The EMTs thought that Billy Meister was crazy, or concussed, or something. Meister had fallen off at the seventeenth fence in the Maryland Hunt Cup, but he was acting like his horse was still in the race, waving off the EMTs who were blocking his view of the field. “My horse is doing well!” he told them.
It turns out that Meister knew exactly what he was talking about. The horse he wanted to get a look at was Twill Do, a twelve-year old gelding ridden by James Stierhoff who looked like he had a good chance of repeating an earlier victory. In 2010, Stierhoff had stepped in to ride Twill Do in the 2010 Hunt Cup after Meister, the horse’s trainer, broke his pelvis just before the race. It was Stierhoff’s first time in the Hunt Cup, and he’d just barely recovered from the flu; expectations were not high. But Stierhoff and Twill Do ended up winning the race by five lengths — and now they had the chance to do it again. That’s what Meister was so eager to see.
It was something Stierhoff had been thinking about, too. In the car on the way to the race, he hadn’t felt much like chatting. “I am not a conversationalist before I race, especially before the Hunt Cup,” Stierhoff says. So Stierhoff, his brother, and his girlfriend rode in silence. When Stierhoff stepped out of the car to join the rest of the jockeys, his brother turned to Stierhoff’s girlfriend: “That was a pretty intense drive,” he said.
The Hunt Cup is a long race, and Stierhoff figured he’d adopt the same tactic as he had two years ago: sit in the back of the pack and wait to see what happened. The Hunt Cup is the kind of challenging race where it’s common for only half the starters to finish the race, and this was no exception; Stierhoff kept taking it one fence at a time as other jockeys fell by the wayside: one at the second fence; two at the fifth; one at the sixth. Of the twelve starters, only eight were left.
Meanwhile, Twill Do was “a joy to ride — very relaxed,” according to Stierhoff. “Billy Meister and Erica [Gaertner] have that horse so well schooled and in tune that you can ride him with complete confidence.” Two years ago, Stierhoff had made up ground between fences 11 and 13, but at that point the leaders were still tightly bunched, so he decided to wait it out a little longer. At the thirteenth fence, one of the race’s highest jumps, Private Attack (ridden by Patrick Worrall) fell right in front of Stierhoff. It was a tense moment, but Twill Do managed to swerve around the fallen horse and continue on unfazed.
“I literally just dropped the reins and started patting him on the neck and telling him he was a good boy,” Stierhoff says. ” ‘You’re so bloody intelligent, you’re so smart, thank you.’ Then picked my reins back up and said ‘Alright, I guess we’ll keep going here.’ “
The sixteenth fence is another big one; once he made it over that one with no problem. “That’s really when you start thinking about doing something,” Stierhoff says. Meanwhile, eighteen-year old jockey Connor Hankin was running into his own difficulties. His horse, Battle Op, went down on all fours after the fence. Hankin managed to stay on, but the slip cost him time.
After the seventeenth fence, Stierhoff urged Twill Do on, “just to see what we had,” and the pair surged from fifth place to first. He felt “phenomenal,” so Stierhoff just let him roll. Going into the third-to-last fence, Stierhoff peeked behind to see where his competition was at — and didn’t see anyone at all. “At that point, I was a little nervous because you’ve got three fences to go — and you want to make sure you’ve got enough horse left.”
At the water fence, Stierhoff glanced over to see that Hankin and Battle Op had made a fabulous recovery and rallied enough to pose a serious challenge. With one fence to go, Battle Op surged ahead by about a length. Both horses took the final fence nicely, with Battle Op landing in front. But in the final moments of the race, Twill Do dug in. Edging past Battle Op in the final stretch, Twill Do managed to hold him off by about three-quarters of a length for the rest of the race. “Honestly, I would’ve been a bit more comfortable if he’d decided to draw a little more clear than that,” Stierhoff says with a laugh.
Since he wasn’t woozy from the flu, as in 2010, Stierhoff was able to enjoy his victory a bit more this time, celebrating at Saturday evening’s Hunt Ball. And now Stierhoff knows that victory is just as thrilling the second time: “I think I got a little more sleep this go-around — I might’ve fallen asleep for all of 20 minutes on Saturday night. You just lie in bed and put your mind on replay.”