fair Hill and I was there with him. It’s nerve-wracking (to watch him race) because we love him so much but it’s fun when he runs like that.”
Leffingwell Lion has battled foot issues for most of his career, but Korrell paid credit to the work of blacksmith Justin Quaintance.
“We started putting heart bar shoes on him so he could grow his heels down and he runs in a racing plate with a frog pad so he stays off his heels,” said Korrell. “It’s made a big difference. He was jumping great and I was a little concerned because he’s never jumped fences this big before.”
Slater saw the near pile-up at the 12th fence and also knew Senior Senator and jockey Eric Poretz had caused it.
“I was in a perfect position, didn’t have anyone around me and was able to ride that turn with no problem,” Slater said. “My horse drifted a little bit because he was kind of following them with his mind. I knew (Monstaleur) was off course and wasn’t’ sure what happened to the others.”
Senior Senator rallied past Leffingwell Lion at the 13th, though Slater worried more about the horses behind him at that point.
“I thought he was going to lose the race in the stewards’ stand and my biggest concern was (Class Brahms) because I couldn’t see him,” the jockey said. “My guy was trying his damndest, the only thing I was doing was saying, ‘Come here for the fences.’ “
Class Brahms fell at the second-last, leaving Senior Senator and Leffingwell Lion to battle briefly over the last fence. Slater eased up late, once he was assured of second place and Senior Senator pulled away.
Bred in Pennsylvania, Leffingwell Lion prepped at Brandywine Point-to-Point, but parted company with the Korrells’ daughter Virginia early. A 2-mile flat prep at the Fair Hill Point-to-Point sent the son of Lion Hearted and 1980s hurdle winner Spruce Head to the Grand National.
“He’s a really game horse,” said Slater. “I wasn’t that hard on him in the stretch because I knew what had happened. We had one sticky fence, the first, and he was great once the pace picked up and we got rolling along. He’s a pretty crafty jumper.”
Sweet Church Music in the finale
The amateur apprentice timber result sent plenty of people to their programs and past performances while trying to find some information about the winner – 9-year-old mare Church Music. Owned and bred in Maryland by J.W.Y. “Duck” Martin Jr., she was making her first NSA start and just her fifth start of any kind.
The daughter of Bowman’s Band and the Lord Gaylord mare Church ran like an old pro for rookie jockey Brett Owings. She sat third early, then went after Mecklenburg and Tax Ruling in the stretch before prevailing by three-quarters of a length. The win provided plenty of firsts, and broke the maidens of the horse, jockey and trainer Suzie Owings (also the jockey’s mother).
Church Music never raced on the flat, but did spend time with trainer Rodney Jenkins before injuring a tendon. She spent several years in a field, then started doing some work as Brett Owings expressed an interest in riding. They foxhunted and made two point-to-point starts last year. This year, the campaign began in the Foxhall Farm team race and nearly came undone with a fall at Green Spring Valley Point-to-Point April 2. She won the novice timber at the Fair Hill Point-to-Point April 17, and defeated 10 rivals at the Grand National.
“Suzie has worked for us for 25 years, and Brett wanted to get into riding a little bit, so we pulled something out of the field,” said Martin, who owns much of the property over which the Maryland Hunt Cup runs. “It was her. They’ve done really well together.”
They’ve got a good mentor. Martin won the same race, called the Western Run Plate, with Beachcomber in 1963 and won the Hunt Cup aboard Early Earner in 1972.