It’s six days before the 117th running of the Maryland Hunt Cup on April 27 and to the casual observer, it looks as though three jockeys are in full race mode. Former Hunt Cup riders Stewart Strawbridge, Charlie Fenwick, and Jason Griswold hover over a laptop, scrutinizing the results of the past three weeks of the Maryland, Pennsylvania and Virginia steeplechase circuit to assess a field of sixteen competitors for this year’s Hunt Cup, the final jewel in the state’s triple crown of steeplechase racing.
For most amateur jockeys, riding in the grueling, four-mile race over twenty-two fences, some five feet high, means fulfilling a lifelong dream.
That was certainly the case for Strawbridge, Fenwick and Griswold when they raced. While all three hung up their tack two years ago, they remain as passionate about the race and as interested in its outcome as ever. Collectively, the three have ridden the race thirteen times: Strawbridge won the Hunt Cup in 2007; Fenwick rode the race seven times, finishing only twice, once with a win in 2008; and Griswold has ridden the race five times.
Most Hunt Cup jockeys are plagued by the superstition that any public recognition can jinx the race. To spare the sixteen jockeys in this year’s race, we reached out to the three former competitors to reflect on what it’s like for jockeys in the days leading up to the Hunt Cup as they prepare for the race of a lifetime.
The contest demands so much both physically and mentally from its riders, they say. For most, making the 165 pound weight requirement presents the greatest challenge. A jockey must weigh roughly 155 pounds untacked right before race time. Griswold and Strawbridge, both former collegiate ice hockey and lacrosse players, would adopt unorthodox methods to shrink their athletic frames. In the months leading up to the race, Griswold would restrict himself to a diet of two Zone Bars, a couple of handfuls of almonds and a salad for dinner to help him shed the pounds necessary to make weight. He alternated daily workouts between hot power yoga (fully clothed, in sweats), running, biking, and schooling his horse on a three to four mile run.
The physical change in a jockey from January to April can be dramatic. Strawbridge muses, “All of my friends outside the horse world thought I had a life-threatening illness or was battling anorexia because I was so cachectic.”
The mental challenge, all agreed, was all-consuming. Fenwick notes, “I would think how the race would run in my head, over and over…in my sleep, driving in my car.” Strawbridge adds, “It’s all you can think about the entire week. I could not talk about anything but the Maryland Hunt Cup.”
Imagining victory occupies most of their thoughts, of course. “You mentally ride the race so many times, you have to think you win each time,” reasons Fenwick. Or as Griswold puts it: “I have won the Maryland Hunt Cup more than anyone. It just happened to be in my head.” He admits that even now, days before a race in which he is not entered, he “envisions certain parts of the course and how I would ride in different situations, always culminating in a photo finish or winning by a large margin.”
These mental chess matches result from hours of studying past Hunt Cup videos, recent steeplechase films, and repeated course walks throughout the week leading up to the race. Race tapes reveal common traits and habits of the competition. Fenwick used them to “try to exploit any weakness there was – be it rider or horse.” In contrast, watching the tapes made Griswold “sick with nerves.”
All three, however, religiously schooled the course, on a walk with a trusted advisor or trainer or on a training run. Strawbridge, who lived in Unionville, Pennsylvania when he competed, drove to Maryland three times the week of the race to either run the course or walk it with his sister and trainer, Sanna Neilson Hendricks, and her father, three time Hunt Cup winner, Paddy Neilson. On these course walks, Strawbridge, Fenwick and Griswold plotted their race-day route, down to the exact rail and panel they would jump. Fenwick believes the strategy won him the race in 2008.
Any jockey who has ridden the race will lament the fence that most haunted him. “Fear is part of the game and the Hunt Cup,” Fenwick says. For him, it was the 16th fence, a five foot tall one that points uphill and meets rider and horse three miles into the course. “You need to get over that to still have a shot,” Fenwick states. Strawbridge simply envisions himself “surviving every fence…then around fence 19, I start to think about winning.”
Fear, for Griswold, would come from the uncontrollable variables in the race: “Which horses will be in it? How does that change your strategy?” Because of these unknowns, a rider will constantly question positioning. Griswold remarks, “this can spell the difference between not only winning or not, but surviving or not.”
The Hunt Cup runs at 4 p.m., providing an afternoon for spectators to stroll the countryside, sip drinks, visit tailgates, and reconnect with old friends. Not so for Hunt Cup jockeys. After a sleepless night, most wake well before dawn to face a day fraught with anticipation, anxiety and waiting. “The waiting around” is the most challenging aspect of the race, says Strawbridge. Fenwick agrees: “You don’t want to talk to anyone and just want to ride but you can only sit there.”
Griswold recalls sitting in the paddock and flashing past so many faces from his childhood. For a moment, his mind crawled back to another time, momentarily displacing his anxiety. Strawbridge, too, felt the eerie sensation that “your whole life flashes in front of you overlooking what feels like hundreds of people who you have known since childhood.”
Fenwick disagrees. For him, the paddock was “miserable.” In fact, he admits he hid in his car, choosing to tack up his horse in the barn area and walk him in, spending only five minutes in the paddock before the race.
Race day rituals, common of many athletes, have a hold on the jockeys, too. Strawbridge admitted to wearing the same outfit the day of the races he had worn in his previous winning runs – same underwear, same goggles, even refusing to wash his silks. Griswold has always walked the course at sunrise on race day with Fenwick. “It is a calming start to the day.”
The support of family and friends was crucial, even when their instinct was to be alone. While all admit their loved ones were somewhat ignorant of their true fears or the real danger of the race, they all pointed to moments when they relied on their support. Strawbridge recalls driving to Maryland the afternoon of the race singing Van Morrison with his wife to allay his fears. Griswold leaned on his dad, whose twenty times competing in the race provided an “amazing perspective.” Strawbridge tuned out the advice of everyone but his sister, who served as his trainer. Riding under the guidance of his sister — she too rode the race, winning twice, but had long since retired — was an “incredible bonding experience” for both of them.
When the huntsman’s horn blows, announcing the call for “Riders Up,” the race narrows to simply the rider and his horse. For Fenwick, the moment calls to mind his favorite poem, Rudyard Kipling’s “If.”
If you can dream – and not make your dreams your master;
If you can think – and not make thoughts your aim;
If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
And treat those imposters the same.
For him and his fellow jockeys and lifelong friends, the poem explains the lure of the Hunt Cup. “You have to love the process.” All would agree that no matter the outcome, they would inevitably dismount at the end of the race and begin counting the 364 days until they could do it all over again.
Full disclosure: Writer Muffy Fenwick is the wife of the featured amateur jockey Charlie Fenwick. – The Eds.