Maybe horses aren’t supposed to win the Maryland Hunt Cup four times.
World War II interrupted Winton in the 1940s, making sure his successes stopped at three. Mountain Dew won three in the 1960s, but also improbably finished second to Jay Trump three times. Jay Trump won all three of his attempts, but ventured to England (where he won Aintree's famed Grand National) in 1965. Garry Owen, Princeton, Blockade, Pine Pep and Cancottage couldn’t get past a hat trick either.
And now fate has claimed Senior Senator, who died of colic Wednesday. The 10-year-old gelding’s bid for four was stopped by the race’s cancelation due to the coronavirus pandemic this year, but he was being aimed for a 2021 campaign. Senior Senator showed signs of colic Wednesday morning, was shipped to the University of Pennsylvania’s New Bolton Center for treatment and an attempted surgery. Trainer Joe Davies delivered the news Wednesday afternoon.
“It’s the end of an era,” said Davies of a horse who became part of the family for the trainer, his wife Blythe and children Teddy and Scarlet. “We were so lucky so many times he rose up from the ashes or what seemed like the ashes that we can’t be anything but grateful.”
Senior Senator won the 4-mile, 22-fence Maryland Hunt Cup, North America’s oldest and most meaningful steeplechase, in 2016, 2018 and 2019. Over timber, he crossed the finish line first or second in 11 of 12 National Steeplechase Association starts – the only real blemishes a disqualification from a win in the 2016 Grand National and a fall in the 2017 Hunt Cup. He emerged from the latter with a broken bone in his neck, had surgery and won his next four NSA starts – two runnings each of the Grand National and Hunt Cup. He won seven NSA timber races, finished second in three others and earned $280,500. On the flat, he lost all seven starts, but had two seconds and a third to pad his lifetime earnings to $289,756. His point-to-point record included six more timber wins.
Joe Davies called the 2016 Hunt Cup a favorite memory. Disqualified for interfering with several rivals in the Grand National a week earlier, Senior Senator nearly didn’t get to run.
“The stewards didn’t want to let him run,” said the trainer, “and I told them we would change the bit and that was only reason they let him run. To go out and do what he did that day was amazing.”
In his first attempt at the testing course, Senior Senator set the pace, built a big early lead and won by a half-length over 2014 race winner and 2015 runner-up Guts For Garters.
Of course, picking a single signature moment in Senior Senator’s racing career is akin to a choosing a favorite puppy. They’re all good ones.
“The 2018 Hunt Cup, after a broken neck, was pretty special too,” said Davies, whose real favorite memories don’t involve races.
“Just the every day,” he said. “He was the first horse we saw every day and every night. We could see him from our bedroom, the kitchen. There wasn’t a day for seven years where we didn’t see him other than a couple nights he went to New Bolton. We’ve been through a lot with him.”
Bred in Pennsylvania by Charles McGill, Senior Senator was racing at Penn National in 2013 when claimed by Davies for $7,500. Blythe Davies had noticed the rangy bay while watching races on her computer. What she’d failed to see was Senior Senator’s reputation as a rogue for McGill and trainer Flint Stites, and pre-race antics including trouble in the post parade and at the starting gate. He’d routinely buck off jockeys, batter exercise riders and in general make life difficult.
Gradually – oh so gradually – after two more starts on the flat for his new connections, he came around to farm life and timber racing for owners Skip and Vicki Crawford. Senior Senator made his timber debut at Genesee Valley in 2014, and finished second. He won the next month at the Pennsylvania Hunt Cup and in 2015 placed in the My Lady’s Manor and Grand National timber stakes to signal big things.
Ridden throughout by Eric Poretz, Senior Senator started at the Grand National meet in Butler, Md. (always the second-to-last Saturday in April) five consecutive times, finishing second in the stakes in 2015, getting disqualified from a win in the allowance race in 2016 and winning the next three editions of the Grand National. The son of Domestic Dispute made four consecutive starts in the Hunt Cup – a win, the fall and then two more wins.
With this year’s Maryland timber meets and early point-to-points canceled because of the coronavirus, Senior Senator was going to miss 2020 but plans called for a 2021 campaign and an attempt at an unprecedented fourth Hunt Cup.
He showed signs of colic Wednesday morning, not all that rare for a horse known for nerves and wanting things a certain way. When his condition didn’t improve with treatment at the farm, Senior Senator was shipped from the Davies home in Monkton, Md. to New Bolton.
“He just seemed uncomfortable at 7 this morning, and showed symptoms of colic,” Davies said. “He had incidents before, but never enough for surgery. It was something we dealt with. It usually only happened when he was out of training, like in May when we were letting him down, and that’s why we kept him in light training most of the time. We just did a little school and galloped around the farm Saturday, he was training along but he was getting a little more turnout than usual. If he were running, he’d only be turned out for an hour or two.”
Some Senior Senator highlights from TIHR: