It’s a tale — or tail — worth telling. Nearly half a century ago, competing in the Grand National timber stakes, a rider named John Fisher lost the race to his own horse.
“That doesn’t often happen,” said Fisher, 82. But it did, on April 19, 1969, on the 3-mile steeplechase course in Butler. There, a horse named Landing Party, owned by Fisher, defeated another named Island Stream, ridden by the same man.
Confused? Let Fisher explain.
“I’d trained both horses, having bought Island Stream for a friend (George Weymouth). I admired Mr. Weymouth and wanted him to win the race, so I rode Island Stream and put someone else on Landing Party,” Fisher said. “Island Stream had more speed, but Landing Party was more rugged and a better timber horse.”
Approaching the penultimate (17th) fence, Island Stream, the leader, began to sputter, with Landing Party at his heels. Fisher knew his mount was through — and what he had to do.
“I turned and said to Paddy Neilson [aboard Landing Party], ‘Go on, win the race.’ That quick, he was gone; that horse took off like a rocket,” Fisher said.
It was an unusual end to the Grand National, which will be run Saturday for the 116th time over the rolling hills of Worthington Valley. But that race 49 years ago thrust Fisher, a Gilman grad from a steeplechase family, to the forefront of the sport, and made a star of Landing Party, a homely nag he’d bought on the cheap for $800.
A veterinarian by trade, Fisher purchased the unraced 4-year-old at the Keeneland (Ky.) winter sale.
“I desperately wanted [a thoroughbred], and along comes this plain-looking brown horse who’d showed no talent and had no record,” he said. “You’d look at him and yawn. But it was meant to be.”
Fisher brought Landing Party home and introduced him to the countryside. For nearly three years, they galloped over hill and dale, hunting foxes and spooking deer.
“We’d jump 20 fences every other day,” he said. “He did anything you wanted him to do — and, more importantly, he had the talent to do it.”
In 1969, a week after the Grand National, Fisher saddled up and rode Landing Party to an easy victory in the Maryland Hunt Cup before a crowd of 13,000. A year later, the pair won the My Lady’s Manor and the Grand National — the first two races of Maryland’s timber triple — before scratching from the Hunt Cup with sore leg tendons.
In 1971, Fisher rode Landing Party to his third straight Grand National win and second Hunt Cup victory, the latter in record time. The 9-year-old gelding thundered over the 4-mile, 22-fence course in 8 minutes, 42 seconds, breaking the mark set in 1963 by the great Jay Trump by one-fifth of a second.
Even now, recalling Landing Party’s soaring flight over the 17th fence in that race gives Fisher goosebumps.
“That horse left the ground farther away from any fence that I ever jumped in my life,” he said. “I was totally unprepared. We were in the air so long, I didn’t know which side of the fence we’d come down on — but he had a lot left in the tank.”
Soon after, Fisher sold Landing Party for $50,000, a record price for a timber horse.
“Big mistake,” he said by phone from his 200-acre farm in Gum Tree, Pa. “But that [monetary] figure was such an awesome number, and I was married with three young children, and not sure where my life would lead.”
The new owner shipped Landing Party to Great Britain for the English Grand National, a prestigious race that Jay Trump had won. Afterward, by agreement, Fisher was to get the horse back. But in a forerunner to that race, Landing Party fell, suffered a brain herniation and had to be destroyed.
“I’ve thought about him many times, and I still feel bad about it,” Fisher said. “I could have done better by him; I lost the greatest horse I ever trained.”
For 47 years, he owned and trained thoroughbreds, including flat-track racers. The principal founder of Fair Hill Training Center, in Elkton, Fisher retired in 2011 to his farm in southern Pennsylvania, where he lives with his wife, Dolly, several Jack Russell terriers and a stable of retired horses.
“I couldn’t live without being around horses,” he said. “That’s the wholesome side of life.”