Hunt Cup heroics go to Raven’s Choice

- -

The Maryland Hunt Cup gods give and take, take and give, give and take. Welter Weight finished second twice before he won in 1999, and twice more after. Florida Law suffered through five losses, one where he lost his jockey while leading at the last fence and another by a head, before he won in 1998.

And that’s just relatively modern history. The race’s 119-year past is full of magical moments, improbable results, pain before joy, joy after pain, near-misses and head-shaking outcomes.

Put the 2015 running on the list.

Imperial Way crossed the finish line first, outrunning Raven’s Choice and Guts For Garters in a three-way slugfest over the final half-mile and three fences Saturday in Glyndon. The margin was a half-length over Raven’s Choice, and came a year after Imperial Way and jockey Bethany Baumgardner lost a nose decision to Guts For Garters on the same course. The joy overflowed with smiles, photos, pats on the back, salutes to Tom Voss, who trained Imperial Way before dying early in 2014.

But the gods weren’t quite ready to reward Voss’ memory or to crown his daughter-turned-trainer Elizabeth.

Five strides after clearing the 19th fence, Baumgardner’s lead pad came loose and fell to the turf. Bewilderment and anguish on her face, she weighed in knowing she was 20 pounds light – what else do you do? – and was disqualified. The circumstances (gods) handed the win to Raven’s Choice for owner Ann Jackson, trainer Todd Wyatt and jockey Mark Beecher. Guts For Garters moved up to second with Spencer Road third in 9:25 for 4 miles.

“You know, that’s the closest thing I have to family in Maryland, the Vosses,” said Wyatt of his first Hunt Cup win. “You don’t want to win this way.”

But sometimes you win this way.

While the gods took the victory from Imperial Way, they handed it to Raven’s Choice – paying back a long overdue Hunt Cup debt. The 8-year-old’s breeder Cary Jackson rode in three Hunt Cups, finishing second in 1948 and falling at the 19th fence in 1951. As an owner, Jackson finished third with Moon Meeting in 1977 and 1978 and fourth with Quisitor in 1991.

The Hunt Cup, with its $75,000 purse, decades of history and honor roll of past winners including Hall of Famers Jay Trump and Ben Nevis, and timber legends Blockade, Winton, Pine Pep, Mountain Dew and Cancottage, can be an elusive foe and a fickle friend.

Some people try to win the Hunt Cup their whole lives. Some never succeed. Others win on their first tries. Some, like Cary Jackson, breed a future Hunt Cup winner – only to die, leaving the horse and the moment, to someone else.

“He would be absolutely over the moon,” said Jackson’s widow Ann Jackson while clutching the Hunt Cup challenge trophy. “All his attempts and he never could win it. He tried often enough and he would probably say ‘It’s about time.’ “

So was Raven’s Choice’s success.

Raven’s Choice (right) and Imperial Way battle to the finish. Douglas Lees photo
Cary Jackson sent the son of Dance With Ravens and the Regal Intention mare Millashand to Wyatt as a 2-year-old in 2009. The dark bay made two starts that year, finishing last of 10 in his debut going 5 1/2 furlongs at Laurel Park. Two starts into his 3-year-old campaign, he was a winner – taking a $25,000 maiden claimer on the turf at Belmont Park at 19-1. He never won another flat race.

When Cary Jackson died in February 2011, he left three horses to his wife Ann. Raven’s Choice was her first choice.

He won over hurdles three months after Cary Jackson died. While prepping for a Saratoga hurdle start that summer, tendon troubles in both front legs forced an extended break and – ultimately – a career move to timber.

Raven’s Choice returned in 2013 with a second and a fourth in two runs. Last year, he finished second in the maiden timber at My Lady’s Manor and won the allowance timber at the Grand National. Some horses head to the Hunt Cup from there, but Jackson and Wyatt passed. They won an open timber at Willowdale last May, and waited for 2015.

This year, the Hunt Cup was the goal.

“We’ve taken our time,” said Wyatt. “This game is all about your owner letting you train them the way you think they want to be trained. If you can find that, it just makes your job, any trainer’s job, so much easier. She’s been patient and that helped.”

Jackson said there was no other way.

“I take my trainer’s advice,” she said. “It’s a waiting game. Patience is what it’s all about. He got hurt after he ran over hurdles. We let him sit in the field for a year-and-a-half.”

Raven’s Choice went in the Foxhall team race in March, defeated Serene Harbor and Guts For Garters in a win at Elkridge-Harford Point-to-Point, then finished third in the fastest Grand National since 2002.

“I think the Grand National sharpened him,” said Beecher. “He’d never gone that fast over big fences. I think he learned a lot, but he’s also a stuffy horse who needs a big, strong gallop.”

Bethany Baumgardner heads to the scale. Douglas Lees photo

The team – Wyatt, Jackson, Beecher, Wyatt’s wife (and Hunt Cup winner) Blair and Ann Jackson’s daughter Win Lewis – talked it over. Their horse was ready.

“Why don’t we go and I’ll look after him,” Beecher told them. “If he goes around he’ll be back next year, but if I’m there at the top I’m going – I’m going to try to win it.”

Joshua G. opened a huge lead after the 4-foot-9 third fence and was still in front at the slightly taller 16th – taking out a rail and showing the first glimpse of tiring. Raven’s Choice was second much of the way, followed by Guts For Garters. Imperial Way was well back early, but followed the other two into contention across the long backside. Raven’s Choice took the lead at the 19th, pulling Guts For Garters and Imperial Way along. After a slight left turn toward the 20th, Baumgardner’s lead pad slipped off and fell behind. Her horse kept running, passed Guts For Garters before the second-last and went after Raven’s Choice. They jumped the last two on even terms, with Imperial Way putting a half-length on his rival a few strides after the last. The margin stayed that way to the line.

“I crossed the line and I gave Bethany a big handshake and a pat on the back because I knew she only lost by a nose last year,” said Beecher. “I know what it is like to lose. I got beat on Private Attack (2010) here and that was 5 lengths. It’s tough.”

Baumgardner was disappointed, but proud of her horse.

“He’s awesome,” she said. “He is a machine. He loves this race course. He’s a big jumper, he’s a big galloper so this is the course for him and I’m just really lucky to have a spin like that around here. Both years the horse has just been phenomenal.

“As soon as I jumped off and went to pull the tack off my horse I was like ‘oh, no.’ The rules are the rules. I knew I was short weight. I didn’t feel anything happen.”

She finished with a declarative, “We’ll be back.” 

Raven’s Choice had one tricky moment, a mistake at the 12th fence that nearly dislodged Beecher.

“I was minding him and when I got to the 12th it’s a good fence to let a horse get a breather and also say ‘well how much are you allowed to do by yourself?’ ” Beecher said. “He took the bridle to go on to it and then kind of realized this is big and started to back up. Thank God he kept his balance.”

Owner Ann Jackson (right) and daughter Win Lewis react to the posting of Saturday’s results.

NOTES: Imperial Way remained a career maiden on the flat, over hurdles and over timber, losing for the 18th time . . . Cary Jackson’s ashes were spread on both sides of the 19th fence, where he fell with Roxspur in 1951 and not far from where Baumgardner lost her lead pad . . . Beecher has won two of the last three Hunt Cups . . . The last Hunt Cup disqualification came in 1948 when Carolina jumped the eighth fence instead of the 18th, handing the win to Peterski . . . Protests in nearby Baltimore over the death of Freddie Gray a week after he was arrested by city police reached the Hunt Cup, in a peaceful way, as a spectator hung a “Black Lives Matter” banner on a fence in the stretch. 

Maryland Hunt Cup video by James Curtis: