Yeager rides Serene Harbor to surprise win in Grand National Steeplechase

For The Baltimore Sun
Jockey Annie Yeager rode Serene Harboar to a win in the 113th Grand National Steeplechase.

Coming to Maryland from Minnesota, by way of Virginia, proved to be a path to success for Annie Yeager at the Grand National Steeplechase Races on Saturday afternoon.

The 22-year old jockey showed a large crowd on a warm and sunny day in Butler that she is someone to be reckoned with after coaxing Serene Harbor to a win in the $30,000 113th Grand National Steeplechase before doubling her fun on Sovereign Fund in the $20,000 50th Benjamin H. Murray Memorial Steeplechase that followed.

Justin Batoff guided Major Malibu to a close win over Sumo Power in the $10,000 11th Western Run Plate II on the 3-mile, 17-jump course.

Although Serene Harbor might have been a surprise to some bettors and fans, considering Snow Blizzard was considered to be the odds-on pre-race favorite, owners Tim and Nina Gardner were not caught off guard by the 12-year-old's victory.

"He's always been a black-type runner on flats," said Tim Gardner, using a term to describe a previous stakes winner on a flat track. "He's new to jumping, but he won a race at the Genesee Valley Hunt in New York, so we thought he was getting better. Besides, we have a lot of confidence in our jockey and trainer [Todd McKenna]. Annie ran a beautiful race."

Yeager, who rode while a boarding student at Foxcroft School in Middleburg, Va., said she witnessed her first steeplechase race in 2011 at the Virginia Gold Cup.

Seeing a race is one thing, but winning back-to-back races is something else again.

"I was riding to win the first race," she said. "I followed Mark Beecher on Raven's Nest. Mark's such a great rider, and I was looking to see what path he took to the fences and followed him."

Beecher and Raven's Choice finished third after hard-charging Senior Senator's late bid earned runner-up status for Eric Poretz, who exacted mild revenge for being caught by Beecher on Grinding Speed at last week's My Lady's Manor in Monkton.

Yeager said she wasn't thinking about winning the Murray Memorial until Imperial Way dumped Bethany Baumgardner, obstructing some riders. The accident allowed Yeager to quickly pass several competitors and open an alley through which she could advance.

"He's such a cool horse," she said. "He used to have only one pace, but he's really found his speed."

Moreover, Yeager said she felt she could handle reigning Maryland Hunt Cup champ Guts for Garters, which finished second with Jody Petty aboard. Martin Rohan on Class Brahms was third.

With the sun lowering during the final race, Batoff, 30, said he was blinded by its glare as Major Malibu attempted to negotiate the final fence.

"Fortunately, I had walked the course a couple of times, so I had a pretty good feel for where to go," the Gilman, Johns Hopkins University and University of Baltimore Law School graduate said after winning the race for his younger brother, 28-year-old Jeremy, Major Malibu's owner.

The brothers, who are attorneys in the family firm, Batoff Associates, said they were none the worse for wear after hosting 300 friends for a fundraiser Friday night

"We started to close it down at about 10:30," Justin said with a grin.

"Everybody was out by 11," his younger brother quipped.

Racegoers had no such restrictions Saturday, as many sported coat and tie, despite temperatures reaching the upper 70s.

Bob Hieronimus was the clear winner in having the most eye-catching clothes, beginning with an orange-and-black striped blazer, complemented by a yellow vest, black tie adorned with purple horseshoes, orange window-pane button-down shirt, straw boater hat, and blue pants and shoes.

The Owings Mills author and radio personality drove to the races in a 1976 Rolls Royce, one of several classic cars dotting the parking areas.

In all of the fun and milling about, Donald Howard may have had the best job.

He perched on the side of the winners stage during the races, iced tea in hand.

"I'm guarding the trophies," he said.

As the day wore on, fans who were not afforded cover under any of the many tents in the parking areas, were seeking shade anywhere they could find it.

Not so, for Ned Murray, who has never missed the race honoring the memory of his brother, Benjamin, who died from a brain tumor in 1964.

Even at 93, the artillery officer who fought in the Battle of the Bulge moved near the winners stand to take in the race while using the aid of a walker.

"I don't think I've missed one," he said.

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