Two weeks before the most important timber race in the world, while still enjoying the My Lady’s Manor victory by his horse Vintage Vinnie (Ire), trainer Joe Davies contemplated the next step.
“He’s nominated to the big dance . . .” Davies said, stopping his trek back to the barn in mid-step to consider his next few words about the Maryland Hunt Cup. “We don’t think he gets the 4 miles. We’re going to wait and see. I don’t see him doing it. I just don’t think he’s a 4-mile horse. I think he’d go really well for 3 miles and then . . .”
Two weeks after winning the 110th Manor, Armata Stable’s Vintage Vinnie made history in the 124th running of the Hunt Cup in Glyndon April 24 – setting the course record of 8:22 3/5, winning by more than three football fields, giving Davies his fifth consecutive win in the race and becoming the first horse to win the Manor and the Hunt Cup in the same year since 1988. The 12-year-old went to the front at once for Irish jockey Dan Nevin and was never threatened. Nobody got close. The official margin of victory was 112 1/2 lengths, confirmed by a high-speed digital photo finish camera (and beyond the Equibase data system’s two-digit limit), over Preseli Rock (Ire) with Rocket Star Red third. Le Chevalier, the Grand National winner a week earlier and arguably the Hunt Cup favorite in a year where no previous winners made the field, lost jockey McLane Hendriks at the 20th of 22 fences while a clear yet distant second.
Owners Perry Bolton (90) and Ben Griswold IV (80), whose friendship traces to Griswold’s father’s 1939 hiring of Bolton’s future wife’s father Charles Garland to run Baltimore’s Alex Brown investment firm, were joyous – and flabbergasted.
“How about that, Ben?” Bolton asked with a grin.
Griswold spoke for everybody, “I never thought I’d see something like that.”
Bolton has attended Hunt Cups since he was a teen. His great uncle, George Brown Jr., saw the first – in 1894 – and rode in 14 runnings. He won in 1900 and again in 1916. Brown was later a racetrack steward, and instilled a love of the sport in his nephew. Bolton called never riding in a Hunt Cup “one of my great regrets,” but foxhunted until age 85 and annually presents the George Brown Bowl to the top timber horse in Maryland. This year, the bowl stays home.
Like Bolton, Griswold has attended Hunt Cups for most of his life. His father rode in five. Ben went one better. Brother Jay made 16 trips to the post. They went 0-for-27.
Ben IV and Bolton teamed up to form Armata in the early 1990s and found Hunt Cup success with Hunt Cup stalwart Welter Weight. He won in 1999, after finishing second (once by a head) the two previous years, and followed up with two more runner-up efforts in 2000 and 2001. With a little more luck, he’d have won three or so. A Hunt Cup runner is the stable’s stated goal and they’ve been represented by 14 runners since Welter Weight’s win. Another winner, a year after the race was canceled because of the coronavirus pandemic, was special.
“Ben and I are always aiming at that race, it’s always the end goal,” said Bolton. “We’ve had a great time and I’ll never forget it. There is a lot of history in my family with the Hunt Cup and all the different people through the years. This tops everything.”
For Davies, the win was historic as well. Like his owners, he’s had a long relationship with the Hunt Cup, its 22 fences, its 4 miles, its twists and turns, its lore. He won it three times as a jockey, and built a training business with his wife Blythe Miller Davies (also a Hunt Cup-winning jockey) specializing in Hunt Cup horses. They found one of the race’s best in Senior Senator, who won in 2016, 2018 and 2019. When he fell in 2017, the team won the race anyway – with surprise upsetter Derwins Prospector. Senior Senator was meant to try to become the Hunt Cup’s first four-time winner in 2020, until the pandemic and until he died of colic.
“I never thought I’d see the top side of that stand again when we lost Senior Senator unless I snuck up there if my son won it or if they let me present a trophy someday,” said Davies. “I had very little hope of winning the race again, not after having a horse like Senior Senator.”
A Race, While It Lasted
From an original group of 10 entries, nine went to the post as Hooded was a late scratch. A front-runner with few peers, Vintage Vinnie was always going to make the running and he bounced clear by 10 lengths going to the first fence. Nevin buried his hands at his horse’s withers and let the horse stride on. The landing was a little steep, that happens to keyed-up horses, but Le Chevalier nearly fell and slid back to last. Vintage Vinnie flew the second, surged through the mulch across Tufton Avenue and scaled the 4-foot-9 third fence. Twenty-five lengths in front, at least, by this point he added to the advantage through the first mile while the others bunched together in a race of their own behind him. Vintage Vinnie led by 10 seconds over the fifth fence. By the eighth, the lead was 17 seconds. Video analysis proved to be nearly impossible beyond that point.
At the 12th, he looked completely under control – pricking his ears to size up the fence and find his takeoff spot – landing with momentum. He jumped the 13th fence, all 4-foot-9 of it, while the others left the ground at the 12th. He’d built an insurmountable lead, that was clear. Could he see out the race’s final mile-and-a-half? And could he handle the final nine fences? Like always in the Hunt Cup, the course would pass judgment – even in a year with more broken posts and splintered rails than usual.
After taking out a rail at the 14th, Vintage Vinnie nearly threw it all away at the 16th. Uphill, 4-foot-10 and nearly 3 miles into the race, the fence asks a difficult question. The leader clouted it, a broken post dropping out the top rail in three panels. Tail up, nose down, front legs supporting the whole lot, Vintage Vinnie slowed, steadied himself and galloped on. Nevin barely moved in the saddle, even if his right hand came off the reins for a second.
“There was one scary moment, where he knuckled a little bit and almost went down on his head but the horse is so clever,” Nevin said. “Five or six from home is it? He is very quick on his feet and athletic. It’s unreal, he got me out of a hole there.”
Somewhere Davies cringed.
“He made one serious mistake, but he did it with authority, at the 16th,” Davies said. “If you have momentum, and stay balanced, you can do that.”
Vintage Vinnie put the near-disaster behind him, and cleared the 17th as the others steadied up to the now-shortened 16th. Though he nearly flattened 17, Le Chevalier pulled well clear of the rest to take second before losing Hendriks with a run-out at the 20th. Safely on the landing side of 21 by this point, Nevin looked over his shoulder for competition and saw none. Vintage Vinnie popped the last and cantered home.
“I couldn’t believe it, it was a shock,” Davies said. “After the 19th I started to get hopeful. Before that I wasn’t very hopeful. I just thought his jumping was going to catch up to him. I did not have a great deal of faith. I knew he had done a lot of jumping and I hoped that he was wise enough to steady himself, but I just didn’t think he’d be able to keep steadying himself for 4 miles and over all those fences. Could he keep doing it?” He could.
Nevin, 20, came to the United States with no notion of the Hunt Cup. He’d seen videos, heard a story or two. A point-to-point regular who spent two years riding out for top Irish trainer Willie Mullins, learning as much as possible, Nevin had never seen a timber race much less ridden in one.
“The jump is different, these fences you’d more so show jump them,” he said. “They’re so upright. Back in Ireland the point-to-point fences are slanted and you can brush through the top of them.”
Prepped by Joe and Blythe Davies to be as quiet as possible, no matter what, and to let Vintage Vinnie do the work, Nevin listened – even when a mid-week schooling session went haywire with a refusal, a skid, a crow-hop in the hunter-trial field and finally a few fences Davies called satisfactory if unspectacular.
Davies provided fairly simple instructions during the week.
“You just sit there, be a passenger, he’ll do all the work,” the trainer told his jockey.
In the paddock a few minutes before the 4 p.m. post time, Blythe Davies was more emphatic.
“Dan, you do not have a choice here,” she said. “Put your hands down, leave him alone.”
Leaving the paddock with his feet out of the stirrups as Vintage Vinnie hopped and dipped into a warm-up gallop, Nevin stuck to the plan.
“I jumped off, left him alone and he did everything,” said the jockey. “I just sat there and enjoyed the trip around. Even going to the fourth-last I had a look behind me and I was so far clear I knew I had gotten enough breathers into him and he had saved enough energy that he had a fair chance. It would take a fair horse to stay at that pace for 4 miles, but he did it. I was able to take him back and get a couple breathers into him. He listened to me when he needed to.”
Preseli Rock and jockey Hadden Frost outran Rocket Star Red (Brett Owings) by a half-length to take second with Royal Ruse (Chris Gracie) fourth. Eight finished. There were no falls, though Vintage Vinnie was pulled up and looking for a sip of water by the time the others crossed the line.
The time bested the 8:25 3/5 of 2002 winner Young Dubliner (Ire) by three seconds. Firm turf contributed to the winning time, but they’re the only two horses to break 8:30 around the course, unchanged since 1922.
A Hunt Cup Winner’s Path
Joe and Blythe Davies claimed Senior Senator for $7,500 at Penn National, and changed Hunt Cup history by turning a rogue into a history-maker. Nobody called Vintage Vinnie the heir apparent, but he joined the squad in 2017 as a Hunt Cup prospect if for no other reason than his owner and trainer.
He’d won three races over chase fences in England, jumped around the Grand National brush course at Aintree (not in the Grand National itself, but in quality races) while earning just shy of £60,000 for trainer Rebecca Curtis. With the Davieses on the lookout for a horse for Armata, Goffs horses-in-training sale at Doncaster seemed like a logical place to look.
“We were looking for horses in the sale and we watched a race that a horse in the sale ran in and we thought we liked another horse in the race, that wasn’t in the sale,” said Davies. “That was Vintage Vinnie. We called up to see if we could buy him and they said he was sort of getting near the end of his conditions and sure, we could buy him.”
A well-beaten 13th (of 22) in the 2017 Galway Plate Steeplechase in his final start for Curtis, Vintage Vinnie made his timber debut the following spring. He won two point-to-point starts, then finished second in the maiden at My Lady’s Manor. He did the same thing the next year, winning twice early and placing second in the allowance timber at the Grand National – all the while showcasing a bold, front-running style and some harrowing days at home.
“That’s a difficult horse,” Davies said after this year’s Manor win. “We’ve almost given up on him a couple of times. He is an absolute bear to train. He’s more difficult on a daily basis than Senior Senator because when you get on him, he just runs off as fast as he can go every day.”
A tendon issue, the pandemic and some new thinking changed the plan last year. Vintage Vinnie began with a point-to-point flat prep in October, then won an apprentice-jockey timber at Great Meadow in October before finishing third at the Pennsylvania Hunt Cup. This spring, the mission was the same – a flat prep at Green Spring Valley Point-to-Point knocked off the rust and Vintage Vinnie won the Manor by building an early lead and getting a break when Schoodic slipped and fell on the final turn. Davies said his horse was only three-quarters fit going in. The trainer quietly aimed for the Hunt Cup two weeks later, even if it seemed like a lofty goal.
“It was always the plan to not run in the Grand National,” the trainer said. “He’s so hard on himself in his races and in his training that we just thought fewer races were better.”
Though deep history dives show horses running in all three Maryland timber races – the Manor, Grand National and Hunt Cup – in successive weeks, the more-recent trend is to skip the Manor and run on back-to-back Saturdays. Senior Senator took that route, so did Derwins Prospector, Raven’s Choice and Guts For Garters (Ire). You have to go back to 2013 to find a Hunt Cup winner who did not race a week earlier at the Grand National.
“I don’t like to run a horse in the Hunt Cup that hasn’t run around the Grand National course at some point,” said Davies. “The bigger fences are taller, it just asks questions they need to answer. He’d run around there (in 2019) so we were OK there.”
Vintage Vinnie won the Manor, dragged his people around the fields at the farm in Monkton, Md., for two weeks and went to the Hunt Cup.
“People asked if we were going to wait for the Virginia Gold Cup, but we said no mostly because we couldn’t keep riding him every day for another month-and-a-half,” said Davies, who trades exercise-rider duties with his son Teddy and assistant Ashton Williams. “We can’t school him at home, we can’t jump him over logs, anything. We literally jog him down the driveway, we have an open gate, he runs as fast as he can for a mile-and-a-quarter, then he pulls himself up and we jump off and lead him home.”
Somehow, that strategy produced another Hunt Cup winner from Team Davies. No trainer had won the race in four consecutive years, and Davies just made it five. The record, shared by Janon Fisher Jr. and Charlie Fenwick, is six. There’s no secret, Davies said, just a mix of horses, horsemanship, luck and some focus.
“The only difference for us is that other trainers have the pressure to go other places . . . and we don’t,” he said. “We were clear in our vision, with Senior Senator, with this horse and with the others we’ve run in the race. If you’re really focused on things and you’re a little disciplined, it doesn’t mean winning has to happen, but you can improve your odds.”