It took eight long years to get Sportsmans Hall’s Private Attack to the winner’s circle at the $75,000 Maryland Hunt Cup, but it was worth every setback along the way for trainer Alicia Murphy.
She was all smiles as she took the reins after the race on April 30 in Glyndon, Md. This was the Maryland trainer’s first time winning the Mary-land Hunt Cup. Murphy’s had Private Attack in her barn since the horse was
a 4-year-old, but she never considered him a Hunt Cup hopeful in those early days.
“He was a scrawny no-neck thing,” Murphy said. “He had never raced. He was bought for almost nothing and was supposed to play polo for his owner, Dan Calhoun, but he got too big.”
Then Private Attack grew into his gawky body, revealing his jumping abilities and surprising everyone by becoming the Maryland Steeplechasing Associ-ation’s Novice Timber Horse of the Year in 2007 and winning the Grand National (Md.) in 2008.
But then the setbacks started. The horse tied-up after the 2008 Grand National, and Murphy scratched him from the Maryland Hunt Cup.
In 2009, Private Attack placed second in the Grand National, but his jockey, Billy Santoro, pulled him up during the Maryland Hunt Cup after unlucky incidents during the race put him out of contention.
A Dwindling Field
When it came time for the 12-year-old son of Private Interview to take a stab at this year’s edition of the oldest and most difficult 4-mile timber race in American steeplechasing, the field of 14 had scratched down to 10.
Made up of monster unforgiving post-and-rails, only the most talented jumpers finish the 115-year-old course. This year was no different with just three horses making it home, although all horses and riders came away unhurt from the race.
Blythe Miller Davies gave Private Attack his head from the start. Davies, a former professional, now amateur rider, found herself overshadowed for the majority of the race by Billy Meister, on Jean Class’ And The Eagle Flys. The rest of the field followed the pacesetters, vying for show.
Private Attack and the 9-year-old And The Eagle Flys jumped the massive 4’9″ third fence without mishap, but not so for Irv Naylor’s Gorgeous Charger, who never quite got his knees up and fell on the other side, depositing last year’s winning jockey James Stierhoff into the turf.
Mark Beecher was second on Private Attack in 2010, but his 2011 run on Armata Stable’s Haddix ended awkwardly at fence 5.
At this point, Davies and Meister pulled away from the field. Behind them, the herd started to thin even more with Pink Ribbon Racing’s gray mare Won Wild Bird and Kristin Fischer parting ways at fence 8.
Soon after, Northwood Stable’s Battle Op and Chris Read bobbled over fence 10. Now riderless, the big gray begun weaving in and out of the field jumping the fences on his own, narrowly missing And The Eagle Flys and Private Attack at fences 13 and 14.
Justin Batoff and Prospector’s Strike, who were jumping well up to this point, were taken out of the race around fence 15 by the loose Battle Op.
The only horses left were well behind the two leaders: Stewart Strawbridge’s Western Fling (Jason Griswold), North-woods Stable’s second entry Volle Nolle (Michael Traurig) and Robert Kinsley’s Incomplete with 2008 winning jockey Charlie Fenwick III.
The approach to the colossal fence 16 was good for all three, but Incomplete hit the 4’11” fence hard and bounced Fenwick out of the tack. Western Fling and Griswold fell at another fence soon after.
And then there were only the staggered three. Private Attack had been running strong all alone along the backside against the woods, but suddenly he slowed considerably, making fences 18-20 less than picture perfect.
“He didn’t want to run anymore when no one was around us,” Davies said. “He was like, ‘We might as well pull up now.’ I had to really get after him a few times, and the last couple of fences along the treeline were kind
As Davies set her sights on fence 22, the final obstacle between her and the wire, she could have trotted it and still won—she was that far ahead of Meister. Private Attack cantered in 60 lengths ahead of And The Eagle Flys. Volle Nolle, almost three fences back, took third and last place.
An Impressive Comeback
Davies was ecstatic. Not only had she gotten her 204th career victory, but she also could check off finishing well in the Maryland Hunt Cup from her list. Fifth place was her highest previous result before she turned pro in 1991.
“I wasn’t as good a rider back then,” Davies said. “This time the jumping part was much easier. I felt more confident.”
Davies wasn’t even supposed to ride Private Attack. The 42-year-old mother of two hadn’t ridden a race for almost nine years, but this spring she returned to the circuit to ride Adair Bonsal Stifel’s Vinnie Boy, a horse she trains.
When injury took out Vinnie Boy, Davies was free to ride Private Attack, which worked out perfectly for Murphy since the horse’s regular rider, Irish jockey Beecher, was having trouble getting back into the country in April.
Davies comes from a family of champions. Her brother, Chip Miller, has more than 210 wins. Her father, Bruce Miller, won the Hunt Cup twice as a trainer with Michael Hoffman’s Solo Lord in 2001 and again with Naylor’s Make Me A Champ in 2005.
Bruce was as nervous as he was proud. “That horse was amazing, and she looked great. He’s not quite a Jay Trump, Ben Nevis, Mountain Dew or Landing Party,” he said of the famous multiple Hunt Cup winners, “but he’s certainly right up there.”
Three-time winning jockey Joe Gillet Davies, who is Blythe’s husband, rode Make Me A Champ for Bruce. He also trained and owns Fort Henry, one of the horses scratched from the race.
Had Fort Henry run, Blythe wouldn’t have been able to ride due to the National Steeplechase Association’s spousal rule about a jockey riding against a horse owned by their spouse.
Finishing Well Again
Meister won his first Hunt Cup in 1988 on Foxbrook Farm’s Freeman’s Hill. After that he would win the race two more times (1990, 1996) and has competed in it just about every year since. He said the footing has never been better than it was on Saturday.
This year the Maryland trainer entered two horses: second-placed finisher And The Eagle Flys and Gorgeous Charger. Meister was expecting more from Gorgeous Charger who had been around a few of the bigger and longer courses.
A strategist, Meister likes to take the lead in this race to avoid trouble, and he drags all the first-time jockeys and horses along with him.
“This time I just wanted to get out there because he throws his head all over the place when he gets behind horses,” Meister said. “Once I got out there he was going along perfectly with Blythe’s horse, so I just let him be.
“This was asking a lot of that horse to go 4 miles,” continued Meister. “He has never gone much than 3, which he did for the first time the weekend before. I got into some tough spots with that loose horse [Battle Op]. At one point, I cut to the right at the same time my horse left the ground, and he did it. That was impressive. He was a little handy hunter out there.”
Like Private Attack, Meister said he slowed way down along the backside.
“He started choking up after the 15th fence, so I patted him and let him catch his breath, and then he was gone again,” Meister said. “And the poor guy was bleeding too. He had bit his tongue again before the start of the race like at the Grand National.”
Meister’s other horse Gorgeous Charger did not spend much time in the race but had a nice gallop just the same. After following the other horses a short distance, he left the course, cutting through the woods into a nearby subdivision. The horse with the No. 6 saddlecloth was finally captured on a family’s front lawn.
“He got the royal treatment,” Meister said. “They hosed him off and gave him some carrots. He posed for pictures. They almost cut his tack off until they figured out how to unbuckle it. He seems OK. I’m going to give him a few days off and figure out his season from there.”
Like Davies, third-placed finisher Traurig used to compete as an amateur 20 years ago before going professional. Coming from a show ring and eventing background, Traurig said he relied on his previous experience.
“My trainer [Regina Welsh] told me to look out for loose horses,” Traurig said.
“They were everywhere. Halfway around I went from riding a race to show jumping. I just took a pull, started to ride every fence like it was a 5-foot vertical that didn’t break. I was acutely switched on, watching everything around me while at the same time looking for a distance, and I finished.”