Joe Davies thought himself a competent amateur steeplechase jockey in 1983 so when Joy Slater went down with a broken collarbone a week before the Maryland Hunt Cup, Davies made a phone call. “Mrs. Fanning, you don’t know who I am but I sure would like to ride Cancottage,” he said.
Trainer Jill Fanning, whose English-bred horse was bidding for his third victory in the race, didn’t really hesitate.
“Well, I already have Charlie Fenwick lined up, but you sound like a nice young boy and if you’re interested you could ride the pony and take Cancottage to the start for us.”
A few days later the 21-year-old Davies dutifully put on the first suit he owned and rode the pony to the start alongside Cancottage, who became just the eighth horse to win the Maryland Hunt Cup three times. Thirty-six years later, the honor roll of all-time Hunt Cup heroes – Princeton, Garry Owen, Blockade, Winton, Pine Pep, Jay Trump, Mountain Dew, Cancottage – still stops at eight.
Davies hopes to change that.
The Maryland-based trainer aims two-time Hunt Cup winner Senior Senator to the race, which celebrates its 125th anniversary April 27. Twenty-four horses passed the early nomination stage, but only one tries to make history. Owned by Skip Crawford, Senior Senator won in 2016 and again last year to put himself on the verge of history. The moment is not lost on his trainer.
Davies and his wife Blythe live and train their horses in Monkton, on a farm once owned by the Watters family – owners of Princeton (whose wins came in 1903, 1905 and 1906). In addition to that connection, Davies spent plenty of time with six-time Hunt Cup winner Mikey Smithwick, who told tales of Pine Pep’s wins in 1949, 1950 and 1952.
“Three times? I think of Princeton,” said Davies. “I don’t know if he was trained on this farm for sure, but maybe. The timing is right. I think of that, and I think about how Mikey told me that the first two times he won on Pine Pep it was really hard but the third time he was just showing off. It was easy. The horse was that good. He said it felt like Pine Pep knew where he was and what to do.”
And then there’s the Cancottage connection.
“I think of him too,” said Davies. “I was right there. I remember waiting for him to come back across Tufton Avenue by the second-last [fence].”
Since 1983, five horses have won their second Hunt Cups. None could break through with a third. Senior Senator’s 2016 win looked equal parts brilliant and erratic. Davies called it a Hail Mary. In 2017, to much hype, the horse fell at the third fence. Last year, he looked like Roger Federer playing tennis at the Green Spring Valley Club.
While never an easy race, the 2018 Hunt Cup was comfortable. Senior Senator never put a foot wrong. Controlled and composed, he jumped better than the others. He galloped better. Started better. Finished better. He won by 5 lengths. It may as well have been 25.
This time around? Well, that memory of Pine Pep (who fell in 1951) sure sounds good.
“Come what may,” said Davies, staying pragmatic in early March.
The plan remains, loosely, the same – two point-to-point starts, the Grand National April 20 and the Hunt Cup a week later. Though he never goes completely out of training, Senior Senator enjoyed his seasonal break. To help his problematic feet, the 9-year-old went without front shoes for six months or so. That limited his turnout time, though the program consisted of jogging, galloping, time in the free walker, round pen, grazing. Weather kept the Maryland turf in various states of freeze and thaw all winter, which might mean the schedule is a bit delayed but the serious work happens in March and April anyway.
“It’s been difficult,” Davies said. “But people tend to over-train their horses if the weather is too good anyway. Even though we’ve had to pick our way around, I think we’re fine. We haven’t quite had the works we want, but his feet are good, he’s good.”
Bred by Marylander Charles McGill, Senior Senator’s tale of failing (miserably) as a rogue flat horse at Penn National is well known and even made 60 Minutes a couple years ago. It’s different now, but the same too. Another Hunt Cup win will surely spark comparison to the greats and talk of a trip to England for a go at Aintree. Davies isn’t sure, and won’t really think about it – for now.
“Keeping it all in perspective is important, that and staying composed about the earlier races,” said the trainer. “You want to get him to the Maryland Hunt Cup.”
Because that’s where history awaits.