At age 48, Billy Meister has covered the entire course of the Maryland steeplechase scene, starting even before he was born.
"My mother had two falls [while riding] with me when she was pregnant." he said, chuckling at the thought.
Meister competed in a pony race at age 7 and began taking timber fences at 12. Seven years later, he launched a training career, and five years after that went on his own as a conditioner of jumpers. He has trained for virtually the entire gamut of owners who run in the state and is known as a highly capable, sometimes fearless, jockey.
When the 110th annual Grand National is staged Saturday on Butler Road, Meister's entries will outnumber everyone else on the program (eight, although three are cross-entered in separate races). He is also named to ride And The Eagle Flys and Yin Yang in both the feature and the co-featured Benjamin H. Murray Memorial.
So, no one is more qualified to assess the Grand National's ability to prepare a horse for next week's prestigious Maryland Hunt Cup than Meister, who considers this second race in the state's timber classic series as a better prep than last week's My Lady's Manor, which was won by Incomplete.
"One of the main reasons to run in the Grand National is to set up a horse for the Hunt Cup," he said. "It's longer than the Manor [at 3 1/4 miles]. And the fences are as big as the Hunt Cup's with a few exceptions. A lot of people go to the Manor just because you have two weeks in between [before the Hunt Cup], but usually horses that do well at the Grand National do well at the Hunt Cup."
Now known publicly by the more dignified William, Meister has captured the Grand National and My Lady's Manor twice each during his lengthy career in the saddle. He has also won the Hunt Cup three times as a rider and once as a trainer (with Twill Do two years ago). Twill Do is another in this year's Grand National field.
As for his riding reputation, Meister said, "If you have fear you might as well not be doing it. I've been lucky to have gotten a lot of good mileage over the years and to work for a lot of the best people. You need to be smart about what you're doing out there and know your horses. I feel comfortable out there."
The journey hasn't been without some injuries. Meister has suffered broken vertebrae, broken ribs and separated shoulders in falls, but he has always gotten right back behind the reins.
"I don't ride in the fall any more, so maybe that's part of my longevity," he said. "When I don't think I should be doing this any more, I'll quit."
Eight horses are entered in the 110th Grand National with Private Attack, the defending champion of both this race and the Hunt Cup, the prohibitive favorite. Owned by Sportsmans Hall and trained by Alicia Murphy, Private Attack is now 13 and making his first sanctioned start of the season under Mark Beecher after finishing second in the National Steeplechase Association timber championship last season.
Meister will put James Stierhoff aboard Twill Do, who won the Hunt Cup in 2010 and is scheduled to ride And The Eagle Flys, who was second in the 2011 Hunt Cup. Also figuring to contend is Haddix, who took the Legacy Chase at Shawan Downs last fall.
What: Grand National Steeplechase
When: Saturday, first post 3:15 p.m
Where: Butler Road, Glyndon
Directions from Baltimore: Take Falls Road off Beltway about 8 miles and go left on Butler Road. Course is on the left.