In the coming days, America goes to the races. Weekend after next it’s the Kentucky Derby, followed by the Preakness and the Belmont, the Triple Crown. And this coming weekend, there’s a horse race you may not know about: the Maryland Hunt Cup. The biggest, most demanding event there is in the world of timber racing. It’s the American version of Steeplechase and the course is not for the faint-hearted. It stretches four miles over the Maryland countryside — over three times the length of the Kentucky Derby track. And there is a major, sometimes dangerous, challenge for both horse and rider: the timber – 22 wooden fences to jump, some of them five feet high. Much of our report on the world of timber racing was shot with a dozen or so small cameras: on the ground, in the air – and right in the saddle.
We’re riding with jockey Eric Poretz on a horse named Touchdowntony.
Jockey: C’mon, Tony!
It’s one of the many races in the fall and spring when timber jockeys roam the rolling hills of Virginia, Maryland and Pennsylvania, in the run-up to the Maryland Hunt Cup.
Jockey: Give me some room!
The sport originated in Ireland 250 years ago, when horsemen raced through the countryside, jumping hedges along the way.
The timber fences used in this country are more intimidating; some are on a slant, some over water. For horse and jockey…each jump is tricky.
Charlie Rose: You’re approaching a five-foot fence. What’s in your head?
Paddy Neilson: Well, number one, you hope you’ve been livin’ right.
Paddy Neilson is a legendary jockey and trainer, from a family that’s been riding and racing since 1875. He won his first major race when he was 15. And won the Maryland Hunt Cup three times.
Charlie Rose: Can you tell us what it’s like to feel the exhilaration--
Paddy Neilson: There’s just some magic about the power of that animal underneath of you. And then when you ask him for everything he’s got the last quarter a mile or something like that and there it is, it is a marvelous feeling that only comes from doing it, really. It is great.
“Being a good jockey is really learning how to read a horse, and stay the heck out of their way.”
Joe Davies: This is to me the most natural form of equestrian sport.
Charlie Rose: Alright, let’s watch.
Joe Davies trains both horses and riders at his Maryland farm.
Joe Davies: That was a lovely jump there.
Charlie Rose: Oh.
Joe Davies: You know they all did it fluidly, easily.
Charlie Rose: Just look at them.
Joe Davies: So take off is important and so is landing.
Charlie Rose: You can hear ‘em hit the fence.
Joe Davies: Yeah, I mean occasionally they’ll tip that with their hind legs. But we put timber shins on, which are protective pads. So they don’t really feel it.
For jockeys, the perfect jump involves horse psychology. And plain-old horse sense.
Joe Davies: Being a good jockey is really learning how to read a horse, and stay the heck out of their way.
In the crucial seconds before liftoff, says Davies, you can read a horse by watching the ears.
Joe Davies: A horse’s ears will tell you what he’s thinking about. And if you’re doing this, and kicking him and pulling on him, his ears will go back. He’ll be paying attention to you. If you can be as quiet and still as a mouse, then the horse doesn’t think about you. His ears go forward. He’s paying attention to what’s in front of him. He sees the fence and he jumps it perfectly every time.
And there is something else: that indefinable chemistry that produces -- in love, in art, in horse racing -- something greater than the sum of the parts.
“It’s the adrenaline rush. We would definitely be self-proclaimed adrenaline junkies, I would say.”
Joe Davies: You can take the fifth best horse and maybe the tenth best jockey and together they can be magic.
Charlie Rose: Or you could take the best horse and the best rider and there’s no magic, and they won’t be anywhere near their potential?
Joe Davies: Correct.
Many of the rituals of the timber race are similar to what you see at Churchill Downs or Belmont or Pimlico. The crowd is well-heeled, the hats are outrageous, there’s tailgating and there’s grazing…on both sides of the fence.
Bookie: Here’s your betting, here’s your odds.
But the betting is strictly small change, and so is the purse money: a mere $100,000 for the Hunt Cup, versus 2 million for the Kentucky Derby.
Announcer: “They’re all in line and away they go”
“I still don’t know whether I got kicked or the horse’s head flew up and hit me in the cheek, but I broke my jaw and knocked out eight teeth.”
Success at timber racing requires a horse with both speed and stamina. Speed to propel them over the fences and the finish line -- stamina to keep going for four miles.
As a result, both horses and jockeys are often bigger, sturdier than the ones at flat tracks, as people here call traditional oval-race tracks. And it’s not unusual to see women competing in such a rough and tumble sport, sometimes finishing first.
Charlie Rose: This is a sport in which men and women compete together.
Paddy Neilson: They do.
Charlie Rose: Meaning women are pretty damn good.
Paddy Neilson: Yup. Very good.
Kathy Neilson: I knew as soon as I started galloping racehorses I’m like that was the direction that I was gonna go in.
Paddy’s Neilson’s daughter Kathy and her sister Sanna say it was more than just family tradition that hooked them on timber racing.
Sanna Neilson: It’s the adrenaline rush. We would definitely be self-proclaimed adrenaline junkies, I would say.
Sanna won the Maryland Hunt Cup in 1993. Kathy won it as a trainer in 2002. Racing, they say, plays to women’s strengths.
Charlie Rose: How do you think women are better at it?
Sanna Neilson: You know, if you’re 130 pounds you’re not gonna be able to bully a 1,200-pound animal. You’re gonna be able to coax ‘em into doing something, but you’re probably not gonna be able to muscle ‘em into it.
Kathy Neilson: You hungry bud?
Kathy Neilson: I feed my horses every afternoon. I love it. I love to hear them whinny to me. You know it’s a nurturing job in a way is to see them flourish.
Kathy Neilson: Hungry? Yea.
Sanna Neilson: So it’s something that just gets in your blood.
Charlie Rose: But part of it is the danger. Part of it is the risk.
Kathy Neilson: The danger. Yeah. You know, I’ve broke both my wrists, my knee, you know.
It’s something jockeys train themselves not to think about. A misstep by the rider. A horse that loses altitude and trips on the timber.
Announcer: That was Haddix who lost his rider.
Even worse, rear-ending or trampling someone who’s fallen in front.
Announcer: Swayo lost his rider at the fence.
Falling horses usually roll with it: very few are badly hurt. The riders -- are something else.
Paddy Nielson: I still don’t know whether I got kicked or the horse’s head flew up and hit me in the cheek, but I broke my jaw and knocked out eight teeth.
Which is a pretty good, pretty good blow to the face.
And if they gave a glutton for punishment cup, it would probably go to Mark Beecher, an Irish jockey who’s a regular on the timber circuit here.
Mark Beecher: Fractured my cheekbone, my two front teeth are gone, I’ve broken two collarbone twice, this one once, dislocated this shoulder twice, broken two ribs here, three ribs down my back, broken my ankle.
Charlie Rose: You’re right, you gotta be crazy to wanna do this.
Mark Beecher: It’s the thrill. It’s the buzz.
But timber jockeys cannot live by thrill and buzz alone. Since there’s not much money in the sport, most riders have to have a real job.
James Stierhoff: From a very young age I was always obsessed with horses.
James Stierhoff is a man with a double life.
James Stierhoff: I have had some amazing opportunities and amazing experiences.
During the week, he works at Brown Advisory, a financial firm in Baltimore where he’s immersed in the fine points of managing money, helping clients figure the risks and rewards of investing. But weekends it’s the risk and reward of timber racing. And as a jockey, Stierhoff has quite a resume.
Charlie Rose: So what’s it like for you to win the Maryland Hunt Cup?
James Stierhoff: It was unreal.
It was both unreal and unlikely. Here he is in 2010 atop Twill Do, a horse he’d never raced before. Its trainer -- Billy Meister -- planned to ride Twill Do himself, but was hurt in a fall. And called Stierhoff to take up the reins.
James Stierhoff: And I said, “I mean, “I’d love to, but I don’t really know that this is great idea. I’m at home with the flu.” Billy says, “Not to worry. I rode the best race of my life with a 104 fever. You’ll be fine.”
Charlie Rose: But it says something that Billy wanted you on that horse.
James Stierhoff: Yes.
Announcer: Twill Do trying to come back again on the inside, Private Attack leading toward the final fence…
At the finish, it came down to Stierhoff on Twill Do and Mark Beecher, the man of many fractures, on Private Attack.
Announcer on finish: Twill Do on the inside, Private Attack is gonna have to settle for second. Twill Do.
Stierhoff not only won the cup in 2010, he did it again two years later.
James Stierhoff: I was able to achieve something that I never really maybe thought was possible. And man, how lucky am I?
And there is a certain horse that might be asking himself the same question. He is Senior Senator, once an “also ran,” now a star.
Charlie Rose: God it’s majestic isn’t it.
Joe Davies: I think he likes you.
Before trainer Joe Davies bought him, he was a flat-track racer with a mediocre record and a nasty reputation for acting up.
Joe Davies: They had to tranquilize him every day to get him out onto the race track.
Joe Davies: We knew he was difficult because he’d throw his jockeys on the way to the start.
Charlie Rose: He would throw his jockeys on the way to the start.
Joe Davies: Every time.
It got so bad the track veterinarians wouldn’t go near him.
Joe Davies: The trainer who had him before us said “I want you to know I’ve been training horses for 35 years. This is the craziest horse to ever look through a bridle.” And –
Charlie Rose: You’re the craziest horse ever to look through a bridle. You know that?
Davies and his wife Blythe – a legendary rider, now a trainer – specialize in horses that flamed out on the flat track, but show promise as timber racers, giving them a second chance.
Charlie Rose: Is it different riding this horse?
Blythe Miller Davies: Yes.
Charlie Rose: How so?
Blythe Miller Davies: Because he’s such a special jumper.
The key was letting him run free. During his flat track career he’d spent countless hours penned up in his stall: miserable, angry.
Joe Davies: We turned him out in a big field. And he became a happier horse really almost the first hour he was here.
The question was: would he jump? Some horses love it, some don’t. The answer wasn’t long in coming. Senior Senator was a jumper, even without a rider.
Joe Davies: We just figured out how to get him to do what really is natural, and what this horse was just put on this Earth to do, which is to run and jump.
Announcer: Senior Senator has led a good portion of this race…
His biggest challenge came a year ago, at the Maryland Hunt Cup, against a strong field of the bravest horses and riders.
Announcer: Racing around the turn with a big lead Senior Senator is the one to catch.
But in the stretch he lost the lead – and gave it a last chance burst of energy.
Announcer: Barreling through the stretch it’s Guts For Garters, Senior Senator coming back again on the outside, Senior Senator!
From crazy horse to champion.
Joe Davies: He didn’t need discipline. He didn’t need to be manhandled. He just needed to be understood. And I feel like that’s what we were able to do.
Charlie Rose: Now what is he saying there? I’m happy with all this attention. Right Joe?
He can still be temperamental. Skittish at bath time, often a bit of a prima donna
saddling up for a race. But he was a perfect gentleman accepting a sweet potato treat from a perfect stranger, who happily survived with all 10 fingers intact. In other words, Senior Senator – the horse to beat at the Maryland Hunt Cup this coming Saturday – is a lot like many talented humans.
Joe Davies: He hangs on the edge of sort of insanity and brilliance.
Which is also a good description of what it takes to triumph in timber racing – for man or beast.
Produced by David Browning and Michelle St. John
for more features.