Time stops for Maryland Hunt Cup

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The last Wednesday, Thursday and Friday of April do funny things to hours, minutes and seconds on certain Thoroughbred farms in Maryland, Pennsylvania and Virginia. It’s time for the Maryland Cup, North America’s oldest and most traditional steeplechase race.

The race’s true contenders race just a few times each year, stepping through a long conditioning process aimed to peak on the last Saturday in April. Most Hunt Cup horses don’t race again for 10 or 11 months. All part of the process, which culminates with a 4-mile, 22-fence test so steeped in tradition the turns are marked with flat, white stones sunk into the Worthington Valley turf nearly 100 years ago.

“It’s a tricky month, you know?” said trainer Todd Wyatt, who won the 2015 race with Raven’s Choice. “You’re sitting around waiting for it to get here and when it gets here you feel like you need a few more days or another week.”

He won’t get it. The race is Saturday at 4 p.m. near Glyndon, Md. Thirteen horses made the program, led by Wyatt’s runner, 2014 winner Guts For Garters, hard-luck loser the last two years Imperial Way and former timber champion Foyle. The rest are upstarts, a little less proven over big Maryland timber but players nonetheless. You can’t win the great race without first being in it, and a winner can come from almost anywhere.

“It can be a bit of a lottery,” said Mark Beecher, who rode Raven’s Choice to victory last year and also won in 2013 aboard Professor Maxwell. “A lot of things can happen. The toughest things (fences) are in front of you, but worse things (rival runners) might be around you.”

Wyatt and Beecher are in a good spot with Raven’s Choice, who razed six others in the Grand National timber stakes Saturday at Butler, Md. Owned by Ann Jackson, Raven’s Choice turned a slow early pace into a five-fence sprint and won easily. The 9-year-old finished second behind Imperial Way in the 2015 Hunt Cup, but was elevated to the victory when the winner’s jockey Bethany Baumgardner lost her lead pad late in the race. The stewards’ decision did little to diminish either horse, and they meet again Saturday.

After his Grand National win, Raven’s Choice went right back to work Monday and trained all week.

“That’s what (Hunt Cup-winning trainer) Tom Voss told me,” said Wyatt. “Don’t let time set in, keep him up. They need that in that race. They need to feel light on their feet and strong going into it.”

Raven’s Choice has won on the flat (going a mile on the turf at Belmont Park in 2010), over hurdles (a maiden at Great Meadow in 2011) and over timber (where he’s won four times in eight tries).

With Baumgardner sidelined by a neck injury, Diana Gillam will be aboard Imperial Way for Merriefield Farm and trainer Elizabeth Voss. The 11-year-old Point Given gelding lost the 2014 Hunt Cup by a nose, won last year’s by a half-length only to be disqualified. He’s never officially won in 19 starts (flat, hurdle, timber) under rules. The chestnut finished a distant seventh in the Grand National, but barely looked winded back at the barn afterward. The New York-bred is a true 4-mile specialist and the Hunt Cup gods owe him one (maybe two). And don’t count out the Hunt Cup gods.

Call this year a rematch if you want, but there’s more to it. Raven’s Choice has nothing to prove to his connections, but you could say the son of Dance With Ravens has unfinished business with the historic course.

“Watching the video you’d like to see your horse win, to cross the wire first, in that race,” said Wyatt, whose horse carried roughly 25 more pounds than Imperial Way over much of the final mile. “It’s not that he backed in, but he backed in a little bit. I’ve taken that into this year. We’ve got a little something to prove to other people.”

And it’s not just Raven’s Choice and Imperial Way anyway.

“This kind of race, you set attainable goals but when you pick vendettas and try to beat people or single out people, it’s a mistake,” Wyatt said. “You’re competing with the fence in front of you as much as the other horses, and if you can get by that fence, there’s another one waiting for you.”

Stewart Strawbridge’s Guts For Garters got home first in the 2014 Hunt Cup, edging Imperial Way in a race with just four finishers from 15 starters. The Irish-bred won by a nose after 4 miles, with the third horse 60 lengths back. Guts For Garters came back last year and finished third (moved up to second) without threatening the top two late. Rain this week will help the 13-year-old son of Presenting, whose preps included three point-to-point runs – at Cheshire, Brandywine and Fair Hill. Former professional champion Jody Petty takes the riding assignment in the all-amateur affair.

Merriefield Farm’s Foyle won the NSA’s timber championship in 2013 thanks to stakes wins in the International Gold Cup and Pennsylvania Hunt Cup. The Maryland-bred has been chasing Hunt Cup glory and dealing with injuries ever since. In 2014, he finished a tough-luck second in the Grand National, beaten a nose in a photo finish that still stirs debate and fell while leading at the 16th fence of the Hunt Cup. That year, English amateur Sam Waley-Cohen came over for the ride and put the son of Yarrow Brae on the lead midway through the race. The move stymied several foes, but resulted in a tired horse and a fall. Foyle was injured after one point-to-point start last year and missed the big tests.

Back for more at 11, Foyle finished third at Piedmont Point-to-Point and was last of 10 at My Lady’s Manor two weeks ago. Trainer Bruce Fenwick was happy with that effort, despite the placing.

“He’s as good as I can have him,” Fenwick said last week at the Grand National.

James Slater takes the ride, and hopes to get the hard-pulling veteran some cover early.

“I’m never going to be the one to tell him to be on the front end,” said the jockey, who partnered with Foyle for his biggest wins. “Hopefully we can do that toward the end. He’s changed from the horse he was a couple years ago. He’s a little more careful. He still wants to race, he’s still a racehorse, but he’s different. I’m looking forward to it. He made it to the 16th the last time, but that was soft ground and some very positive riding tactics. He’s going to have a different ride this time, whether it makes any difference or not we’ll see.”

As usual, the Hunt Cup is the card’s only race. If you’ve never been, put it on your racing list.

The field, in post position order (with owner, trainer, jockey):

  1. Imperial Way (Merriefield Farm, Elizabeth Voss, Diana Gillam). As good as anyone at jumping around this course. Needs better luck.
  2. And The Eagle Flys (Jean Class, Billy Meister, Fritz Boniface). Makes fourth start in the race. Second in 2011, did not finish in 2012 or 2014. Second in Grand National last week.
  3. Almarmooq (Irv Naylor, Kathy Neilson, Forrest Kelly). Won Pennsylvania Hunt Cup last fall, after falling at the 19th fence in this race last year. Dynaformer gelding bred by Stone Farm sold for $950,000 as a yearling.
  4. Raven’s Choice (Ann Jackson, Todd Wyatt, Mark Beecher). Won last year’s race in the stewards’ stand and showed readiness with powerful Grand National win. The horse to beat.
  5. Catch The Echo (Gerry Brewster, Joe Davies, McLane Hendriks). Fourth Hunt Cup start after failing to finish in 2013 and 2014 and placing fifth last year. West Virginia-bred has never won under rules.
  6. Joshua G. (Armata Stable, Kathy Neilson, Sarah Shaffer). Electrified 2015 Hunt Cup with bold jumping and front-running style before settling for fourth for breeder/owner/trainer Jason Cole. Sold since then, Pennsylvania-bred finished fourth in Grand National.
  7. Drift Society (Bruton Street-US, Jack Fisher, Connor Hankin). Irish-bred has won two of six American starts, including allowance timber at My Lady’s Manor. Gets stiffest jumping test.
  8. Foyle (Merriefield Farm, Bruce Fenwick, James Slater). Timber champion in 2013 gets another crack at the Hunt Cup after falling while in front in 2014. Based at Fenwick’s Belmont Farm adjacent to the course. Maryland-bred.
  9. Senior Senator (Skip Crawford, Joe Davies, Eric Poretz). Youngest horse in the race at 6. Loads of talent as he’s crossed the line first or second in five consecutive races. Of course, he was disqualified from a win last week for interfering with two horses while rank. Needs polished, controlled effort while also handling the biggest test of his life.
  10. Derwins Prospector (Gerry Brewster, Joe Davies, Erika Taylor). He’s gone from running short at Charles Town and Timonium to timber marathons. Winless in five NSA starts including a sixth in the Grand National last week.
  11. Any Key (Straylight Racing, Billy Meister, Alex Leventhal). The 13-year-old Polish Numbers gelding tackles a tough assignment against the country’s best. Seventh in My Lady’s Manor maiden.
  12. Guts For Garters (Stewart Strawbridge, Sanna Neilson, Jody Petty). Veteran won this in 2014 and finished third (moved up to second) last year.
  13. Serene Harbor (Welcome Here Farm, Todd McKenna, Annie Yeager). Valley Crossing gelding skipped Hunt Cup last year after upsetting the Grand National. Third in that race this year without making much impact on Raven’s Choice. Two-time stakes winner with plenty of class including Pennsylvania-bred stakes victory on the flat in 2009.