Swedish Teen Finds Her Footing In U.S. Steeplechasing

Mar 26, 2020 - 2:59 PM

Sophie Henelius made her first start over hurdles a memorable one by winning the amateur/novice rider hurdle at the Warrenton Hunt Point-to-Point (Virginia) on March 14 aboard Beverly R. Steinman’s Be Somebody (Stormy Atlantic—Colstar, Opening Verse) trained by Doug Fout.

“It worked out well,” said Henelius, 19. “He’s a great jumper and a big horse, so you feel like you have a lot of neck in front of you, and you feel safe. He took me the whole way, so I didn’t have to worry about much.”

Henelius was born in Sweden and moved to Finland at age 8. She followed an unusual path to working full time for Fout at his Middleburg, Virginia, base.

“Growing up in Finland, I competed in show jumping because we don’t have any hunters or racing there,” she says. “My mother is from Charlottesville, and we would come to Virginia every summer to visit her family.”

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Most NSA apprentice jockeys don’t get their first rides in Stockholm, but 19-year-old Sophie Henelius has found her own way to the winner’s circle. Douglas Lees Photos

Those visits sometimes stretched into autumn, which allowed Henelius to foxhunt with Farmington Hunt and to attend the Foxfield Races steeplechase meet as a young spectator.

“I was just sort of fascinated by it,” she says. “I thought, ‘One day, that’s what I want to do!’ ”

In March 2018, Henelius moved to Sweden to continue her academic education, but her plans changed when she found a position exercising race horses outside of Stockholm. With trainer Catherina Zång’s support, she obtained her apprentice license.

Under Swedish regulations, that meant completing a two-day program at the track. “The first day, we had a lot of lectures about the rules and requirements,” she says. “We also all rode the ‘Plastic Wonder,’ which is what we called the mechanical exercise horse, and we had to take a written test.”

The second day involved physical fitness testing and a simulated race. “We did a lot of push-ups, sit-ups, and had to complete a three-kilometer run in under 15 minutes,” Henelius explains. “Then we went through a mock race, from the weighing-in and getting on in the paddock to breaking from the gate and riding a short distance so they could make sure everyone knew what they were doing.

“If you completed all parts successfully, you got your license,” she concludes.

With less than a year’s experience as an exercise rider, Henelius got a number of starts, mostly on experienced horses, and notched her first win in Sweden in April 2019. She credits Zång’s patience with helping her progress quickly.

“It was really a great place to start,” she says. “The lady I worked for really taught me a lot and wanted to invest her time in helping me.”

From Scandinavia To Middleburg

The appeal of jump racing inspired her move to the United States last June. “Sweden was only doing flat racing, and I just wanted to get into steeplechasing because it looked so cool and how could anyone not want to be doing that?” she says. “I had sort of wanted to come back for a long time.”

Henelius and her Jack Russell terrier, Andy, moved to Virginia, and she found a job exercising horses for trainer Woodberry Payne at Colonial Downs outside of Richmond. Fout offered her a position last September, and she now rides about five horses a day at his northern Virginia base.

She rode in a couple of flat races at National Steeplechase Association meets in the fall and spent time schooling timber horses over the winter.

“I’m still very inexperienced,” she says. “Doug took the time to teach me a lot.”

She adds that for someone who loves any kind of jumping, taking fences at racing speed isn’t really that different.

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Be Somebody and Sophie Henelius, leading, won the amateur/novice rider hurdle race at Warrenton (Va.) on March 14. The Holy One and Archie Macauley (left) finished fourth and Classical Art ran third with Teddy Davies up.

“If you’re taught properly, it’s not scary, it’s just faster!” she says. “Doug has put me on older horses that really know what they’re doing and told me to stay out of their way.

“He just tells me to sit back and not get ahead of the horse, so that’s what I really keep in mind,” she adds. “By the time you’re riding in the race, you’re not thinking about it. It’s just really fun! There’s no other feeling like it; it’s amazing.”

Henelius had one flat starter at the Rappahannock Hunt Races outside Culpeper, Virginia, on March 7, and she had flat and timber mounts in addition to Be Somebody at Warrenton.

As the spring point-to-points have been postponed or canceled due to the coronavirus, she says they’ll keep exercising the horses and adjust conditioning as events develop.

“I think everybody just hopes that we’ll get back to racing,” she says, “and the world will get back to normal soon.”

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