Jody Petty said he could not bear to look as he rode Guts For Garters across the finish line in the 118th Maryland Hunt Cup on Saturday afternoon in sunny Glyndon.
The Elkton resident said he knew the outcome would be too close to call, considering Imperial Way, guided by Bethany Baumgardner, was practically matching Guts For Garters stride for stride as they thundered down the stretch in the $75,000 steeplechase race.
"I closed my eyes and didn't look up until I was well past the finish line," Petty said.
Even though Guts For Garters was declared the unofficial winner moments after the horse completed the 4-mile, 22-jump test in 9 minutes, 20 seconds, it took 16 more minutes of close scrutiny of photos by the placement judges to make it official.
The win for owner Stewart Strawbridge meant that for the second week in a row at a major steeplechase event, a Merriefield Farm horse would lose in a photo finish. Spencer Road edged Merriefield Farms' Foyle last weekend in the Grand National.
Foyle, listed as an even favorite before the race, had some bad luck again when he fell at the 4-foot, 10-inch 16th fence with British jockey Sam Waley-Cohen riding.
Although Gerry L. Brewster, part owner of Spencer Road, was still feeling good about the Grand National win, both of his Hunt Cup jockeys were thrown during the race — McLane Hendricks from Catch the Echo and Adair Bonsal Stifel from Brands Hatch.
"That's racing," said Brewster, who grew up on the south side of the Tufton Avenue course. "One week you win the Grand National and the next week both your riders are thrown."
The game plan devised by Petty and Strawbridge was to take each jump in a methodical fashion and not worry about what Guts For Garters' placement was in the 15-horse field behind earlier pace setters Mach Ten and Fort Henry.
"I was behind by 15 lengths at one point," Petty said. "But it's a 4-mile race, and we had a long way to go. In a race like that, anything can and will happen."
As Guts For Garters started to move up, and other horses either fell or lost their mounts, Petty's confidence grew.
"I knew at the 16th [fence] that I had a chance," he said. "I was pretty confident. I gave him a little squeeze, and he went."
At the 21st jump, Petty said he was glad to have other horses still in contention.
"I didn't want to go over that fence alone," he said, describing a shorter board fence near a brook that might have made Guts For Garter tentative. "It's trap for horses to suddenly see a shorter fence, so they gain confidence from each other."
Strawbride, who lives in Portland, Me., won the 2007 Hunt Cup aboard The Bruce. He said that Petty's steady approach was exactly what was needed on a course that was described as soft after Friday's soaking rains.
"That's how I won in 2007," he said. "It's survival."
Bon Caddo was third and Twill Do, going for his third Hunt Cup, was fourth. No other horse finished.
The crowd, which covered a hillside overlooking the course, groaned in unison when the first horse fell at the third fence.
However, regular attenders of the annual race are used to such occurrences.
They have also become more accustomed to female jockeys, including Baumgardner, Annie Yeager, Suzaanne Stettinius, Alice Mill and Diane Gillam.
"More power to them," said Mount Washington native H.B. Marcoplas, who figures he's attended 70 Hunt Cups since his student days at John Hopkins.
Harvey Goolsby, 72, who moved to Maryland from South Carolina and now lives in Howard County, has "only" been on hand for 44 straight Hunt Cups, slightly fewer than Greenspring Valley resident Henry "Hank" Wright, 67, who came to his first Hunt Cup as a student at Calvert Hall.
Wright and his friends had an elaborate display of food and beverages set up in front of his mint 1946 Pontiac "woody" station wagon, which was used to deliver spirits for his family-owned distillery.
Maryland Hunt Cup- 1.) Guts For Garters (Petty) 2.) Imperial Way (Baumgardner) 3.) Bon Caddo (Slater) 4.) Twill Do (Stierhoffl)-9:20