article and photo by Regina Welsh
In July, armed with a bottle of Advil and my good friend Anne, I began the task of putting together yet another North American Point-to-Point Association (NAPPA) Young Rider Steeplechase Camp.
For the past five years, I’ve found myself frantically trying to locate a 12-passenger rental van and calling steeplechase and foxchasing enthusiasts to see whether they would house a small tribe of teens and a couple of travel-weary adults for a night. You would think that my name showing up on caller ID would send people running, but somehow people still answer the phone when I call. Actually, they enthusiastically answer the phone, and are more than happy to contribute their time, house, pool, horses and hospitality.
Everyone looks forward to the “camp” rolling through their town. This year for the first week in August, we had a full house (and mini van).
All camp attendees apply with a written essay on why they’d like to participate, also providing two written references from professional horsemen. Applications started flooding my Butler post office box as soon as I put this year’s information up on NAPPA’s website. Some years we have been light on applicants, but this year, the word about NAPPA’s cool camp spread like wildfire.
As NAPPA’s executive director, it’s my job to bridge the gap between foxhunting and steeplechasing. This group made that easy. As I read through the essays and references, I thought “Now, this is what we’re looking for!” The NAPPA committee picked six students to attend the camp, all of them from very serious foxhunting backgrounds. Steeplechasing was just a matter of a costume change for them.
Home: Weybridge, Vermont
Stats: Former amateur steeplechase jockey, current National Steeplechase Association (NSA) owner and event rider. Hunts with the Green Spring Valley Hounds, the Elkridge-Harford Hunt and several others. Works at Native Energy full-time and somehow finds time to come down to the Mid-Atlantic area to play NAPPA Camp co-pilot.
Regina Welsh (me)
Home: Butler, Maryland
Stats: Current NSA trainer. Hunts with the Green Spring Valley Hounds. Executive Director of NAPPA and NAPPA Camp co-pilot.
Home: Maryland and Virginia
Stats: Sam is the son of Bay Cockburn and Chrissy Heard, who are very involved in the horse show, foxchasing and steeplechasing worlds. Sam hunts on a regular basis with Virginia’s Piedmont Fox Hounds and has participated in several Junior Field Master’s Chases and flat races over the past seven years. He is very excited about turning 16 and getting his NSA jockey’s license.
Home: Orange, Virginia
Stats: Scarlett whips in for Lynn Haven Hounds and also hunts with Virginia’s Middlebrook Hounds. She has been on the junior racing circuit for six years and is an exercise rider for Patrick Jenkins and David Bourke. Scarlett looks forward to turning 16 so she can ride her horse over timber.
Home: Philomont, Virginia
Stats: Grant is very active in Virginia’s Middleburg-Orange County Pony Club and hunts with the Snickersville Hounds, also in Virginia. He has a blast hunting his mare Turnadieu, obtained from steeplechase owner Maggie Bryant. Grant tested the Junior Field Master’s Chase this past year and was bitten by the racing bug.
Home: Bluemont, Virginia
Stats: Tess is another newcomer to racing, but following the Snickersville Hounds has given her a lot of practice in the running and jumping department. Through her experiences with NAPPA, she has gained a part-time job helping trainer Richard Valentine at the races.
Home: Dunkrik, Maryland
Stats: Paige can be found experiencing the thrill of the chase on Saturdays with the Marlborough Hunt. She recently fell in love with racing after her first flat race aboard a horse trained by her employer, Jason Cole, at the Marlborough Hunt Races. Paige looks forward to learning how to hold tough horses and soaks up information like a sponge.
Home: Arvonia, Virginia
Stats: Sarah was awarded tuition to attend this camp as part of the Maryland Steeplechase Association’s Jonathan Kiser Memorial Scholarship. Sarah’s parents, avid foxhunters who are also involved in the eventing world, drive her and her mounts five hours on average to race meets. Sarah has been riding races for three years and foxhunting with the Stonewall Hounds and the Oak Ridge Fox Hunt (both in Virginia) for even longer.
The Plains, VA
Steeplechase jockeys Calvin McCormack and Jeff Murphy kicked off the NAPPA camp by answering questions and giving the gang a walk around the prestigious Virginia Gold Cup course. While walking the course with “the boys,” I asked Paige if she was okay. She looked a little blank. Her response was, “This is just so overwhelming. It’s amazing. I am so excited about this trip.” That pretty much summed it up for the rest of the gang, too.
NAPPA President Rob Banner and wife Julie provided a great barbeque for the camp crew, jockeys and housing hosts Peggy and Nick Arundel. It’s really important to us that the campers interact with not only jockeys and trainers, but people who are owners, bringing lots of knowledge and life experience to our “roundtable forum.” So the Banners and Arundels were great additions to our speaker board, since they are also steeplechase owners.
Middleburg, VA/Monkton, MD
Lots of early mornings out cubhunting must have made the 4:45 a.m. wake-up call easier for this bunch. To my amazement, rising early was not a problem for the crew that I heard up giggling into the wee hours of the morning. By 5:30 a.m., we were all smushed into the mini-van (did I forget to mention that no 12-person rental vans were to be found on the East Coast?) and off to Whitewood Farm, where we dropped off Tess and Grant with Richard Valentine for their first day of “work.” Sam and Sarah landed at the farm of Doug Fout, while Neil Morris, exclusive trainer for Kinross Farm, took Scarlett and Paige under his wing for the morning.
These top steeplechase trainers use foxhunting as a training tool for many of their steeplechase horses, and it was great for the gang to get to see firsthand how they trained their race horses compared to foxhunters.
Smiles greeted me at the noon pick-up. The trainers couldn’t have been more pleased with their young charges. “Boy, were they happy to see us!” was the first thing out of Scarlett’s mouth when I picked them up. She and Paige were perfect replacements for Morris’ vacationing staff members. And “They can come back anytime they’d like,” said Valentine, who was very pleased with his temporary workers, Grant and Tess. Even Fout’s assistant trainer James Piper made sure he got the phone numbers of Sam and Sarah, so he knows how to find them if he needs help.
Next we made the two-hour trip from Middleburg, Virginia, to Blythe and Joe Davies’ farm in Monkton, Maryland. I know the kids were excited about their day with the Virginia trainers, as they were talking at a rather high volume, non-stop. They should have been exhausted! I couldn’t believe none of them fell asleep on the drive north. Then I caught on to why they were very “energetic.” I think it had a little something to do with an energy drink called “Rockstar.”
In Monkton, the kids had a rap session with steeplechase trainers Jack Fisher and Todd Wyatt, retired jockeys and trainers Blythe and Joe Davies, and jockey Blair Waterman Wyatt. Joe showed great films of the famous ‘chaser Lonesome Glory with Blythe in the irons. And Blair showed her 2004 Maryland Hunt Cup win aboard Bug River, who was initially purchased as a foxhunter, but who became a formidable force on the Maryland timber circuit.
They even got lessons on the Equicizer, a mechanical horse used as a fitness tool for jockeys. Life in the horse industry and the degree of dedication and focus it takes to be at the top was the focus of our discussion. We all broke out in laughter when Fisher asked Sam if he would like to be a trainer one day. Sam commented, “What, do you think I’m crazy or something? You don’t make any money doing that.” Sam plans to go to school and have “a real job” so he can afford to foxhunt and ride races.
Monkton, MD/Unionville, PA
Day two of their “in-barn experience” saw Sam and Sarah out riding the likes of timber champion Bubble Economy for Fisher. Grant was taken under the wing of Alicia Murphy and got to school over his first hurdle. Tess rode out at my barn and practiced keeping her reins bridged while galloping. And Scarlett and Paige rode out at the Davies barn and also spent some time perfecting their mane-pulling techniques. I think Grant summed up the day best as “another really cool day.”
We packed our mini-van back up and went north to find Tony Young’s polo ponies in Unionville for a mounted starting lesson with jockeys Gus Brown and Paddy Young. It was perhaps one of the most valuable experiences of the trip, and Sam took it all in with intensity. “People who don’t [ride races] think it’s so easy, but it’s not. Just talking to Gus and Paddy … when they say things it makes you think, ‘I am right, this is really hard; but I’m getting it.’”
The starting and race strategy discussion continued at Sam and Lornie Slater’s house, where we were treated to a great feast and film viewing. Special guest Joy Slater, the first woman to win the Maryland Hunt Cup, joined us as we watched her defeat the 1981 MHC field aboard Cancottage. Joy, who grew up hunting with Pennsylvania’s Cheshire Hounds, reminded the kids that lots of hard work went into that win and she didn’t get there overnight.
Unionville, PA/Saratoga Springs, NY
More riding and working for trainers today. I don’t think this gang really understood how great they had it until today. They got to throw a leg over some seriously nice horses. Paige and Grant rode out at Sanna Hendriks’ barn, where Grant got to sit on the 2007 Maryland Hunt Cup winner The Bruce.
“It was great to ride out with Paddy [Young] and Shane [Burke] because they were so nice,” Paige said about her new jockey friends. “You could ask them anything. We talked about what it took to get to where they are now. And they gave me lots of race-riding tips.”
Tess spent the morning with Janet Elliot and rode “some horse called Flat Top?” I had to explain to her that he was not just “some horse,” but a former Steeplechase Eclipse Award winner … a true champion. Sam entertained Kathy McKenna’s barn and got some good galloping under his belt, while Grant and Scarlet helped out Bruce Miller.
Then it was off to Saratoga Springs, New York, for an overnight stay in a hotel. The original plans to stay with Gregg and Linden Ryan for our Saratoga leg were derailed days before we started our trip. Their baby decided it needed to meet the world a month early and was born a few days before we embarked on our “tour of duty,” so to speak. So Anne and I thought it would be best if we stayed at the hotel. The kids were okay with the fact they had to forego staying with a top amateur jockey and his Olympic event-star wife. They just wanted to know, “Will they have a pool at the hotel?”
Saratoga Springs, NY
There’s nothing like watching horses gallop in the early morning mist at the Oklahoma Training Track in Saratoga. Anne and I herded the group, who were awestruck by the beauty of it all, around the racetrack, showing them racing at its best. Early morning chats with top trainers Jonathan Shepard, Fout, and Tom Voss were very insightful for this knowledge-thirsty bunch. Voss, also a joint Master of the Elkridge-Harford Hunt, relayed stories to his captive audience from atop champion racehorse-turned-lead pony John’s Call.
“John,” the perfect example of how racehorses can go on to lead productive lives doing other jobs, stood there flat-footed while Voss spoke.
After changing into our Sunday best, we headed for the National Racing Museum, where we waited out a monsoon and investigated racing through the years. The monsoon didn’t ease up, so we now all own really nice umbrellas with horses on them purchased at the museum gift shop.
The Grade II A. P. Smithwick Memorial Hurdle Stakes was the first race of the day. We dashed to the paddock of the famous Saratoga racecourse, where we hid out under an awning with loads of prominent steeplechase owners, trainers and jockeys. “Are you really going to ride in this,” Paige asked her new pal Paddy Young, who answered, “Of course!” Luckily the rain cleared up before the race began.
Thanks to Mimi Voss and George Strawbridge, the young racegoers had premium box seats in the grandstand where they witnessed their new friend and mentor Paddy Young win aboard High Action for trainer Fout.
And finally, what I thought was a super-cool part of the trip: We were invited to watch the next race from the tower with the placing judges. The Ryans made sure they pitched in for this trip somehow and connected us with Sonny Taylor, a placing judge with the New York Racing Association. We got a bird’s eye view of the race and got to see how they quickly figure out the results using a computer. Some of the guys in the tower had been doing their jobs for 30 years. What a great way to end the trip!
The kids took away heaps of valuable information and made some pretty great connections in the racing world. And what did I learn from this experience? Note to self: On next year’s application, make sure that energy drinks are not allowed … and maybe bring some earplugs for those late nights when the gang stays up giggling. Another year goes by, and I survived … even if I did have to drive 1,374.6 miles in a mini-van.