For eight weeks last spring, a striking, 25-year-old new-comer took the Virginia point-to-point circuit by storm. Riding Don Yovanovich trainees Inca Colony, Colonial Relay and Ponsonby, Molly White posted an astounding record of 10 straight wins from 10 timber starts.
A native of West Chester, Pa., White grew up in a true sporting family. Grandfather John White was the longtime huntsman for the Brandywine Hounds, while White’s late brother, Andy White, was a jump jockey–as was her second cousin Jeff Teter, a three-time national champion.
“I actually went hunting more than I went to school,” she admitted. “I also did some Pony Clubbing, but I was never very successful because I always had 3-year-olds off the racetrack. So I was always going really fast and passing people on the cross-country, or getting bucked off in the dressage ring.” White’s trademark short stirrups raised eyebrows too. “It was always, ‘Who is that girl riding with her stirrups so short and traveling at Mach 7?’ ” she said, with a laugh.
White’s aunt, Brenda White Houston, most influenced her riding. Houston “could sit really still and ride any horse in a snaffle,” said White. “She taught me not to fight with a horse who was pulling, but to try and settle them.” These skills served White well when galloping race horses throughout her teens. A self-proclaimed “adrenaline addict,” White always dreamed of riding races. After a post-school sojourn in England, White headed to Kentucky, where she galloped horses for the likes of D. Wayne Lukas at Churchill Downs.
Since White’s Kentucky apartment was located next to a culinary school, she turned her attention to haute cuisine and began moonlighting at the Hyatt Regency. She then returned to Pennsylvania, where she helped her aunt with the family farm and got a job at a local restaurant. There she was interviewed by her future fianc?, chef Nick Forlano, with whom she moved to Virginia in 2000.
While whipping for the Middleburg Hunt, she met Yovanovich, a perennial leader on the Virginia point-to-point circuit. Yovanovich recalled seeing a gutsy, care-free young woman clearly at home in the saddle. White kept asking Yovanovich if he had a ladies’ timber horse or a foxhunter’s chase horse to ride. One day, out of the blue, White got that long-anticipated call. “I guess Donny was out of riders and out of options,” she joked. “He just said, ‘Hey, I’ve got a horse running at Casanova [Va.]; do you want to ride one?’ I said ‘Sure!’ “
Yovanovich and White went to work to prepare her for her first race over fences. Down came the stirrups, back went the shoulders, and gone was the loop in the reins. “We made little adjustments weekly,” Yovanovich explained. “She schooled once or twice a week–not a whole lot, but just enough to keep me needling her.”
“He taught me everything, soup to nuts,” White said. “I even called him one night to find out how to wash silks! He’s understanding, and if you screw up, he’ll tell you exactly what you did, and then he’ll leave it alone.” White’s season debut was on Feb. 21 at Casanova on Vicki Fuller’s Inca Colony, a former foxhunters’ series champion.
White’s only rival in the foxhunters’ timber was Jennifer Taylor, on Southern Light. Inca Colony assumed command a mile out and romped home a six-length winner. Though elated, White felt sure her race-riding experience would end there. “I never dreamt it would go beyond Casanova; I thought it was a one-time thing,” she said. “I had a great time, and when I got off, I was like, ‘Whoo! Now I can tell everybody I rode a race.’ And when Donny asked me about riding the next week, I thought, ‘What is going on here? I’m going to have to start dieting!’ “
Under White, Inca Colony won at Rappahannock, Warrenton, Orange County and Loudoun, all Virginia point-to-points, running away with his second foxhunters’ title. “I am so in love with that horse; he is so awesome. He’s like my babysitter, just taking me around! The bigger the jumps and the further the race, the stronger he gets,” she enthused. “When I rode him at Warrenton, he picked up the bridle again after the last fence! That was his best day, I think. He gained three lengths on every jump because he hits every jump perfectly.”
White also partnered Yovanovich’s 11-year-old Colonial Relay to victory in the ladies’ race at Blue Ridge (Va.). “I guess this is what jockeys live for, and I’m just getting it,” she reflected. “And I can understand now why they do it professionally, because it’s an awesome feeling!” But her biggest riding lesson was delivered by Yovanovich’s own Ponsonby, with whom White clinched the ladies’ timber championship.
A winner at Piedmont, Old Dominion and Loudoun, the 10-year-old gelding is a crack foxhunter with an extra measure of class. “He’s right up there with the best horses I’ve ever ridden, but he’s different than Inca, because he wants you to really ride him into the fence,” she said.
In the ladies’ race at Old Dominion, White and Ponsonby hit a new low before bouncing back?literally?to win. “I had been laid off my job the day before and had to find a new place to live,” White recalled. “So my mind was in other places, and I was not riding like I should have been.” Ponsonby got in wrong at a fence and popped White out of the tack. “When I came back into the saddle, the most amazing thing happened. The stirrup leather and iron flopped up in the air, fell sideways, and fell right back on my foot like it had a magnet on it,” she said.
Working with White was a refreshing experience for Yovanovich, due to her modesty and professionalism. “She’s a wonderful listener and a very strong competitor,” he said. During the course of her winning streak, the veteran trainer worried about increasing pressure on his prot?g?. “But Molly didn’t notice any of it. When people started to count [the races she’d won], she just did what she had to do,” he said.
“I’m proud of it, for sure, but I know that it was 80 percent luck and 20 percent the horse. I don’t even factor in there,” said White. White’s season finale came April 18 at Fairfax (Va.), where she ushered Inca Colony to a resounding victory in her first open timber contest. “I thought I was over my head,” she admitted. “There were some seasoned riders in there. But I praised myself for being patient in that race. They had a little pace battle on the front, and when they got done dueling, their horses were tired, and I was right there. I hit the last two fences perfect. And Donny said, ‘You’re getting better and better.’ You don’t get that very often!”
Not everything went perfectly for White and Inca Colony, however. Their winning streak came to an abrupt end on May 1, during the Paul Mellon Foxhunters’ Chase, an unsanctioned race that preludes the Virginia Gold Cup meet. The race is run over the steeplethon course with a varied mix of jumps, including two huge brush fences, standing approximately 6 feet. Modeled after the famous English Grand National fences, horses can cut through the brush–if they figure that out.
Although White schooled Inca over the Aintree hedges twice, he refused once–and the same thing happened on race day. “I fell off exactly the same way,” she recalled. “It happened so fast. Inca just said ‘No way.’ Three strides out, he just locked up his front legs. I should have been screaming at him, hitting him, or whatever to get him over, but I was just shocked! So it was partially my fault, but a lot of it was just him going, ‘No I’m smarter that that; I’m a timber horse.’ “
Originally purchased as a foxhunter, Inca has found his calling. “I have so much confidence in this horse,” White confided. “He just needed a shot, and I think Donny gave him the shot that he needed.” The same might be said of White. As Yovanovich attested, she learned “an amazing amount” last season, including how to ride aggressively. “The reason I get along with some horses is that I do nothing–I don’t mess with them, and I just sit there,” she said. “But on a horse that needs to be aggressively ridden, [that doesn’t work]. I did definitely learn that when in doubt, go for the long one–just kick them in the belly, and go!”
In the wake of her record streak, White is working with hunters in Upperville, Va., and contemplating things to come. “The odds are like eight million to one that I can duplicate [that streak],” she said. “So I might as well just go ahead and lose the first race of the season, because that way I won’t have to worry about anything!” White wants to keep racing a hobby. “I only want to ride good horses and ride for people that I trust,” she said.