Thanks to unlucky timing, Lee Stierhoff — Maryland Hunt Cup 2012 winner James Stierhoff’s proud dad — was on a long-planned getaway in Sedona, Arizona, this weekend while his son took the late swift lead on Twill Do. Lee, 59, an aspiring plein air painter and Baltimore native living Rodgers Forge, saw his son’s first Hunt Cup victory in 2010, but this year asked a friend to help him and his girlfriend, fiction writer Jen Grow, listen in by cell phone.
“It was an amazing experience,” Lee says. “We asked Stephan [Kowalczyk who provides audio tech support for the Cup], ‘Would you mind calling me and holding the phone near a speaker so I can hear?
“The whole race I was more interested in hearing the name Twill Do announced because that meant the rider was on the horse. We heard at one point Twill Do was trailing — but I thought I heard failing and [Jen] thought she heard sailing. [James had] been in last place for three quarters of the race until he decided it was time to turn the engines on. He knew Twill Do had a lot of energy left — he asked the horse to go faster.”
I asked Lee how James, 25, got his passionate riding start and to describe for Baltimore Fishbowl the childhood discipline involved in the making of an “amateur” equestrian champ.
Whereas many Hunt Cup victors hail from “horse people” – breeders, owners and steeplechase racers — Lee, a former dedicated lacrosse player, says he does not consider himself an equestrian. While the family attended a lacrosse tournament in Vail, Colorado, turns out, Lee introduced James to horse-riding rather randomly at age five. To give him a fun outing.
“[James] just fell in love with being on this horse,” Lee said. “The guy who was leading the trail ride [told us] he said, ‘I want to gallop.’ He let him canter down the road. At that point [James] was hooked.”
The next summer, the boy attended St. Tim’s School Summer Riding Camp.
“Libby, an instructor [at St. Tim’s] said what a great rider he was,” Lee said. “Jamie kept progressing and working at the camp… The horse community is a generous community.”
Around age 14 or 15 — through a church contact, Jamie Maher, who happened to be a three-day eventer — James snagged an unpaid apprenticeship of sorts with U.S. Olympic Equestrian Team gold medal winner Denny Emerson.
“[Jamie Maher] wanted to have her horse trained by this guy Denny Emerson in Vermont, [and] he would take working students. Jamie had James take her horse… He worked six days a week without pay for a one-hour lesson with Denny Emerson. Through high school he went up with Denny three summers.”
Next, during his college years, James worked for Maryland horseman Bruce Fenwick.
“[James] worked with him till [horse owner] Jay Griswold needed somebody to train his horses,” Lee said. “Jay and James became great buddies. They loved horses, and Jay turned him on to steeplechasing. At age 19 roughly, he first raced Little Dewy Know in an early spring race. And Jay was pleased with his ability.”
After observing his son’s diehard commitment to riding for two involved decades, was Lee surprised to hear the news that James had achieved a second Hunt Cup victory?
“You’re always surprised when you ride a course like that — the fences are high; the majority fall or get thrown off-course somehow,” Lee said. “You know, you hope for the best and pray that everybody ends the race in one piece. Whatever comes out after is gravy.”
Though, actually, when the progressively faster talking announcer called James the winner, Lee, listening by cell phone, couldn’t be sure what was what.
“I heard he was in the lead,” Lee said. “There are four competing right to the end. [But] the announcer was so fast over the cell you couldn’t hear. I couldn’t hear [the outcome]. When Stephan got back on the phone, I had to ask, ‘Has he won?’”