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May 8, 2009

Michele Marieschi Outlasts The Competition In Maryland Hunt Cup

He is best of the two horses to finish this grueling timber challenge.

Named for an Italian painter with a flair for the theatrical, Michele Marieschi’s win in the Maryland Hunt Cup, April 25, was nothing short of dramatic.

The Glyndon, Md., course, with 4 miles of huge, unforgiving post and rail fences, took its toll on even the most veteran of horses and riders until only two were left.

With the favorite, Armata Stable’s Coal Dust, scratched due to a leg injury and Lucy Goelet’s Twill Do also out, only eight horses started the $75,000 timber race.

They included veterans like last year’s winner Askim (Charlie Fenwick III), the 2007 Grand National (Md.) winner Private Attack (William Santoro), 2008 Willowdale (Pa.) winner Western Fling (Jason Griswold), the 2006 Maryland Hunt Cup second-placed finisher Rosbrian (Clare MacMahon) and the 2008 Pennsylvania Hunt Cup allowance winner Shady Valley (Russell Haynes).

Three-time winning jockey William Meister brought last year’s third-placed finisher Mr Liberator, while the 1992 winning jockey Patrick Worrall decided to take another crack at the trophy with Make Your Own.

Ridden by his owner George Hundt Jr., and considered a long shot, this was the first time Michele Marieschi (or Hundt) had ever galloped around the course. It hadn’t even been the plan this spring.

Just two weeks before, the pair had been T-boned by a loose horse at My Lady’s Manor (Md.), where Hundt fell hard. A week later, he finished the Grand National in sixth place, and that’s when trainer Richard Valentine suggested they enter the Maryland Hunt Cup.

Hundt realized he had to switch his strategy and not go out front this time. He would hold onto the big 12-year-old bay for as long as he could and let the veterans show the way.

Unseasonably warm weather in the 90s had trainers spraying down their horses as they left the paddock for the 4 p.m. post time. As expected, Mr Liberator led the field at flag fall, but as the field approached the third fence of 22, Private Attack suddenly veered to the right and circled twice before jumping the massive fence and catching up to the field a few fences later.

Shady Valley and Haynes were the first to part ways at fence 6. Haynes received a concussion for his effort, and his horse galloped off. Then Fenwick got bounced out of the tack at fence 9.

Then, without warning at fence 12, Worrall pulled up Make Your Own, and Santoro had to turn Private Attack sharply to avoid hitting him. In the process he spun himself off and out of the race.

Fence 13 went without a hitch, but fence 16, the largest obstacle on the course (4'10" or 5' depending on which side you measure it) took out Meister when Mr Liberator made a Herculean effort over it.

Down to three, Hundt decided to turn his horse loose just before fence 20. Western Fling looked like he was making a move too but chipped in and fell there. Both rider and horse were up and about shortly after.

With 14-year-old Rosbrian on his tail, Hundt approached the infamous water jump (fence 21) strongly encouraging a looky Michele Marieschi to go forward.

Fence 21, which is unlike any other on the course, is only 2'11", but it has a wide ditch full of shiny water on the other side. Many races have been lost at this fence, and this time was no different.

The horses reached the water jump together. With a little hesitation Michele Marieschi jumped it, but Rosbrian took a long, hard look and practically climbed it.

Hundt gunned the British-bred son of Alzao to the last and entered the stretch with stick in hand. MacMahon tried to catch the pair but had to settle for second, more than 4 lengths back in her first attempt at the coveted Hunt Cup trophy.

Hundt, 45, was stunned that he and MacMahon had the only horses left.

“I knew the racing gods would pay me back for the accident at The Manor, but I never thought it would be this soon,” Hundt said. “They were dropping like flies. I was surprised the jockeys were coming off. I was determined to stay tucked in for as long as I could, but there weren’t many left to follow.”

Full Circle For Valentine

Hundt has only been riding steeplechase races for four years, working his way up from the foxhunter series. He started riding at the sanctioned level in 2008. To stay in shape, he rides as “a volunteer” every morning for trainer Jonathan Sheppard before going to his job as a mason.

Even though Hundt is from Malvern, Pa., Michele Marieschi has Virginia roots. You have to go back to 1937, when Paul Mellon’s Welbourne Jake (John Harrison) won for Jack Skinner, to find the last Commonwealth-trained runner.

Valentine, of The Plains, Va., has had five starters in the last decade attempt the Hunt Cup. The first four were for the late George Ohrstrom Jr., who was Michele Marieschi’s owner before his death in 2005.

Ohrstrom was an avid fan of the Maryland Hunt Cup, and when his horse Appolinax lost his race due to an error at the water jump in the 1980s, he added a replica of the fence to his mini Hunt Cup course at his Whitewood Stables in The Plains.

“It’s sort of been my tradition every time we have a runner to school them over it,” Valentine said. “I had [jockey] Carl Rafter school him over and over the fence this week.”

Until Michele Marieschi’s win the best Valentine had done was third, with Whitewood’s Nem Blong Hem (1999) and more recently Bowman’s Crossing (2003). Those horses also fell the next time they attempted the course again, so watching the race unfold was nerve-racking for Valentine.

“My heart started pounding harder,” he said as he watched the field dwindle. “When George landed in front of the last that was when I was confident it was his.”

Irish Luck

Several years ago, jockey Clare MacMahon met Rosbrian’s owner George Mahoney. She had joked then that “one day she might like to ride the Maryland Hunt Cup,” but she never thought he would actually call. Mahoney never forgot that conversation, and three weeks before the Hunt Cup he had her fly overseas to ride a few point-to-points.

MacMahon, 31, was the 2004-05 leading lady Irish point-to-point rider and more recently had won the first amateur lady rider race in Istanbul on Darsun Efendi, but she had never ridden over Maryland’s big timber courses.

“There are two races in America that the Irish all know, and that is the Kentucky Derby and the Maryland Hunt Cup. After that they haven’t a clue about the rest of racing here,” MacMahon said.

But MacMahon knew the course would be huge. “I walked it on Thursday. When I got to [Fence] 16, it was up to my eyes,” she said. “It was like jumping off a mountain. He was brilliant there. He gave me a thrill of a lifetime.”

Both Rosbrian and Michele Marieschi’s owners said their horses are retiring to the hunt field.

“Rosbrian has completed 51⁄2 trips around the Hunt Cup,” Mahoney said. “I added it up; that’s like 121 fences. How can I ask any more of him?”

Despite ending his Hunt Cup experience early, Haynes wants to return.

“Shady is not done for the spring, maybe Iroquois,” he said. “He will be back in the fall and, of course, back for another crack at the Hunt Cup next spring. Us Haynes boys don’t lose well or back down from a challenge.

“The Hunt Cup earned its reputation this year,” he added. “The replay looked like an old Errol Flynn movie with the charge of the Light Brigade.”

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