Senior Senator grabs Grand National

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Look out timber horses, Senior Senator may have learned to harness his energy – relax a little even. Saturday, he delivered a polished victory in the $30,000 Grand National timber stakes at Butler, Md., and the seemingly perfect prep for defense of his 2016 Maryland Hunt Cup score.

The 2017 Hunt Cup – with its 4 miles, 22 fences and 120 years of history – beckons this Saturday. Senior Senator, owned by Skip and Vicki Crawford, will be favored in a potential field of 13 for trainer Joe Davies and jockey Eric Poretz. He’s the only former winner in the group, and has beaten chief rivals Drift Society, Old Timer, Imperial Way and most of the others. Post time for the Hunt Cup is 4 p.m. at the Worthington Valley course split by Tufton Avenue just west of Cockeysville. Let the games begin.

The Hunt Cup field (with owner, trainer, jockey) in post position order:
Terko Service (Frank Bonsal, Ann Stewart, Casey Pinkard).
Our Town (Richie Blue, Davies, Max Kendrick).
Serene Harbor (Welcome Here Farm, Todd McKenna, Annie Yeager).
Derwins Prospector (Gerry Brewster, Davies, Gonzague Cottreau).
Senior Senator (Skip Crawford, Davies, Poretz).
Old Timer (Kinross Farm, Richard Valentine, McLane Hendriks).
Great  Halo (Keystone Thoroughbreds, McKenna, Trevor McKenna).
Imperial Way (Merriefield Farm, Elizabeth Voss, Bethany Baumgardner).
Joshua G. (Armata Stable, Kathy Neilson, Jennie Brannigan).
Drift Society (Bruton Street-US, Jack Fisher, Hadden Frost).
And The Eagle Flys (Jean Class, Billy Meister, no rider).
De Chera (Bruce Fenwick, Fenwick, no rider).
Super Saturday (Irv Naylor, Neilson, Roger Quinlan).

But first the Grand National. Senior Senator came into the race off a point-to-point win at Elkridge-Harford and the reputation as a Hunt Cup winner. Another win would be nice, but the tune-up was more important. The 7-year-old delivered both, running down Raven’s Choice (a Grand National and Hunt Cup winner) after the last fence and holding off the multiple stakes-placed Old Timer by 1 1/2 lengths on a rain-soaked day.

Poretz let the 7-year-old break in the back of the field of 10 as Terko Service took the early lead, but Senior Senator pulled his way toward the front before dropping back in the pack again. The back and forth didn’t seem to matter as the winner arrived full of run over the final two fences. Raven’s Choice (Mark Beecher) led over the second-last and carried a slight advantage coming to the last. Senior Senator got a better fence, touched down in front and kicked away. Old Timer (Hendriks) made up 10 lengths over the final two fences to finish a solid third.

“The ground was slow and it was taking a toll,” said Poretz. “I just tried to settle him, but when horses pass him he really wants to run into the back of them. He doesn’t really ever shut off, that’s why I was back and forth. I want to take a hold of him, but I don’t wanted to interfere with him or mess up his mindset. When he really jumps the way he can, he gets passing horses and you don’t want to discourage that either.”

Senior Senator has crossed the finish line first or second in every timber race he’s finished, going back to October 2014, including a disqualification from a win in the Grand National’s allowance race last year. There, he failed to negotiate a turn correctly and interfered with two rivals (forcing one out of the race) before winning easily. The 2017 effort, combined with the 2016 Hunt Cup score, put that in the past.

“Last year, I was disappointed he got taken down but it wasn’t a smooth performance by him,” said Davies. “This was. He looked like a racehorse that can get a little bit tough, but it wasn’t anything like last year. They were in traffic and he did it nicely. That’s exciting to me.”

Maybe Senior Senator, whose misbehavior goes back to his days on the flat when he was difficult to saddle and habitually dropped jockeys on the way to the starting gate, is growing up.

“He’s matured a lot, but it’s a process,” said Davies. “Getting him to the races in the trailer is a major production. Once he’s here, settling him and getting him to be reviewed by the vet and just keeping him somewhat controlled is a big part of it. Then you’ve got the race.”

This time, that looked like the easy part. The Pennsylvania-bred son of Domestic Dispute and the Awesome Again mare Queen Kennelot won for the third time (with three seconds) in seven timber starts and lifted his earnings over fences to $102,800.

• Given all the variables – fences, miles, grass, rain, turns, driveway crossings and the like – how can a 3 1/4-mile timber race come down to the final steps?

Class Brahms and De Chera showed how, reaching the final fence within a stride of each other and then trading the lead in the stretch before Class Brahms (Mark Beecher) prevailed by a neck in the $20,000 allowance timber. Trained by Tara Elmore for Rosbrian Farm, the 9-year-old broke his timber maiden in his fifth season. De Chera settled for a tough-luck second with Touchdowntony third in a field of 11.

The finish was so tight, neither rider ventured a guess in part due to the vagaries of the course’s finish line (on the side of a hill) and the dismal conditions.

“Normally you know a little bit, I didn’t know,” said Beecher. “It’s so weird here. You’re on the side of a hill, the rain is pushing you to the other side or it feels like it is and you couldn’t see much. To be fair, there didn’t deserve to be a loser in that race.”

The photo-finish camera decided it.

De Chera (Poretz) raced up front throughout while Class Brahms spent the early part of the race switched off and in behind. He led over the last, but wasn’t all that fluid as De Chera sailed over, took the lead and seized a 1-length lead. Class Brahms re-gathered himself, and chewed into the margin enough to draw even won with a final lunge.

“I wasn’t there two strides before the wire, and I might have pushed his head down at the right time,” Beecher said. “He’s so genuine. He listened to me and I got breathers into him when I could. A few other horses were a bit keen earlya dn that will slow you down in the end here.”

• Kieron Magee doesn’t know it, but he trains timber horses. For the second consecutive week in Maryland, a former Magee runner picked up a timber win. This time it was Mystic Strike, who won a $5,000 claimer at Charles Town for Magee in December 2014 before being purchased privately by jump trainer Todd McKenna.

The 8-year-old son of Smart Strike rallied from well back in a field of eight to take the $15,000 allowance for apprentice jockeys. Owned by Upland Partners, Mystic Strike was last of eight with less than a mile to go but charged through the stretch to win by 3 1/4 lengths over Where’s The Beef with Hill Tie third. Annie Yeager rode the winner, who broke his maiden last spring at Winterthur, for McKenna.

“I follow Kieron because I like what he claims,” said the trainer. “Annie saw where he had a (high) speed rating back when he won on the flat in Florida. Then he was running pretty cheaply and had been with a few different trainers (David Jacobson, Linda Gaudet, Dane Kobiskie and finally Magee).”

McKenna called Magee and asked if Mystic Strike was for sale, gave up a Saturday of fox hunting to take a look, liked what he saw and put a new horse on the trailer.

“At first he said he wanted 15 (thousand),” McKenna said with a laugh. “I liked the horse and talked him down. He didn’t have to sell him. He was running OK at the time, but he’d run through his conditions some – he was a non-winner of four running for $5,000.”

Now he’s a timber horse. For McKenna and Upland, the 8-year-old has won four times – twice in NSA races and twice in point-to-points.

Mystic Strike raced on the flat for breeder Peter Vesgo and trainer Phil Gleaves, winning the third start of his life (2012) by 14 lengths at Calder. The bay won again in 2013, but started 2014 for a $50,000 claiming price for Jacobson in March at Aqueduct. The Florida-bred slid through the levels – $32,000, $20,000, $14,000, $10,000, $5,000, $4,500 – by the end of that year.

NOTES: Senior Senator’s Maryland Hunt Cup bid was featured on 60 Minutes Sunday night.