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Sports Preakness

Aboard Twill Do, James Stierhoff seeks third Maryland Hunt Cup win

To co-workers, he's known as The Racing Guy. His neckties have little horses on them, and James Stierhoff has a different one for each day of the week. The walls of his office cubicle at the investment firm Brown Advisory are peppered with news clippings of recent Maryland Hunt Cup races.

Stierhoff has won it twice. Saturday, on the lush, rolling hills in Glyndon, he'll try to win a third Hunt Cup aboard the same horse — a feat last achieved in 1967, and only seven times in the 116-year history of the brutal four-mile steeplechase race. Post time is 4 p.m.

The stakes are not lost on Stierhoff, 26, who'll ride Twill Do, a dark bay gelding who, though half his jockey's age, has just as much mettle. Last year, they won the Hunt Cup by a scant half-length; in 2010, they came from far back to win by four lengths.

Should Twill Do win Saturday, he'd be the first horse to triple, with the same rider, since Mountain Dew did it in 1962, 1965 and 1967 with Janon Fisher III aboard. No horse has ever won four Hunt Cups.

"I know what's on the line, and I think about it, plenty," Stierhoff said. "I'm incredibly humbled. To be able to frame [a third victory] in my mind is an honor, and I'd like nothing more than to make it happen."

Those who know them say there's a kinship between Twill Do and Stierhoff, whose only two sanctioned victories have come in the country's most prestigious timber race.

"They trust each other, give each other confidence and enjoy each other's company," said Lucy Goelet, of Sparks, the horse's owner.

Billy Meister, Twill Do's trainer, called Stierhoff and his mount "two peas in a pod" and cited their savvy for averting a near calamity in last year's race. At the 13th of 22 fences, another horse, Private Attack, fell. Twill Do was close behind.

"As we popped the fence, Private Attack was right in front of us," Stierhoff said. "At that moment, I swear I could feel Twill Do thinking. He slowed himself down, and we steered around the downed horse. Twill Do tiptoed on by before picking up his gallop."

Afterward, watching video of the race, Meister likened the move to that of "a 1,200-pound ballerina."

Once past the accident, Stierhoff said: "I dropped the reins, patted Twill Do on the neck and said, 'Thank you — you're so smart.'

"He really saved me on that one."

Steirhoff is just as sharp. An honor student at Towson High, he graduated from Towson University in 2009 as the top economics major in his class. Through college, he worked on a horse farm, galloping thoroughbreds for five hours each morning for trainer Jay Griswold.

"James was very focused, wise beyond his years, with a wonderful work ethic," said Griswold, of Worthington Valley. "He was there every morning, in sleet and snow. And he didn't even come from a family with a horse background."

As a kid, Stierhoff played lacrosse. Sometimes, after games, his family took him to Windy Valley General Store, with its ice cream stand and pony corral, at Falls and Joppa roads. For Stierhoff, the pony ride was his dessert.

By 10, he was smitten.

"I want to be a cowboy," he proclaimed. His folks didn't flinch. Riding lessons followed. For two summers, he worked for trainer Bruce Fenwick, working horses and mucking stalls at Fenwick's farm in Glyndon. In 2006, Stierhoff rode his first race, a Howard County point-to-point, and finished third aboard a horse named Little Dewey Know.

"I didn't know anything, either," he said. "It was Dewey's first start over timbers, too. We sort of figured it out together."

Two years later, Stierhoff won his first unsanctioned race. Then, in 2010, came his break. Six days before the Hunt Cup, Meister called and offered him a mount.

"It was totally a last-minute thing," Stierhoff said. "Billy was to ride Twill Do himself, but he'd broken his pelvis in a race the week before. He said, 'Will you ride him?' "

Stierhoff thought a moment. He'd never even sat on Twill Do. Moreover, he was bedridden with a 103-degree fever.

"Sure, I'll ride him," he said.

Still weak from the flu, Stierhoff won the race, catching Private Attack down the stretch.

"When I came across the wire, my whole body went limp. I was exhausted," he said. "Twill Do and I just connected, but … to win the Holy Grail of racing? I was totally floored and in awe of the whole thing.

"That night, I went to the Hunt Ball, drank a ginger ale and then went home to bed. Never fell asleep. I replayed that race in my head, for six hours, then got up. It was cool."

Following tradition, a third victory on Saturday would retire the Challenge Bowl to Twill Do's owner.

"I think about the Hunt Cup, during the week, while riding the Equicizer [a mechanical horse] at a friend's house after work," Stierhoff said. "It's motivation for my workout. I replay the last mile of the race on that thing.

"I win it every time on the Equicizer."

So far, aboard Twill do, he has done the same.

mike.klingaman@baltsun.com

Stierhoff at a glance

Age: 26

Height: 6 feet 1

Weight: 150 pounds

Hometown: Towson

High school: Towson

College: Towson

Degree: Economics

Occupation: Compliance officer for Brown Advisory

Triple the success

In the 116-year history of the Maryland Hunt Cup, seven horse-and-rider combinations have won it three times:

Horse Rider Years

Garry Owen Jervis Spencer, Jr. 1901-02-07

Princeton Sydney Watters 1903-05-06

Blockade J.F. Colwill 1938-39-40

Winton Stuart S. Janney, Jr. 1942-46-47

Pine Pep Michael Smithwick 1949-50-52

Mountain Dew Janon Fisher III 1962-65-67

Jay Trump Tommy Smith 1963-64-66

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