2013 AHP Award: Second Place Editorial Event Coverage Single Article circulation under 20,000 (print)
Jacqueline Ohrstrom and Tim Beecher watched the Maryland Hunt Cup from different vantage points, but thought about the same thing as Professor Maxwell put on a galloping and jumping clinic to win the 117th running of the historic timber race in Glyndon April 27.
For Ohrstrom, the owner, the moment was all about her late husband George. He’d spent much of his life pursuing the great American steeplechase only to fall short over the years.
For Beecher, father of winning jockey Mark, the achievement represented opportunity, perseverance, second chances and pride.
Separately and together, they enjoyed the ride around the 4 miles and 22 fences that make up the Hunt Cup. Blessed with a $75,000 purse, the race represents a lucrative payday but it’s about far more, and delivered yet again in 2013 as Professor Maxwell dodged calamity, seized control and held on late to win by 3 lengths over Sand Box Rules with Guts For Garters (Ire) third in 8:57.60. In a sign of health for the race, the program included 16 names. For the second consecutive year, 12 started. Six finished.
Pre-race discussion centered on the field’s balance. Bred in Pennsylvania by Hall of Fame trainer Janet Elliot, Professor Maxwell was one of the players based on a fourth in 2012. He’d also failed to finish with a mistake at the 16th in 2010 and didn’t make the race after falling in his prep a week earlier in 2011. Talented and able to jump with the best, Professor Maxwell was nevertheless often undone by his own mistakes–something trainer Richard Valentine hoped to avoid in 2013. The plan included just one prep, at the Brandywine Point-to-Point in Pennsylvania. The 14-year-old son of Buckhar finished second, then went home to Virginia to train.
“He can jump a big fence,” the trainer said. “The two years we thought we had him good, the Grand National came too close and he just had some awkward jumps and then he came here and remembered them. He’s a very sensitive horse. In England they run the Grand National horses over hurdles to give them confidence so I just thought a point-to-point was the way to go.”
Among the other main contenders were: Battle Op, second in 2012 and third in 2010 for teenage jockey Connor Hankin; 2011 timber champion Bon Caddo, third in 2012; Guts For Garters, who came in off a carefully managed series of preps for trainer Sanna Hendriks and former professional jockey Jody Petty; veteran Twill Do, the Hunt Cup winner in 2012 and 2010 who once again entered the race off a dull effort in the Grand National.
When the flag dropped, Professor Maxwell galloped brightly to the front–pricking his ears and measuring his strides. He flew the first and second, skied the third as the field settled into a steady pace. The massive sixth claimed the first victim as Fort Henry (Ire) (Ivan Dowling) went down less than a mile into the race. Three fences later, Professor Maxwell nearly joined him–clouting the ninth and dislodging Beecher.
The Irishman stayed on, but lost his stirrups and looked to be in serious trouble. The ninth leads to a turn, a short straightaway, another turn, and then four fences in quick succession. Professor Maxwell navigated the turns, saving ground as Brands Hatch (Jackson Roberts) went wide on the lead. At the 10th, Professor Maxwell jumped smoothly and reclaimed first position. Battle Op followed in second with Prospectors Strike (Justin Batoff) third alongside Brands Hatch and Catch the Echo completing the first five. Despite a lack of stirrups, Beecher sat tall and kept his legs in position over the 11th and 12th. From a distance, you might not have noticed though Beecher knew he wasn’t going to make it 2 more miles without stirrups.
“The fences were coming up too quick and there was no point in trying to get them back,” said Beecher, who put his show jumping experience to good use. “I thought I’d try and get over the 13th and then try and get them back.”
The 13th, of course, is a 4-foot-9 monster that begins the race’s second half. Companion to the third, the fence has claimed its share of fallers–with stirrups. Tackling the obstacle without them was a recipe for disaster. Beecher rode Professor Maxwell down to the bottom and let the fence happen.
“It felt good,” he said of the 13th, which claimed Catch the Echo. “The thing about him is you ride him up to it and then you just wait. I like to encourage a horse to his fences and with him you just wait. He’s going to come up. It’s a lot of trust, a hell of a lot of trust.”
Making his fourth Hunt Cup start, Beecher learned his riding skills in Ireland, and likes to tell a story about riding for a week without stirrups to atone for falling off in a show.
“That was my doing,” said Tim Beecher. “He came off at a corner. He rode all week with no saddle. Did it help today? I don’t know. I saw it happen and thought ‘it doesn’t get any worse, does it?’ ”
Just as he did for that week at home, Mark simply rode on.
“I’ve done a lot of show jumping at home and that helps over these big timber fences,” he said. “I remember that time with no saddle. I looked in the truck and there was no saddle. My dad told me that I had to go and figure it out. It definitely helped my riding then.”
Stirrups reacquired by the 14th, where Brands Hatch lost his jockey, Beecher and Professor Maxwell steamed onward. Battle Op continued to apply pressure and the duo touched down over the massive uphill 16th in control of the race. Battle Op jumped to the front at 17, followed by Professor Maxwell, Guts For Garters, Prospectors Strike and Bon Caddo (with English amateur Mikey Ennis aboard). Behind them, Sand Box Rules (Diana Gillam) tried to work into the picture ahead of Woodmont (Martin Rohan) and Twill Do (James Stierhoff). Battle Op flew the 18th and the field bunched up behind him as Beecher tried to give Professor Maxwell a breather.
At the 19th, companion to the ninth, Battle Op blundered badly and lost Hankin–handing the lead back to Professor Maxwell. He towed the others over the 20th and across Tufton Avenue, but there was plenty of run left in them.
The course’s 21st fence, a 2-foot-11 downhill leaning board fence with a small brook on the landing side, poses a unique question late in the Hunt Cup. Always. Despite its size, it claims plenty. The horses are tired, the jockeys are tired, the tempo is increasing, the end is near. And then there’s this, as Beecher put it, “horrible little fence.”
Prospectors Strike progressed on the inside. Woodmont followed him. Bridle pulled halfway across his face, the riderless Battle Op scrambled for room. Guts For Garters made up ground along with Bon Caddo. Outside, Sand Box Rules surged. In front of them, Professor Maxwell looked for company.
“Into the water, I wanted to squeeze him and I heard Justin coming up to me which was good,” said Beecher of Prospectors Strike. “I wanted someone to come to me.”
They did. Then they didn’t. Prospectors Strike tried to stop, then veered right, sending Batoff over the fence and to the ground. Woodmont bounced into Guts For Garters, who crowded Bon Caddo. They all made it over, but lost precious momentum as Professor Maxwell landed flat-footed, got back to running and set sail for the last along with Sand Box Rules.
Professor Maxwell stepped into the final fence and flew it–galloping resolutely home to get his first Hunt Cup win in his third try. It was the second for Valentine, who won in 2009 with Michele Marieschi (GB), the first for Beecher and Ohrstrom.
A Jockey’s Tale
The Beechers are “full time into horses” in Ireland. Decades ago, Tim sold hunters and timber prospects to Americans. Five of his six children represented Ireland in equine competitions, with son Paul winning England’s famed Hickstead Derby show-jumping final last year. Three years ago, when Mark had an opportunity through American owner George Mahoney to try timber racing, Tim told his son to seize it.
“I am a recovered alcoholic and there was some connection where I was asked to come and ride in the Maryland Hunt Cup years ago,” Tim said. “I can’t tell you who, where or when but I remember it went on and the next thing was I was on the beer and I never got there. I always had the Maryland Hunt Cup in the back of my mind and was always kicking myself for cocking up. When Mark got the opportunity to come over here, I told him it was something he should think about. I told him it was something I’ve always kind of dreamt about.”
In his first Hunt Cup ride, without really knowing what the race was about, Mark finished second aboard Private Attack.
“The first year I was here two weeks and you don’t really get into it,” he said. “Now it’s three years and when you’re here three years, this is all they talk about. It does mean a lot to me and it means a lot to my dad because he knew about this race before I did. He was the one that gave me the kick up the arse to get over here. I was going to go back to (show) jumping at home, I’d kind of done the racing thing and was finished with it. Three years ago, I said I’d come out here for two weeks and give it a go. It’s been very good to me.”
After that first Hunt Cup spin, Beecher didn’t make it past the sixth fence in either of the next two tries. This year, he nearly missed the ride after injuring his left shoulder in a fall at My Lady’s Manor. Still wincing in the win photos at the Hunt Cup, Beecher went through more prep than the horses including acupuncture, chiropractic adjustment and–as he put it–“the kitchen sink.” Cleared to ride after sitting out the Grand National and declining a schooling session aboard Professor Maxwell, Beecher went to the Hunt Cup with confidence. He’d seen Professor Maxwell jump much of the course in 2010 for Gus Brown, watched him range into contention late last year before slipping on the road crossing after the 20th fence and settling for fourth for Darren Nagle.
“He’s a funny horse,” Beecher said. “They got him around here, taught him and taught me. They told me how to ride him. Sit quiet, don’t do anything. Don’t ask him. Gus asked him and he fell. We were up at the 16th and I saw (the same) stride and I wanted to ask him for it because it was the perfect one. I told myself ‘No don’t. Sit and wait.’ What did he do? He jumped up out of my hands anyway.”
His father couldn’t have been prouder.
“Because Mark’s had a little bit of bad luck here and there, it meant so much to see him coming home because he wants it so much,” Tim said. “Any of your kids, whether it’s set dancing or knitting or whatever they want to do, you want to support them. It’s their big thing, it doesn’t have to be the Maryland Hunt Cup, it’s whatever they are doing and it matters to them and to you.”
Staying The Course
George Ohrstrom Jr. pursued the Maryland Hunt Cup early in his life, and often. The Virginian, whose horses raced in the yellow and white stripes of his Whitewood Farm, nearly found victory twice with Appolinax. The big gray finished third behind Tong and Beech Prince (beaten less than a length) in 1982, and was second (beaten a neck) behind Bewley’s Hill in 1984. Later, with Valentine training, Nem Blong Hem finished third in 1999 and Bowman’s Crossing did the same in 2003. Far earlier, however, Ohrstrom started Irish Well in the 1958 running. He finished fifth with former professional Danny Marzani in the saddle.
While not quite a quest, the history lesson shows a man who cared deeply about the race, and always pursued a horse who could take part. He died in 2005 without ever winning, though a horse he’d owned, Michele Marieschi (GB), won the 2009 running for Valentine and the Anna Stable of George Hundt Jr.
“It was always George’s dream to win the Hunt Cup,” said Jacqueline Ohrstrom. “I don’t know why specifically it was so important to him, but I know he liked the challenge of it.”
Unbeknown to all at the time, that 2009 victory started the steps toward triumph in 2013. When Hundt bought Michele Marieschi from the Ohrstrom family, he sold them Professor Maxwell. Then 10, the horse was too much for a part-time rider like Hundt but flashed potential and made people think Hunt Cup. Nearly four years later, the potential became reality.
Before George Ohrstrom died, he told his wife to continue in racing and to “kick on” as she put it. Her yellow and blue silks have enjoyed a strong run of late with Grade 1 hurdle horse Demonstrative and others on the steeplechase circuit. Her four-horse squad earned $236,250 in 2012. Now the Virginia operation has a Hunt Cup win.
“I think George would be pretty happy,” Jacqueline said. “He encouraged me to keep racing and he gave me the wherewithal to do it. Right now we’re having an exceedingly lucky streak, but it comes and it goes in the racehorse business. We’re enjoying it.”
Ohrstrom paid credit to the work of Valentine, hired by George Ohrstrom 17 years ago.
“Richard has done such a superb job for me, he really has,” she said. “He’s found wonderful horses and he’s also wonderful fun. He’s always at the barn. I go over at odd times and feed everybody peppermints and things and there’s Richard checking a leg or something. He lives his work.”