Ben Nevis II, one of only two American-owned and ridden horses to win the English Grand National steeplechase, has died at the age of 27 at trainer Charlie Fenwick Jr.'s farm in Baltimore County.
The horse, who rose from obscurity in England to become an American sporting legend, came down with a severe bout of colic on Sunday. When efforts to save him failed, he was humanely destroyed.
In 1980, the high-strung chestnut gelding, who was owned by the late Redmond Stewart Jr. and ridden by Fenwick, grabbed the international equine spotlight when he raced to a 20-length victory in the grueling 4 1/2 -mile English steeplechase over 30 hazardous fences at the Aintree Race Course in Liverpool.
The previous year, the horse had fallen during the race at a notorious fence called "The Chair."
Stewart had purchased Ben Nevis II in 1974 while on a bird-shooting expedition in England.
At that point, Ben Nevis II had shown jumping ability, but because of his fiery temperament, had raced unsuccessfully in three British starts before he was imported to Maryland.
"There was no question that he was a difficult horse to ride," Fenwick said. "Every time you got on him, he tested you. At that stage in my career, I was good enough to handle him. But I didn't try to change his ways and control him. I remember riding him in January and February to get him ready for the spring races. He pulled and my fingers froze. I'd think: 'This had better be worthwhile.' "
Ben Nevis II proved adept at handling American-style timber fences, winning 12 straight races and turning in record-setting performances in the Maryland Hunt Cup and the so-called "Little" Grand National Steeplechase at Butler. His records at both courses still stand.
When there were no more worlds to conquer in the U.S., Stewart returned Ben Nevis II to England for a crack at the Aintree race.
Only one other American-owned and ridden horse, Mary Stephenson's Jay Trump, piloted by Crompton "Tommy" Smith Jr. in 1965, had won England's most-renowned steeplechase.
Immediately after the 1980 victory, Ben Nevis II was retired and he and Fenwick, hailed as national heroes in equine sport, made a year-long celebration tour of several major American racing centers.
Fenwick said Ben Nevis II was "always very, very healthy and never had a bout of colic until last Sunday.
"But when he was stricken, he was in a lot of pain. He was not a good patient. And it got to a point where there was nothing else we could do, but to put him down."
Ben Nevis II has been buried on the landing side of the 13th jump of the Grand National Steeplechase course at Butler. "It's on the far western side of the course and in great view of six fences," Fenwick said.