by Katherine O. Rizzo (first appeared in the February 2017 issue of The Equiery)
Each year, the Maryland Steeplechase Association awards the Hurdy Gurdy Perpetual Trophy to a horse and rider pair that has shown over the course of the spring season the spirit of the great Hurdy Gurdy and Kingdon Gould, Jr. , a businessman foxhunter who began racing over timber with his little gelding Hurdy Gurdy late in life. They took on such timber greats as Mountain Dew and Jay Trump, winning some and losing others but always showing great spirit and sportsmanship.
For the 2016 season, the MSA board selected Brett Owings and Church Music as the Hurdy Gurdy winners. The pair had a stellar season, winning two out of three races. But it isn’t their wins that earned them this honor. It was their spirit and sportsmanship. “They are very deserving of this award,” said Church Music’s owner J.W.Y. “Duck” Martin, Jr., who won the Maryland Hunt Cup in 1972 aboard homebred Early Earner. “They are a foxhunting combo that also race. Foxhunting is the best way to make a timber horse. The only way to make a timber horse.”
“It is a great honor to win this award,” Brett said. “She’s a really old fashioned horse that shows the tradition of taking foxhunters and turning them into timber horses.” What makes winning this award even more special for Brett and Duck is the homebred history of the mare.
Church Music was bred in Maryland at the Martins’ historic Worthington Farm in Glyndon. It has been in the Martin family since the 1930s and is primarily a breeding farm as well as the site of the Maryland Hunt Cup. Lord Gaylord is the most noteworthy stallion that stood at Worthington. Although he only earned $7,530 in his short career on the flat track, he sired over 30 stakes winners including Eclipse Award winner Lord Avie and was awarded the 1989 Tesio Award for best Maryland Stallion. Duck estimates that the farm has produced over 800 foals during the past nine decades, one of which is Church Music.
The tall mare is by Bowman’s Band, who stood at Maryland Stallion Station until moving to Kentucky in 2007. He won over $1 million in career earnings from just seven wins, 11 places and six shows. The stallion’s grandsire on his sire’s side is the Maryland stallion Northern Dancer. Church Music’s dam is Church, a mare by Sir Gaylord bred at Worthington Farm by Martin, Jr. Church’s dam’s side traces back to Bold Ruler lines.
She was foaled in 2007 and then sent to nearby Merryland Farm to be broke for flat racing. From there, the gangly filly went to Rodney Jenkins, legendary show jumper turned racehorse trainer, for her flat track training. “Rodney liked her a lot,” Duck said. “He was very high on her but she ended up with some ailments so he brought her back to the farm for some rest.” He added that she was just such a big filly they wanted to give her more time to grown up.
While she was back at Worthington Farm, Brett’s mom Suzie Owings, who has been working at Worthington for 30 years and trains the foxhunters of the farm, took a liking to her. “Everyone thought I was crazy but I really liked her. She was a tough baby but I really thought she’d make a nice point-to-point horse,” Suzie stated. “She had been having some trouble with a tendon at the track but we took a look and started to build her up slowly.”
“I thought my mom was a bit nuts but when I sat on Church Music, I realized how nice of a horse she is,” Brett commented. Interesting side note, Brett was also born right there at Worthington Farm and grew up riding ponies and then foxhunting with the Martin family.
Brett, now a senior at Towson University studying political science, has spent his entire life in Glyndon and at Worthington Farm. “Just being there has made me want to be part of this sport,” Brett said, adding how special it is to grow up right there on the Maryland Hunt Cup course.
His first race was in 2010 at the Maryland Junior Hunt Cup where he rode the large pony The Groove to fourth. Two years later he won the Senior Field Masters Chase at Blue Ridge Fall Races aboard Airolo. After Airolo, Brett took a break from racing until Church Music came along.
Foxhunter First, Timber Horse Second
Suzie said Church Music took to foxhunting nicely and Brett rode her in the field for two seasons. “She is very bold and a scopy jumper,” Brett stated. Her jumping style was good, but Suzie felt it could be improved and become more efficient so Brett and Church Music took some lessons from champion jockey Mark Beecher. “He really helped teach her to not take off so long,” Brett explained.
In 2015, they started racing with the Senior Field Masters Chase at the Green Spring Valley Point-to-Point, which they won. That season they also finished third in the Novice Timber at Fair Hill and finished second in the Novice Timber at Howard County. After getting a few months to unwind, which according to Brett, she hates, it was back to cub hunting and then foxhunting before the start of the 2016 season.
“She really is a mare for all seasons,” Brett said. “She really doesn’t like to have time off and if more than two weeks goes by without her hunting, she goes a bit crazy!”
After using Foxhall as a warm-up, Brett and Church Music headed back to Green Spring, this time to run in the Novice Timber. Unfortunately, their first race of the season ended with a fall but it did not seem to faze either of them. “I trust Brett with Church Music and her with him,” Suzie said. Brett admits the fall was rider error but moved on to the next race.
Next up on the racing calendar was the Novice Timber at Fair Hill, which they handily won. After that, they headed to their first sanctioned race, the Amateur Highweight Timber (the Western Run Plate) at the Grand National. The pair was in the middle of the pack for most of the race, pulling ahead at the last fence for the win. A knocked flag by another rider caused a steward’s inquiry at the end of the race and thus Brett was told to stay mounted on Church Music while they sorted things out. “That was a tense moment,” Suzie stated. “We knew the inquiry didn’t have anything to do with Brett but it was still a little nerve-wracking.” When the announcement was made that they were the official winners, Brett just reached down and hugged the mare. “He has a special connection with that mare. He lives, breathes and sleeps that horse!” said the proud mom and trainer.
Back to the Hunt Field
When the 2016 season came to a close, Church Music went out to pasture with her best buddy, Pennywhistle, a retired pony, and Brett did two more races aboard other horses; the Open Flat at Potomac Hunt Races with Popcastle and the Apprentice Training Flat at the Pennsylvania Hunt Cup. In addition to the Hurdy Gurdy, Church Music was awarded the best Maryland-bred title from MSA. “There aren’t that many Maryland-breds that run timber races anymore,” Duck commented, adding, “She’s a big good-looking mare. She proved that she can run together with the geldings and handle them just fine.”
“I don’t think she gets enough credit as a mare,” Brett added. “She has shown she can consistently win against the boys and I think that is cool.”
Suzie and Brett started to leg up Church Music back in August, with cub hunting starting in September. Now that hunting is in full swing and the 2017 spring steeplechase season is in sight, she will be hunting a bit less and training a bit more. “The funny thing is, I never wanted to be a racehorse trainer. Church Music just forced my hand!” Suzie added.
Soon, rider and trainer will sit down with the owner and discuss what the plan will be for the impressive mare, but when asked what 2017 might have in store for Church Music, all three replied with some version of “We’ll just take each week and each race one at a time.”
©The Equiery 2017