A 2016 AHP Award Winner
Joe and Blythe Davies drove to Penn National in May 2013 to claim a horse, watched him in the paddock, liked enough of what they saw and filled out the slip. The hard part was over so they went to watch the race on a grandstand television.
“Excuse me, did you just claim my horse?”
It was Flint Stites, the veteran Penn National-based trainer with more than 1,500 wins and a lengthy career of dealing with horses large, small, fast, slow, cheap and expensive.
Joe and Blythe, Maryland-based steeplechase trainers who specialize in the circuit’s big spring timber races, nodded and said that, yes, they had just claimed Stites’ horse.
“I just want you to know,” Stites said. “I’ve been training horses for 35 years and this is the craziest horse I’ve ever trained.”
Just about as Stites finished his sentence, the horse – a 3-year-old gelding named Senior Senator with zero wins in four starts – sent jockey William Otero to the dirt and got loose.
For a moment, Joe Davies thought he had an out. The stewards might scratch the horse and the claim would be voided. Then, the horse was rounded up, Otero got back in the saddle and Senior Senator finished second. The Davies went home with a new horse, and a project.
“I noticed someone looking at him that night,” said Stites. “It wasn’t the first time. He’s a good-looking horse. I went and talked to them. I just wanted to make sure they understood what they were getting into.”
Short term, they were getting into a project. Long term, they were getting into a Maryland Hunt Cup winner.
Just shy of three years after that night at Penn National, Senior Senator won the 120th edition of the timber classic by a half-length over Guts For Garters (Ire) April 30. Owned by Skip Crawford, trained by Joe Davies and ridden by 20-year-old Eric Poretz, the Pennsylvania-bred became the first 6-year-old to capture the timber classic since Jay Trump in 1963.
The achievement was not lost on Stites, who had a feeling a career change might help. Bred by Marylander Charles McGill, Senior Senator was so well behaved as a young horse that he wasn’t gelded. The racetrack, and Stites, changed that pretty quickly.
“As soon as he got fit it was all hands on deck,” said the trainer a few days after the Hunt Cup. “He wasn’t too bad on the track, but in the barn and anywhere near the starting gate he was really difficult to deal with. In our barn at Penn, he jumped so high one day that the rider hit his head on the rafters. And he could go all day, we could never get him tired. But he’d get himself so worked up in the paddock and going to the gate.”
The son of Domestic Dispute and the Awesome Again mare Queen Kennelot was so far behind in his career debut late in his 2-year-old season that the official chart declared him a non-finisher. He got closer in his next three starts, finishing fourth, third and second with late rallies.
Stites tried training off his farm not far from the Grantville, Pa., racetrack, and Senior Senator seemed to appreciate that atmosphere, but he still had to go to the racetrack to work and to run.
“Hauling him to the track, he wouldn’t tolerate that,” said Stites. “He was tough in the trailer. As soon as he realized where he was going, he was just as bad as he was before. I was afraid he was going to really hurt himself.”
The night of the claim, May 11, 2013, Senior Senator was in for $7,500 going a mile on the dirt. Bettors made him the 6-5 favorite. After the pre-race shenanigans, he ran OK – losing by 11⁄2 lengths – with another stretch rally.
“He got loose a couple times behind the gate, dropped the rider and ran around,” said Stites. “It got where we would get him saddled, get him out to the track and kind of circle him and surprise him where he would just show up behind the gate. But he figured that out pretty quickly too. He’s a smart horse, a very smart horse. He’s a beautiful horse too. He always looked good and made you think there was something there.”
For his new trainers, there were nothing but headaches at first. They ran him back for $5,000 at Timonium in August and, after tossing the jockey behind the starting gate, he finished sixth. Senior Senator made one more trip to Penn National, finishing sixth for $7,500 after – you guessed it – dropping the jockey on the way to the gate.
“I was at Timonium when they ran him there, and at Penn when they ran him,” said Stites. “He was the same way. He hadn’t changed at all.”
At this point, the Davies might have given their horse away. Only nobody would have taken him. Still, there was a little something to like – some class under all that sass – and they pressed on.
Two weeks after the Penn National loss, Senior Senator showed up at the Shawan Downs steeplechase meet for a training flat race. It took 45 minutes to put on the bridle. He finished third. Jockey Ross Geraghty could barely pull up afterward, got off and said something to the effect of, “Nice horse, don’t ever call me again.” Second in another training flat race (for jockey Richie Rohan) to close the season, Senior Senator had a reputation and little else.
“People told us to get rid of him, that he was going to kill someone,” said Joe Davies, who nevertheless sold Senior Senator and Touchdowntony to Crawford in an inexpensive package deal and kept them both to train. They aimed at 2014, with high hopes and low expectations.
The plan with Senior Senator, picked out by Blythe because she liked his stride on the video replays from Penn National, was to do whatever made him happy. He stayed outside as much as possible. He went for van rides to nowhere (well, sometimes Starbucks). He jumped, anything and everything. He went for hacks in the woods with the Davies children, Teddy and Scarlet, and their ponies.
“Ashton Williams rides him most every day at home for us, and if he ever gets upset, starts to buck or anything, she’ll just turn to the nearest fenceline she sees and head at it,” Davies said. “He starts jumping and he just calms down.”
Poretz, then 18 and as raw as the horse, rode Senior Senator to a third over hurdles at Virginia’s Loudoun Point-to-Point in April. They were meant to make their National Steeplechase Association debut at Fair Hill the next month, but were stopped by the rulebook (a jockey with no hurdle wins cannot ride a horse which has not completed three hurdle races). The more experienced Gus Dahl rode Senior Senator, and came off after a mistake at the fifth fence. On the loose, the horse jumped the outside rail while trying to get back to the paddock.
By the summer of his 4-year-old season, Senior Senator was a failed flat horse and a failed hurdler. There aren’t many options from there. He spent the summer on the farm, trying to learn more lessons, taking van rides, riding out with the ponies and jumping anything that didn’t move – and probably some things that did.
By fall, though less common than a Donald Trump supporter at a Clinton family reunion, Senior Senator was a 4-year-old timber horse. He and Poretz went to Virginia’s Blue Ridge Point-to-Point and won in September. The next month, shipping overnight from Maryland to upstate New York for the Genesee Valley Hunt Races – while wearing the bit and bridle headpiece under his halter – they finished second.
In a maiden race at the Pennsylvania Hunt Cup in November, Poretz had to get a leg up from spectator/trainer Wendy Kinnamon after coming off on the way to the start. The favor was appreciated as Senior Senator won by a length. And the rebirth was on its way.
Last year, Senior Senator finished second three times – to timber champion Grinding Speed at the Cheshire Point-to-Point and in the My Lady’s Manor timber stakes, and to Serene Harbor in the Grand National timber stakes.
“We thought about the [Virginia] Gold Cup last year, but we just felt like the Grand National was a good effort,” said Davies. “He has problems with crowds, it’s a long ship, the barn area is kind of close and crowded and we might just give him a bad experience. That’s the last thing we want to do.”
A New Year
Firmly established as a player atop the spring timber division, albeit one with some potentially bad habits, Senior Senator entered 2016 with options. He went back to Cheshire March 27 and this time defeated Grinding Speed in the open timber.
“He ran a cracker, but the ground was hard and he came out of that with an abscess that turned into a quarter crack,” said Davies. “There were 10 or 12 days there where we were touch and go.”
Davies credited blacksmith Barry Schwartz with some clutch work involving a patch and glue-on shoes.
Davies, who puts the bridle (sans reins) on at home before shipping, got his horse right in time for the Murray Memorial allowance timber at the Grand National April 23. Senior Senator bided his time for two fences, then took control and never let it go – literally – while fighting off Monstaleur and Class Brahms. Approaching a left turn for the 12th fence, Senior Senator lugged right and tossed his head – hampering Class Brahms who in turn came out into Monstaleur. The latter missed the fence entirely and was out of the race, while Senior Senator and Class Brahms corrected course and got back in the race, after losing position. Though he couldn’t turn back Senior Senator in the stretch, runner-up Leffingwell Lion benefited from the bumper-car session and ensuing inquiry, foul claims and disqualification.
Davies still doesn’t agree with the stewards’ decision, and was fined $250 for a post-race confrontation with Monstaleur’s jockey Forrest Kelly, but it’s another piece in the puzzle.
“He definitely drifted out and bumped one, but I don’t think they should have been where they were at that point,” said Davies. “When they came to him, he locked on to the fence that was straight ahead (and not part of the course) and then when it came time to turn left to go to the fence in the race, he was way out there to the right.”
Off that performance, the Hunt Cup stewards questioned Davies’ intent on running a longer, more important race, over bigger fences a week later. But Davies and his wife liked the idea. He won the Hunt Cup three times as a jockey – aboard Florida Law in 1998, Swayo in 2000 and Make Me a Champ in 2005. She won it once – aboard Private Attack in 2011 – and would probably give it another go without too much pause.
The Hunt Cup, with its space, distance, gradual turns and imposing fences, might actually help Senior Senator find a comfort zone.
“We were hoping the setting was the perfect place for this horse,” he said. “He just likes to run and jump. There’s space, there’s room, it’s wide open. We believed the Hunt Cup would suit his jumping. There, maybe they wouldn’t be able to come to him. We just felt like that setting, if we were right, plays to his strengths. He’s got an endless gallop and he can just jump out of stride like no horse I’ve ever seen.”
A Race of Quality and Quantity
Senior Senator was among 30 early nominations for the race, which carried a record $100,000 purse, and one of 13 to make the program. They included a few Hunt Cup stalwarts: Guts For Garters (Ire) finished third in 2013, won in 2014 and was moved up to second in 2015; Raven’s Choice was elevated to the victory by disqualification in 2015; Imperial Way finished a nose behind Guts For Garters in 2014 and defeated everyone in 2015 only to be denied victory by a lost lead pad. They were joined by former NSA timber champion Foyle, 2011 Hunt Cup runner-up And the Eagle Flys, 2015 Pennsylvania Hunt Cup winner Almarmooq, 2015 Grand National winner Serene Harbor, Hunt Cup newcomer Drift Society (Ire) plus Catch the Echo, Joshua G., Derwins Prospector and Any Key.
Slow to the first fence, the baker’s dozen became 12 when Derwins Prospector lost Erika Taylor. They all cleared the second and third, after which Senior Senator rolled to the front – and stayed clear of Derwins Prospector’s collision with Joshua G. at the fourth. That left 11, and a suddenly free-wheeling leader. With big leaps over the fifth and sixth, where Any Key went down, Senior Senator opened 10 lengths and doubled that by the eighth.
“Going into the fourth, that loose horse is Joe and Blythe’s horse and he started to follow him,” said Poretz. “I had to tell him no. He jumped a couple of the early ones straight up in the air. I was holding him most of the race, just trying to help him. He’s so athletic, his striding was there, his breathing was great.”
He was six seconds in front, literally, at the 10th (which claimed And the Eagle Flys). More importantly, Senior Senator was under control, locked in and using his jumping. He jumped a post at the 13th, but lost little. Last year’s winner Raven’s Choice, second most of the way, clouted the 14th and lost precious ground. Guts For Garters, who won in 2014, kept pace and moved to second at the 15th.
At the 16th, which stands 4-foot-10 but plays even higher, Senior Senator and Guts For Garters flew it. Raven’s Choice got in too tight and fell, as did Almarmooq. Serene Harbor closed in, and Imperial Way reached contention for the first time. Drift Society kept building on a good race. Foyle began to tire. Separated by about 5 lengths Senior Senator, Serene Harbor and Guts For Garters stood back and hurdled the 17th.
The 18th fence claimed Foyle and Catch the Echo, leaving just five. Senior Senator led over the 20th and crossed Tufton Avenue in front, but he had company. To the inside, Guts For Garters drew even. Behind them, Drift Society advanced to third as Serene Harbor and Imperial Way came under pressure.
A spry 13, Guts For Garters landed running over the second-last, the trappy water fence, and set sail. Senior Senator wasn’t finished though, and reached even terms just before the last – right about the same time Drift Society closed with a rush. They approached the last on even terms, Senior Senator jumped best and landed in front. Guts For Garters dug in and went up by about a neck, only to be challenged again by the winner.
“He outjumped the other horse at the water and landed running,” said Petty. “We met it together and I landed in front of him. I gave my guy a couple smacks and told him we had to go. I wanted him to know we were coming down to the last and I looked back over and that horse was next to me again. I’m not sure how he did it.”
“Coming into the last, he did something he’s never, ever done,” said the jockey, who gallops horses for flat trainer Tim Keefe at Laurel Park. “We were both riding, Jody was a half-length in front and my horse bolted forward for the fence, got a good jump going home. Jody came back and got half-a-head in front again and my horse just went on again. He was great. It was the most amazing feeling.”
Davies watched the stretch run with a mix of awe and dread. He’d told Poretz that if they left the race with a decent placing and some experience, everyone would be happy. Then it looked like he might win, then it looked like he might not.
“When Jody passed him, we were consoling ourselves about having a wonderful second-place finish,” he said. “But Eric totally believes in the horse and was so patient. When I was riding races at that age, I was taught that you put your head down and ride through the last fence. But if you let your horse get in a rhythm and let the fence come to you, it goes so much better. We kept telling Eric that and Eric’s got the right mix of something to let that happen. He let him jump out of stride, and that really helps that horse.
“It was as thrilling to watch as any time I ever rode.”
Senior Senator prevailed by a half-length after 4 miles in 9:11. Guts For Garters and jockey Jody Petty settled for second with Drift Society (Connor Hankin) third. Serene Harbor was 18 lengths back in fourth, just ahead of Imperial Way.
Though eight horses failed to complete the 22-fence course, there were no serious injuries to horses or jockeys.
Poretz didn’t grow up with a Hunt Cup jones, and only turned to riding jump races on the suggestion of trainer Jason Cole while foxhunting one day. Cole, who breaks yearlings and dabbles in the timber game, saw Poretz ride and started putting him on horses. When Cole mentioned riding a jump race, Poretz had to ask, “What’s a jump race?”
“I was 16 and had no clue,” he said. “I’m from Annapolis, not around here. I was doing eventing at the time and this looked fun compared to that. I came a long way with a lot of help from Jason and Joe and Blythe and galloping for Tim in the morning.”
Poretz also gained experience through the North American Point-to-Point Associ-ation’s youth program, riding in junior field master chases and pony races as early as 2009. He rode his first point-to-point races for Cole in spring 2012, and won his first NSA race (an amateur/apprentice timber) in 2013.
Though foaled in Pennsylvania, Senior Senator is a Marylander. His breeder Charles McGill and wife Mary Welby McGill live in Upperco and raised Senior Senator on their farm. Charles remembered a handsome, relatively calm yearling.
“He’s a local boy, just grew up over the hill here,” said Charles near the Hunt Cup finish line a few minutes after the race. “We’ve had a lot worse than him at home as yearlings, but he got a lot worse at the track. He was a very tall and distinguished looking yearling, that’s how I came up with the name Senator for him.”
With the resurgence in the Maryland breeding program, McGill (who bred and/or owned Maryland Million winners Pocket Patch and Cynics Beware among others) recently moved mares back to his home state. The Hunt Cup winner’s dam, $10,000 yearling purchase Queen Kennelot, was due to produce a Smarty Jones foal at Sabrina Moore’s farm in Butler in mid-May. Adding one more layer to it all, Moore and Poretz are a couple (though McGill didn’t know that until the day of the Hunt Cup).
“It was thrilling,” McGill said of watching the race unfold. “The Hunt Cup is so iconic for anybody growing up in Maryland. When the Davies claimed that horse, I said to Mary Welby, ‘there’s a Hunt Cup possibility there.’ He’s a really outstanding individual so it’s exciting.”
Despite decades with horses, owners Skip and Vicki Crawford are newcomers to the Hunt Cup as well. They campaigned 1993 novice hurdle champion Motorcade with Joe Davies and have long been avid foxhunters with the Potomac Hunt. They’d gotten away from racing, for the most part, but listened when Davies called about getting involved again. The Hunt Cup was never really on the agenda, then or now.
“Hey, not everybody gets a Maryland Hunt Cup horse, they don’t just come down the road,” Skip said. “To have a young horse and a young guy that you’re connected to win that race, if you’re not excited about that you better just forget it and find something else to do. It’s one of the best races in the world in one of the most scenic places in the world, it’s truly special.”
Davies and Davies have long Hunt Cup pedigrees. In addition to his three riding wins, he developed 1999 winner (and four-time runner-up) Welter Weight. Blythe (Miller) Davies rode in the race as a young amateur, then won two NSA championships as a professional. She retired in 2002, but returned to win a Hunt Cup aboard Private Attack in 2011. Together, they own and train out of Dunmore Farm, once the home of Sidney Watters, in Monkton, Md., and the proving ground of three-time Hunt Cup winner Princeton in the early 1900s.
At 6, Senior Senator is a puppy by Hunt Cup standards and just the second horse younger than 10 to win since 2001.
As a 6-year-old, Jay Trump won his first of three Hunt Cups in 1963, then of course went on to even greater glory by taking the Aintree Grand National. You have to go back to 1916 to find another 6-year-old winner, Burgeois, and beyond that the records get sketchy. The 1912 winner, Conbe, is listed as a 5-year-old mare while 5-year-old gelding Judge Parker won in 1908 – though there are numerous years where the winner’s age is not recorded.
Senior Senator will get a break, though he’ll be kept in light work. Whether he runs again this year depends on the ground conditions, but you won’t see him before October at Genesee Valley or November at the Pennsylvania Hunt Cup and then another spring campaign aimed squarely at the last Saturday in April.
“He’s super happy here, but we spend a lot of time trying to figure out the things he likes or reacts to,” said Joe. “We hate to dream but if we could get his shipping figured out, get him calmed down, we’d think about taking him to England someday.”
Regardless, Senior Senator and his people are just happy to be together.
“We are so lucky we found him and he’s lucky he found us,” said Joe. “He was at Penn National, freaked, with a bad reputation. Now he lives in a field and is happy. We love him.”
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