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Twenty-two times Senior Senator sized up a timber fence at the Maryland Hunt Cup. His eyes saw it first, then his ears – instantly flicked forward. The signals went to his feet, his knees, shoulders, those long muscles across his back, his stifles, gaskins, hocks and he was up and over and galloping off to the next one. 

Behind him, eight foes tried to do the same. And mostly failed.

 

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Old Timer fell at the third. Gas Can Eddie clouted the 12th, skidded on landing and lost his jockey. Prime Prospector and his jockey parted ways with a mistake at the 14th. Derwins Prospector landed in an exhausted heap at the 18th. Sovereign Fund crashed out at the 20th. Well behind everyone, Wildcatter chested one fence, trotted through another and finally refused to jump the 20th. Only Joshua G. made any impact on the leader, challenging briefly over the final two fences just to be turned aside in the stretch. Second in 2017, Drift Society (Ire) made it around to finish a distant third. 

In the end, Senior Senator won by 5 lengths, though it felt more like 50 as he left no doubt over the storied race course. Run for the 122nd time April 28, the $100,000 Hunt Cup felt like a coronation, a validation. Owned by Skip and Vicki Crawford, trained by Joe Davies and ridden by Eric Poretz, Senior Senator won for the second time in three years and did it without really touching a fence. He led for every step, measured every leap, dismissed every mild challenge like Gore-Tex repels raindrops. As good as he was in 2016, and he was pretty good, the 8-year-old made 2018 his own.

“Two years ago was a Hail Mary and he got it done,” said Davies of a more-electric, but less-polished, performance. “This time it was measured, there was no time where you said, ‘This is a close call.’ ”

No, the close call came in 2017 when Senior Senator emerged from a fall at the Maryland Hunt Cup’s third fence with a fractured neck. Surgery at New Bolton Center by Dr. Dean Richardson corrected the injury and stall rest helped the horse recover (and strengthened his weak feet), though Davies and the Crawfords considered retirement. Bred in Pennsylvania by Marylander Charles McGill, Senior Senator had already survived a winless, seven-start flat career full of unruly behavior. He’d been claimed for $7,500. He’d gotten loose at the farm, fallen in the driveway and skinned up his side. He’d jumped over a stall partition in a trailer.

“We’re so appreciative of it because of how many times we almost threw in the towel,” Davies said. “Way before his injury [in 2017], the incidents on the farm, we worried about infection in his hock and things, the trailer incident, then last year’s Hunt Cup. We were consigned to the fact his career could have been over.”

Reassured by Richardson that the surgery worked and the horse was in no more danger than he’d been before, Davies pressed on to a 2018 racing campaign. He’d have abandoned the plan if anything went wrong at any stage. Senior Senator won at the Cheshire Point-to-Point in March, finished second to stakes horse Ebanour (Ire) at Elkridge-Harford in April and then won the Grand National timber stakes a week before the Hunt Cup. Davies was cautiously optimistic heading to the big one. His horse was fit, happy, healthy, ready. Senior Senator’s feet, always a problem, had grown a full size larger during the break. He was racing in a different, less severe, bit. With help from Davies’ friend Larry Smith on raceday, Senior Senator seemed calmer. 

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Jockey Eric Poretz seemed more focused as well. He did little but ride horses all day – at Pimlico early, for Davies and other steeplechase trainers late. He went to Cheshire, Elkridge, the Grand National but he thought about the Hunt Cup – the 2017 Hunt Cup.

“At the beginning of the week, I was contemplating coming here,” he said. “I was worried about him. Usually the nerves get worse as the week goes on, but the nerves got better this year. After I walked the course, for some reason I just felt so comfortable. I can’t even explain it. I just got more and more confident as the week went on.”

A false start delayed the race’s beginning for a moment, but Senior Senator galloped to the front the next time. He flew the first, soared the second and crossed Tufton Avenue toward the third with confidence – despite 2017.

“Well SS, if we’re going to jump it we’re going to jump it,” Poretz told his mount coming to the 4-foot-9 fence, the first of 16 topping 48 inches. Senior Senator jumped it while leading, landed with momentum and galloped on toward the fourth. You could almost hear the jockey exhale. 

“It was a very big relief, almost like something off my back, when we landed,” said Poretz. “Freak things happen. He got hurt, but he’s fine now. If it was my fault, the horse’s fault, who knows? Who cares? You’ve got to get over it, and he did.”

From there, Senior Senator put his jumping to work. He broke no rails and left every post intact while the others labored – and chewed timber. Looking like a winner when he lost McLane Hendriks at the 21st last year, Old Timer hammered the third and fell – costing the race a contender. Drift Society never looked as comfortable as he did the previous year. Brilliant when he led for 3 miles in 2015 but twice a faller since, Joshua G. found a comfort zone in mid-pack. The others clambered around.

At the 17th, Poretz took one hand off the reins for balance but otherwise felt little stress. There were, as he put it, “one or two” moments of worry where a typical Hunt Cup can include far more. 

“He’s so athletic that he can get in close and still get over them,” the jockey said of the fences. “I could hear them behind me, but if they wanted to come by me that was OK. Coming to the 18th, I was kind of waiting for someone to come to me, and they just weren’t coming. His jumping was so good.”

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At the 20th, Senior Senator brought Joshua G. and Drift Society along as Sovereign Fund fell. The winner led across Tufton Avenue the second time and was briefly matched by Joshua G. at the 21st. Senior Senator landed in front, then withstood the pressure to the last fence and through the stretch – drawing away late as the runner-up weakened.

“I was a little impatient coming into the last, I normally wait, but I was so ready,” said Poretz. “He gives you confidence and we just went on with it. [Joshua G.] got maybe a little bit in front of me at the water, which was fine. I wanted a little bit of a lead or some company at that point. It’s a hard race, he got a little tired.”

Senior Senator became the 23rd horse to win two Hunt Cups, and he added to a record that includes five wins and three seconds in 10 starts in National Steeplechase Association timber races. He’s crossed the finish line first or second in every race he’s finished, the blemishes being a disqualification from a win for interference in 2016 and the 2017 fall in the Hunt Cup. Davies and his wife Blythe claimed the son of Domestic Dispute from McGill and trainer Flint Stites at Penn National in 2013. At first, the $7,500 looked like a bad bet. Stites delivered a warning about the horse’s behavior that night at Penn National, and Senior Senator lived up to the report at the farm and in two flat starts (in $5,000 and $7,500 claimers) for Davies that summer. Senior Senator tried hurdling, once, and lost jockey Gus Dahl early in a $15,000 maiden claimer at Fair Hill in 2014.

Timber came, finally, that fall and everything changed. Well, almost everything. Senior Senator still misbehaved, but he blossomed as a racehorse – winning a maiden at the Pennsylvania Hunt Cup late in 2014, finishing second in two stakes in 2015 and turning into the best big-fence horse in the game. He’s earned $190,800 over fences, after making less than 10,000 on the flat.

“He’s the accidental horse of a lifetime, and he knows, he definitely knows,” Davies said. “He’s displayed a superiority each time he wins a race and we think he shows a little bit of depression when he loses. I’ve never had a horse that had that presence about him. He’s cool, he knows it.”

For the Crawfords, who live in Montgomery County, Maryland, the Hunt Cup success comes as a surprise. They campaigned 1993 NSA novice champion Motorcade with Davies, enjoying the thrill of a start at England’s Cheltenham Racecourse, but have never campaigned a large stable. Motorcade died in 1994 and the Crawfords went years without owning a racehorse. They wanted a hurdle horse when they bought Senior Senator and are now in the enviable position of having two Maryland Hunt Cup wins with a relatively young horse.

“It’s unbelievable,” said Skip Crawford, who helps organize the Potomac Hunt Races point-to-point. “I wasn’t born here (in Hunt Cup country), I’m from Montgomery County. You come up here, and win this race? Twice? That’s something. People wait their whole lives to win this race. The horse just loves what he’s doing.”

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Hunt Cup Factory

Davies became the first trainer to win three consecutive Maryland Hunt Cups (Derwins Prospector won in 2017) since Charlie Fenwick won in 1977-78 with Ben Nevis (GB) and 1979 with Dosdi (Arg). Others in the club include Burley Cocks (1948 with Peterski and 1949-50 with Pine Pep), Stuart Janney Jr. (Winton 1942, 1946-47), Janon Fisher Jr. (Blockade 1938-40) and perhaps some others as trainers’ names were not generally recorded before 1930. Regardless, the feat and the history resonates with Davies – who also won the race three times as a jockey.

He and Blythe (herself a Hunt Cup-winning jockey in 2011) live and train their horses on a farm previously owned by the Watters family in Monkton, where Princeton prepped for his Hunt Cup wins in 1903, 1905 and 1906.  

“That’s six from this farm, which is something,” he said. “It’s pretty nice to think about. It’s pretty fun. We’ve got a pretty good formula, but there’s no magic here that would make a bad horse a good one. We think we’ve learned enough that if we’ve got a good horse we can stay out of the way long enough for them to do awfully well.”

Despite the success, the Davies know Hunt Cup failure is never far away. Two yeas in a row, 2013 and 2014, they sent out three runners and none of them finished. Training helps, but other ingredients can maximize success in North America’s oldest steeplechase race.

“It’s all having a good horse, staying out of their way and having a determined rider that believes in the horse,” Davies said. “I can get enthusiastic and can tend to overface my rider. I look back on that and realize that was clearly a mistake that could have been avoided.

“Having won the race a couple times, I can say ‘Hey this is a nice horse, we’re not going to run him again.’ In the past I’d have felt the pressure to give a horse one more run and try to get to the Hunt Cup. Now I can say no, and if they want to send them to somebody else that’s fine. It’s hard to say that when you’re just getting started.”

NOTES: Despite the falls, horses and jockeys all emerged without serious injuries . . . Two years ago, Senior Senator was the youngest Hunt Cup winner since Jay Trump (also 6) won in 1963. At 8, and a two-time winner, the bay is still young enough to foster big dreams. Senior Senator was “tipping over” with some light exercise two weeks after the race, but there were no major plans. A third Hunt Cup, which would retire the challenge cup for the Crawfords and elevate Senior Senator to a status held by just eight all-time greats – Princeton, Garry Owen, Blockade, Winton, Pine Pep, Jay Trump, Mountain Dew and Cancottage (GB) – looms for next year. After that, who knows? “We would consider . . . consider foreign travel but it wouldn’t be until after next spring,” Davies said of a possible English campaign someday. “We might take the risk if he were to have a great spring next year. He’s set up for it at 8 years old. He gets turned out every day, he’s healthy, clean-legged and obviously pretty good. That would be something fun to try if it all came together.” 

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