Ever wonder what it takes to produce a top notch timber horse? Just like competing at the upper levels of so many equestrian sports, it take a dedicated team to reach the top. A team of owners, trainers, grooms, riders, veterinarians, farrier and more. In the case of three-time Maryland Hunt Cup champion Senior Senator, his team includes all of the above as well as a mini donkey named Fernando! Together, this team not only won the country’s largest timber race three times in the last four years, but in doing so, owners Skip and Vicki Crawford retired the Challenge Cup, being only the seventh owners to do so in the 125 years of the Maryland Hunt Cup.
Read Team Senior Senator’s story here and in the latest issue of The Equiery!
Team Senior Senator & The Challenge Cup (first published in the June 2019 Equiery)
by Katherine O. Rizzo
On the last Saturday in April, history was made when Irvin “Skip” Crawford, II, retired the Challenge Cup at the Maryland Hunt Cup with his third win as owner. “It’s just incredible,” he said. In the 125 years of the Maryland Hunt Cup, the biggest timber course in the U.S., Crawford became only the seventh owner to retire the cup.
Just a few years earlier, his big, gangly bay horse, Senior Senator, was romping around the flat track making a bad name for himself. He was often difficult to handle on race days and had tossed a few jockeys. “That same spirit that makes him a little difficult to handle is what makes him a great Hunt Cup horse,” said Senior Senator’s trainer Joe Davies.
But what truely makes Senior Senator great horse is the right team of people who came together to turn him into the timber champion he is today.
The Right Horse
The Pennsylvania-bred son of Domestic Dispute, out of the Awesome Again mare Queen Kennelot, spent his first few years as a flat track horse, running in Maiden Claiming races. His best finishes were a pair of seconds at Penn National and Timonium, both during his three-year-old season. “My wife [Blythe Miller Davies] saw some video of him online and really liked the look of him so I called the Crawfords to see what they thought,” said Davies.
Although technically only Skip Crawford is listed on official records as Senior Senator’s owner, steeplechase racing is a family affair for the Crawfords. “We got into all of this because of the [Potomac] hunt club,” Skip Crawford explained. With his wife, Vicki, the two volunteered at the club’s annual spring point to point. One thing led to another and owning steeplechase horses just became part of their lifestyle. “Horses always tend to find us,” said Vicki. “We’d be looking at one horse or another and then a different one we weren’t expecting would be the one we bought. It’s the same with our foxhunters!”
The Crawfords had previously found success with Davies as their trainer and a scrappy horse named Motocade. “My daughter Camille [Finley] had jumped him around a little down in Virginia and we decided to purchase him,” explained Skip. Motocade went on to become the Novice Steeplechase Champion in 1993 and ran successfully abroad in England as well. “He was also a difficult horse to handle,” said Davies.
Over a decade later, Davies was on the phone chatting with the Crawfords about Senior Senator. “I told them we had this horse that could be a really impressive horse or could implode,” Davies stated. “It really was a toss up but he had the makings of a great horse.” Ross Geraghty rode the then three-year-old Senior Senator in the Training Flat at The Races at Shawan Downs in September 2013, finishing third. Then Martin Rohan took to the irons in November to finish second in the Training Flat for Apprentice Riders at the Pennsylvania Hunt Cup Races.
“We had been out of racing for a little while when Joe [Davies] called us about Senior [Senator] but we’ve always had a good relationship with Joe so just went for it!” Skip remarked.
The Right Rider
The following year, Davies had Senior Senator run over hurdles at the Loudoun Hunt Point to Point in April 2014. “Eric Poretz was his jockey for that one and it went really well,” said Davies. “Unfortunately, NSA changed the rules that year and young riders could not ride in hurdle races any more so we switched jockeys at Fair Hill and that, well, it did not go as well.”
“I remember that Fair Hill race!” Skip exclaimed. “Senior was running well and then after turning back towards the grandstand, he tossed his rider and jumped a few gates on his way back to the barn. We weren’t sure what we had gotten into but we trust Joe with our horses very much.”
“After that, we all knew we wanted Eric back on board so we were forced to switch Senior Senator to timber,” explained Davies. “The Crawfords always wanted a hurdle horse but timber is where we had to run the horse if we wanted to keep Eric as his jockey, which we really wanted to do.” Poretz, a pony clubber, was just graduating from the junior races and looking for more experience in the big league races. With Poretz back in the irons, Senior Senator won the Maiden Timber, his first timber race, at the Blue Ridge Fall Races in September 2014. From that point on, Poretz remained Senior Senator’s jockey. “Eric is a lot like the horse. He’s a free spirit and fearless,” said Davies, adding, “The only thing Eric is scared of is not winning.”
Senior Senator ran two more times in 2014, finishing second at Genesee Valley Hunt Cup and winning at the Pennsylvania Hunt Cup Races, both in the Maiden Timber. “He was only four that year and no other horse has won that race at that age except for Mountain Dew,” said Skip. Mountain Dew, owned by Janon Fisher, Jr., went on to win the Maryland Hunt Cup three times (1962, 1965 and 1967) however, since Jay Trump had retired the Challenge Cup for owner Mrs. M.C. Stephenson in 1966, only the last of his wins counted towards the newest Challenge Cup.
The following year, Senior Senator finished second three times out of three races: Mr. Stewart’s Cheshire Foxhounds Point to Point, My Lady’s Manor Races and the Grand National Steeplechase.
The Right Trainer
In 2016, Davies started Senior Senator’s season much the same, but this time, the six year old was unstoppable. He won at Cheshire, technically crossed the wire first at the Grand National (was disqualified for missing a beacon) and capped off the Maryland steeplechase season with winning his first Maryland Hunt Cup. “That was our first time having a horse in the Hunt Cup,” Skip stated. “We went in thinking a fourth or fifth place finish would be great.” Senior Senator had other plans.
With Poretz also riding in his first Maryland Hunt Cup, Senior Senator went to the front early in the course, and he stayed there. He ran so far ahead of the field that the Crawfords were convinced he’d get tired and passed by others near the end. “But he didn’t. He just kept going,” Skip remembered. “When he crossed the wire and won, we were shocked!” said Vicki. Senior Senator became only the second six-year-old to win the Maryland Hunt Cup, the other being Jay Trump.
Although Senior Senator is described as a workhorse, ready to gallop and jump year-round, Davies elected to not run him that fall. “We are only interested in Maryland timber races. That is a decision we made as a family early on in our careers,” explained Davies. The decision has worked well for the Davies, as both Joe and Blythe have won the Maryland Hunt Cup as jockeys and trainers multiple times.
The Right Vets
Senior Senator continued his winning ways in 2017, until one nearly career-ending fall. It was his second time running in the Maryland Hunt Cup and he fell at the third fence, the largest jump on the course. Although both horse and rider walked off the course that day, Senior Senator ended up at the New Bolton Center where he received treatment for fractures involving the fourth and fifth cervical vertebrae. Dr. Dean Richardson of New Bolton performed a surgery that involved bone grafts and metal splints and screws. Senior Senator was sent home for three months of stall rest before being reexamined.
“Things were looking good so we moved on to another three months in a stall but this time he could be hot walked,” Skip said. “He still has some of the metal pieces in his neck ‘cause Dr. Richardson said it was more dangerous to take them out then leave them in!” The following spring, Senior Senator was back in action.
“It means a lot to me that the Crawfords kept me on as his jockey after that Hunt Cup fall,” Poretz said. “It’s a business, I know that, and they could have sacked me after that fall and gone with a more experienced jockey, but they didn’t.”
Poretz rode Senior Senator to win at Cheshire and then finished second in a tight race at the Elkridge-Harford Hunt Point to Point. “I was standing near the finish of Cheshire just worried sick,” said Vicki. “We just didn’t know if he would still be able to do all of this, but then he surged ahead and won and I shouted, ‘He’s back!’” At that point in the season, the options were to run him at My Lady’s Manor or the Grand National.“We decided to run at the Grand National because it’s a big course,” Davies stated. “We figured if he could make it around that course, then he was good to go for the Hunt Cup.” Davies went on to say that if Senior Senator had come off that race not in perfect condition, they would have ended the season right there. “The Crawfords are great owners in that regards. They understand that each day is different and each race is different and they don’t ever put winning above their horse.”
Senior Senator handily won the 2018 Grand National, came out of the race perfectly and went on to win his second Maryland Hunt Cup the next weekend. “He was so calm in the paddock that year, we thought something was wrong with him,” Vicki said. “Oh we were scared to death! We just didn’t know what to expect.” Skip added.
The win put Crawford in line for the Challenge Cup. “The Challenge Cup is awarded to an owner that wins the Maryland Hunt Cup three times, not necessarily with the same horse. However, the ownership has to be exactly the same,” explained Maryland steeplechase historian and author of 100 Runnings of The Maryland Hunt Cup, Margaret Worrall. The first Challenge Cup was won by Mrs. E. Read Beard in 1940 when Blockade won three years in a row. Redmond C. Stewart, Jr., is the only owner to retire the Challenge Cup so far with more than one horse, having won in 1968 with Haffaday and then in 1977 and 1978 with Ben Nevis II. Before the Crawfords, the most recent retirement of the Challenge Cup was by Mrs. Miles Valentine in 1983 with Cancottage.
The Right Owners
Now a confirmed “Hunt Cup horse,” the Crawfords aimed Senior Senator for a fourth attempt at the Maryland Hunt Cup. Using the same formula as 2018, Senior Senator won at Cheshire, Elkridge-Harford and the Grand National in preparation for the 123rd running of the Maryland Hunt Cup. “This time we used the Grand National to take the edge off Senior,” said Davies. “We had learned from his fall that he needs to run his way and we were worried he’d be too fresh so we used the Grand National to settle him.”
Going into this year’s race, five owners were all in line for the Challenge Cup with two wins each. Arcadia Stables had won in 1995 and 1997 with Buck Jakes. Move Up Stable won with Swayo in 2000 and 2003. Irvin Naylor earned wins with Make Me A Champ in 2005 and Askim in 2008. Lucy Goelet racked up two wins with Twill Do in 2010 and 2012. And the Crawfords had their two wins with Senior Senator in 2016 and 2018. Out of that list, only the Crawfords had a horse running in the 2019 Hunt Cup.
Senior Senator started this year’s race in great form, jumping in the front of the field as he likes to do. Near the end of the course however, Drift Society and Our Town came up next to him. Our Town fell at the 19th fence and Drift Society pulled out in front, but that is exactly what Poretz needed to light a fire in Senior Senator. “He loves to chase horses. He needs another horse up with him to kick into gear,” he explained. Senior Senator kicked into another gear, but nearly fell at the road crossing after the 20th fence. “I think Joe described it like a phoenix rising from the ashes,” remarked Vicki. “One minute he was nearly down and the next, he just leapt out of this cloud of mulch!”
Senior Senator chased Drift Society down, jumped ahead at the last and simply opened up in the stretch, winning by four lengths. “He came down the stretch and was just gone!” said Poretz. “Not many people can say they won the Hunt Cup, let alone three times with the same horse, and I’m just glad I’m the one who gets to do this with him.”
“With Senior Senator’s victory, all prior winning owners with two legs on the trophy are wiped out and must start again,” explained Worrall. The actual Cup now belongs to the Crawfords. “We offered to donate it back to be used as the next Challenge Cup, but the [Maryland Hunt Cup] committee said no, and that they have never accepted a cup back after it had been retired,” Skip stated.
But a third win and retiring the Challenge Cup doesn’t mean the end of Senior Senator’s Hunt Cup career. “He has a great lung capacity and the right attitude to make him a great competitor,” said Davies. “And his wins are a wonderful thing as I hope Senior Senator shows others that you can get started in this sport right here in the U.S. You don’t have to go to England to get great horses and riders.” Davies added, “His story proves that Americans do have talent and we can bring along young American horses and young American riders and have them go on to great things. I hope he inspires other owners to invest in American horses and riders.”
Since this year’s epic win, England seems to be on the mind of many of Senior Senator’s fans. “People have been pushing for us to run him in England next year but we aren’t sure as winning a fourth Hunt Cup would be really cool too,” said Skip. Winning a fourth Hunt Cup would be a historical feat as no horse has ever accomplished it. “Right now the most likely scenario is to stay right here and run roughly the same pattern next spring with the Hunt Cup in mind. If all that goes perfectly, then look at England for 2021,” Davies added.
Either way, one thing is for sure… all eyes will be on Senior Senator at the start of the 2020 Maryland steeplechase season.