Recent years have been hard on the sport of kings. Faced with a draining audience, horse racing has resorted to gimmicks in an attempt to remain relevant – see the Preakness’s attempt to re-brand itself with a beer-chugging centaur mascot and infield bikini contests for one (depressing) example. But one very classic bastion of equine enthusiasm still exists: Maryland’s spring steeplechase season. These nationally-famous races send amateur riders galloping over several miles of rolling terrain and five-foot tall cedar post-and-rail fences as tailgating spectators nibble on deviled eggs and cheer from the sidelines. Although there’s prize money for the top three finishers, jockeys can’t be paid for racing. This is something they do because they love it.
For most casual spectators, Maryland’s steeplechase season begins this Saturday, April 21, with the 110th running of the Maryland Grand National. The Grand National, a three-mile, 18-fence course, is followed one week later by its more venerable cousin, the 116th Maryland Hunt Cup. The Hunt Cup sends riders over 22 fences in four miles, a course so challenging that it’s considered an accomplishment to finish at all; last year, fourteen horses entered, ten started, and only three completed the race.
But for the sport’s amateur jockeys, the prep started way before that. In the winter months leading up to the first race of the spring steeplechase season, hopeful jockeys begin the long process of getting themselves into racing shape. For many, that means both gaining fitness and losing weight – after all, a horse runs faster when the human on top is lighter. Eighteen year-old jockey and Gilman senior Connor Hankin prepares by running, mixing steady long distance runs with high-energy sprints to simulate the pace of a good horse race. But, as James Stierhoff, a Towson native and previous winner of the Hunt Cup, notes, “Nothing really gets you in shape to ride a race except for riding.”
The tricky part for the amateur jockey is not so much the riding itself, which jockeys seem to see as a pleasure and a release. It’s finding time to ride. These riders have careers, families, and other obligations (including, in Hankin’s case, homework and athletics — he’s a top student and was a member of the championship-winning Gilman soccer team) competing for their time and attention, and sorting it all out can often mean skimping on sleep. Stierhoff is a case in point. In the months before the race, he tries to get out to the barn around 6:00 or 6:30 a.m., which gives him time to drive out to the country and gallop a horse or two before heading back to his office in the city. Justin Batoff used to ride in the morning before law school classes; these days, he hops on a horse before his work at a law firm and finds a way to make up the hours later. “To get better, you kind of have to wear out saddlepads,” he says.
Practice is crucial, because the two races are some of the most challenging in American steeplechase racing. The Grand National is the shorter and faster of the two; in the final stretch, horses gallop at speeds that would get them pulled over in a school zone. The timber rails are hard and unforgiving. “The last five fences [at the Grand National] – many people would say they’re the toughest five fences in American steeplechase,” says Charlie Fenwick, a fourth-generation steeplechase rider. The Hunt Cup – which is variously described as the Super Bowl and the Holy Grail of steeplechase races – has a dreaded third fence, which sits on a slight incline and is nicknamed Union Memorial for its injury-causing potential. The races require complete commitment from both horse and rider. “There are a couple things in life you don’t half-ass,” Batoff says. “You don’t half-ass getting married, and you don’t half-ass riding over fences.”
So with all that risk and very little promise of (monetary) reward, why do jockeys keep coming back for more? For Batoff, it’s more that he can’t imagine not riding. In high school, he swam for the North Baltimore Aquatic Club but found swimming to be “just… not a very fun sport,” he admits. Going from “swimming back and forth in a box of water every day” to mornings spent on horseback galloping through the Baltimore countryside was a revelation; he sticks with the sport, he says, “for my own sanity. As much as I love living [in the city], you gotta get out of the city, you gotta get out of the office. Spending my mornings out there is what lets me get through my day.”
Jockeys are also inspired by being a part of a century-old tradition. “People spend lifetimes trying to win those races,” Batoff says, an undercurrent of awe in his voice. Fenwick, who’s something like steeplechase royalty at this point, sees the sport as a way to connect with his family’s heritage – and to pass that heritage on. “I remember I led the horse back to the winner’s circle after [my father] won [the Hunt Cup]. And twenty years later, my son – who was younger than I was [when my father won] – greeted me when I won the Maryland Hunt Cup in 2008,” he remembers. Younger jockeys like Hankin can rely on experienced riders to provide them with guidance.
The emphasis on tradition has its downsides as well. While all forms of horse racing have seen spectators drift away since their mid-twentieth century heyday, the steeplechase races can feel especially dated, a social artifact from the era of landed gentry and tally-hoing fox hunters. The problem is not so much with the audience – a crowd of thousands still gathers for the Hunt Cup each year – but with the jockeys themselves. Frankly put, steeplechase racing isn’t cool – or at least it’s not cool enough to attract as many young jockeys as it used to. “When you’re a thirteen year old boy, you want to play lacrosse,” Batoff says. Connor Hankin had several friends who rode when he was in elementary school; over time, though, everyone else stopped coming out to the barn. “I think I’m the only rider left at Gilman – definitely in the upper school,” Hankin says. These days, Hankin, who won the Elkridge-Harford Point-to-Point earlier this month, is the youngest of this year’s crop of amateur jockeys, and he fits in rides after school but before finishing up his homework.
Nonetheless, the sport still seems to find a way to draw in the right passionate amateurs – perhaps because it’s a sport you can’t be halfway about. The steeplechase races attract people who are “extremely tough,” according to Fenwick. “You have to be extremely competitive and very brave. There’s fear, there’s risk, and people get hurt. But you can’t ride scared. You have to ride aggressive and very fearless.” In such a sport, the aggressiveness might not be apparent at first glance; steeplechase riders are unanimous in their praise for their competitors’ courtly manners and genuine friendliness. But underneath, they want to win. “James Stierhoff is a prince of a guy,” Fenwick says. “He’s soft-spoken. But I know there’s a fire in his belly.”
There’s certain to be a fire in many bellies this Saturday. In last weekend’s My Lady’s Manor race, the first leg of the so-called Maryland Triple Crown, Joey Elliot from Ireland came away victorious riding Incomplete (the horse that Fenwick took to the Hunt Cup last year). But even the riders who don’t end up in the winner’s circle have the satisfaction of knowing that they’re a part of something bigger than themselves. “When you climb up the hill to look out over the Maryland Hunt Cup,” Batoff says, “remember that everyone out there is doing this because they love it. Not because it’s their job, or because they’re making a living. But because it’s fun.”
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