Billy Meister says this is it. His last Hunt Cup. He’s 50, will ride in his 22nd Maryland Hunt Cup (surpassing Paddy Neilson’s record of 21 rides), and says he has a chance to win it again – something he’s done three times as a jockey and twice as a trainer.
Meister rides and trains And The Eagle Flys and trains Twill Do, ridden by James Stierhoff and Bug Eyed Willy, ridden by Suzanne Stettinius. One more win and Meister will reach his goal, tying Hall of Famer Mikey Smithwick for six wins in the classic 4-mile timber test. It’s not quite Meister’s goal of riding six winners but he’ll take it. And he should, the race consumes many and defines the Pennsylvania-born, Maryland-based horseman.
And the end is in sight.
Saturday, Meister will ride 12-year-old And The Eagle Flys, his final ride in the Maryland Hunt Cup. The door is closed, well, as closed as an amateur can close it. Remember, the professional doesn’t have a choice. If it is empty, he must retire. The amateur, he always has the choice.
“I believe that’s true, I’m hanging it up after this,” Meister said Thursday evening. “It’s the first time in 15 years I’ve had to lose weight and I have a lot of nice horses in training, I need to train horses. I can’t do both. It’s getting to be too much for me. I’ve done enough. I’m so excited to ride on Saturday, I can’t wait, but it’s time. It’s time.”
Ask Meister if he’ll talk you through all his Hunt Cup rides, and he doesn’t hesitate…doesn’t need to open a steeplechase book, doesn’t need a minute to spark his memory. He knows all of them. The good, the bad, the ugly. The lucky and luckless. The ones that got away, the ones that fell in his lap.
“Billy, do you think you can talk me through all your rides?”
“Want me to name all the horses? Meister asked. “Onamystic was first…”
“Whoa, whoa, whoa. Hold on. Let me get ready. OK, go.”
And 27 years of the Maryland Hunt Cup come rolling…
1987. Onamystic. Fell at the third. “I thought he had a great shot, he was probably the favorite, he had never been over the (Grand) National, he had been around the Manor but he didn’t know how to kick his hind end up in the air enough. I think if I had a little more experience, as Mikey told me, ‘If you were sitting back on his ass, you probably would have held him up.’ I thought I rode it great, rode him right to the ground and landed on my feet.”
1988. Freeman’s Hill. Won. “He was just a nice horse. I thought he was going to the Hunt Cup in ’84 but he bucked his shins as a 6-year-old. That was amazing. My family always wanted to win the Hunt Cup. I hated riding ponies and my brother broke his leg when he was 12 and I said, ‘If I’m going to have to do all this stuff, I want to ride a race.’ And they let me ride the old-fashioned when I was 12. Winning the Hunt Cup was something I always wanted to do.”
1989. Freeman’s Hill. Second to Uncle Merlin. “I came off at the first fence, (remounted) and made up all the ground. He broke his pelvis, I think when he slid through the water fence. I was 10 lengths in front and he went to set himself and he slid through it, I was 15 lengths behind after it and got beat a neck. I lost my stick at the first. All he had to do was jump the water…”
1990. The Hard Word. Won. “Everybody told me I was a nut job for running him, he never cleared any fence by more than an inch, but he always cleared them. He fell at the Grand National the week before, I said, ‘Don’t worry, we’ll get them next week.’ My owners said, ‘you’re crazy.’ Thank goodness Von Csadek fell. I think I’m the only rider to switch sticks coming to the last in the Maryland Hunt Cup. He couldn’t run on his left lead so I switched my stick and he switched to his right lead.”
1991. Night Train Lane. Fell at the third. “What a difference a year makes. He did the same thing Onamystic did and I tried to hold him up but that wasn’t happening. If he got over the third…every time I get over the third, I know the horse belongs in there.”
1993. Sea Speed. Third. “He was a really nice horse but he would miss a fence every race. He couldn’t breathe well, he could get 3 miles but he wouldn’t get the 4, he started choking up when he landed at the 16th fence, I would have too if I was him. I was with Liz McKnight on Pleasant Sea so I thought I was in the right spot. I knew Ivory Poacher and Revelstoke were out there but I moved a little bit too soon, I made the lead easily before the 20th, I should have sat still. He was a nice horse, finished a good third.”
1994. Hello Hal. Fifth. “I rode him in the Grand National, it was his third race, I went to show him a fence before the race and it was bigger than him, I was like, ‘Oh my God, now I know what Mikey meant by making yourself small on a horse.’ He was so tiny, 15.2 at the most, that was pushing it.”
1995. Hello Hal. Fifth. “I had a good trip around there, that might have been the year I was touching my feet on the ground at the 13th, I was underneath his neck for 100 yards, I lost 300 lengths, I didn’t have a shot after that.”
1996. Hello Hal. Won. “That was pretty cool, he broke his maiden in the race. He always jumped to the right, I lost 6 lengths at the water jump. I was making noise to Johnny Bosley in front of me, he was on Florida Law, I was making all this noise like I was catching him and he jumped the fence before the horse did (and fell off, handing the win to Meister). I watched it happen, I couldn’t believe it. I wasn’t going to win that race.”
1997. Hello Hal. Fifth. “Fifth behind Buck Jakes. That was it for him. He didn’t need to do any more. He did it that one year. This little tiny horse, he was heart.”
1998. Sarkis. Third. “That was actually one of my best rides around the course, that horse was a machine. I had a broken coccyx from falling at the Grand National, he gave me a great trip around there, he cracked his back at the 16th and hit me in the ass, I couldn’t ride the rest of the race.”
1999. Sarkis. Lost rider. “He refused the 19th fence. He was a quirky horse, he tried to kill people on the ground.”
2000. Sarkis. Fell. “He fell at the 15th, got stuck in the mud, he was running well until then. Swayo and Joe Gillet won it that year.”
2003. Lil Starvin Marvin. Pulled up. “He refused at the 16th. He went to take off at the 15th and slid into it. He lost a shoe, I think that’s what was going on.”
2005. Lil Starvin Marvin. Third. “He slid through the third fence, broke out two or three panels, I was in front the whole way and the only reason he didn’t win that year, he missed the 19th, the 20th and the last. I jumped to the lead at the water fence like a good horse. He was a funny horse. You had to ride him like an open jumper, he could have won it three or four times.”
2006. Sky And Sea. Pulled up. “He broke down crossing the road, I thought I was going to win that one. He had a ton of speed and I hadn’t really used him up that much around there. He was relaxed around there which he never was anywhere else.”
2007. Rosbrian. Lost rider. “They didn’t have long enough reins on the horse, he shied after the ninth fence at the two horses that were on the right-hand side. I grabbed for the knot and it was already halfway up his neck. They were flat reins. I fell right off the back.”
2008. Mr Liberator. Third. “Nice horse, I got run off with after the race, I was pissed off at myself, I didn’t know I had that much fuel in the tank. It was his first start there, so I was making sure we got around, I went all the way down to the road yelling at people to get out of the way. That’s never happened again.”
2009. Mr Liberator. Lost rider. “Yeah, I could have gotten back on and won the race but they made that rule you couldn’t do that. I was two fences in front and I was going to be like 9:30, which is a slow time for the Hunt Cup. I guess I let him fall asleep between the 15th and 16th, I should have given him a smack on the shoulder, he had been galloping around there by himself, he hooked his left knee on the fence, he went to the right and I went straight, he stopped dead five strides after the fence and I slid off. If he kept going, I would have stayed on but he stopped dead.”
2011. And The Eagle Flys. Second. “I skipped 2010 with a broken pelvis and Twill Do won it. And The Eagle Flys ran well, finished second, he was choking up between the 14th and 15th and I was thinking about pulling up but he flipped his palate back over and I jumped the next one, he jumped it awesome and I was like, ‘OK, let’s go do this.’ The 18th was coming up all wrong, I don’t know how we stayed together, I still had plenty of horse left and he was breathing OK but I did myself in at the 18th.”
2012. And The Eagle Flys. Fell. “He fell at the 17th, that was my fault. I thought he was going to leave and he didn’t, I don’t do that very often. The medics came up to me and said, ‘You’ve got to get in this (ambulance)’ and I said, ‘No, my horse is winning this race.’ They get on the radio and say, ‘There is something wrong with this guy, he thinks he’s still winning the race.’ I said, ‘There’s nothing wrong with me, my other horse is winning this race.’ Twill So won. It was a minute and a half, they’re like, ‘Oh, this guy is OK.’ “
As for 2014, “I think I have a very good shot, there are a lot of horses who have not done it and my horse has been around there almost twice. I like to be in front of horses, I know I’m usually in front, but that’s because I usually don’t have the quality of horse and I know my horse will jump. I don’t want to be in that melee of horses and amateur riders, I don’t know want any part of being behind over the first six fences. My other riders have been around there too. My original goal was to tie Mikey Smithwick’s six wins because my mother rode Pine Pep and he won three on Pine Pep. That was my goal in my life, to win it six times and retire, not because I want to pass Paddy Neilson. Five times as a rider and trainer…Mom will be OK if I get one more as a rider or trainer… and I’ll be able to eat for the rest of my life. I’m excited for Saturday, it’s the Hunt Cup.”