Little more than a week before the start of Maryland's spring steeplechase season, the sport has lost one of its star performers.
On Thursday, Revelstoke, the horse that had an excellent chance of becoming the first back-to-back Maryland Hunt Cup winner since Cancottage's consecutive 1980-1981 victories, suddenly came down with a severe bout of colic at trainer Jack Fisher's barn in Butler and required an emergency operation. Two feet of the horse's intestine were removed, and the son of Smarten remains in intensive care at the Manor Equine Hospital Center in Monkton. While Fisher thinks the 10-year-old gelding has a good shot at surviving, the horse's racing career is finished for this spring.
"We had come in from galloping and he had been in his stall for about a half-hour when he went down," Fisher said. "We treated him, and when that didn't help, we sent him to the vet clinic. Finally, they operated on him Thursday night. He made it through the first 24 hours, which is the most serious part of the recovery period, so we are hoping for the best."
Last year Revelstoke, with Fisher aboard, recorded the second-fastest time in the 100-year history of the Maryland Hunt Cup when he completed the four-mile course over 22 jumps in 8 minutes, 37 2/5 seconds.
The time was 3 4/5 seconds off the record set in 1978 by Ben Nevis II.
Fisher, whose three horses finished first, third and fourth in the Maryland Hunt Cup last year, is again loaded with jumping prospects. Even without Revelstoke, he has two other Hunt Cup probable starters -- Sea Speed, who finished third last year, and Sortov, a New Zealand-bred jumper, who will be ridden in the race by his owner, Irvin Naylor of York, Pa.
Also among Fisher's 30-jumper arsenal: 1994 Timber Horse of the Year Saluter; 1994 Maryland-bred Jumper of the Year South of Java; and multiple winner Tarsky.
Saluter will try for his second consecutive win in the Virginia Gold Cup, and South of Java is also Gold Cup-bound. Tarsky is being pointed for the Grand National Steeplechase at Butler.
'Chase season starts Saturday
Many of Fisher's horses, including Sea Speed and South of Java, will start prepping for the bigger races in the season opener, the Howard County Cup on Saturday at Glenelg.
Last year, Revelstoke won the 3-mile timber race en route to his Maryland Hunt Cup victory.
While Fisher led all Maryland trainers last year with 31 wins and $443,473 in earnings -- ranking second in the national standings to Jonathan Sheppard -- one of Maryland's least-publicized aspects of its horse industry is the depth of jumping talent located at about a dozen Baltimore and Harford county training outfits.
Many of these horsemen will have starters at Howard County on Saturday.
While flat-horse and harness racing populations are decreasing, it's estimated that the number of steeplechase horses in the state has tripled in recent years, and among them are some of the finest jumping horses in America.
Tom Voss has about 35 jumpers in training at his Atlanta Hall Farm in Monkton, including 1994 Maryland Hunt Cup runner-up Florida Law, who is probably now this year's race favorite.
Charlie Fenwick Jr. has 20 jumpers, including Hunt Cup prospects Buck Jakes and Gus's Boy. Joe Gillet has 11 jumpers at "Little Ho" in Monkton. His Hunt Cup hope is Welterweight, owned by Perry Bolton and Ben Griswold IV.
And then scattered around with still more horses are Hall of Famer Mike Smithwick; Alicia Murphy, who campaigns stakes winner Circuit Bar; Ann Fenwick, who is bringing back 1993 Maryland Hunt Cup winner Ivory Poacher for another try this year; Billy Meister, whose Hunt Cup hope is Hello Hal; Doug Worrall; Billy Santoro; Vivian Rall; newcomer Tommy McGivern, a former Irish national champion jockey; Bruce Fenwick; and Nancy Knox, who is preparing Reputed Dancer for another Hunt Cup effort. Last year, the horse was making a bold move after the 20th fence, when he slipped and fell on the tanbark crossing Tufton Avenue.
Why the surge in interest in steeplechasing? Gillet thinks there are a number of reasons:
"First, purses have increased considerably. Secondly, a whole new generation of trainers has come along who are devoted to the sport; and thirdly, its easier now to prepare jumpers. It used to be the emphasis was on jumping the bigger fences. Now most opportunities are for horses jumping lower fences, and it doesn't take nearly as long to 'make' a horse. In a nutshell, I guess you'd say speed and cash have transformed the game, although it's still rich in tradition."
Regional betting network
While an experimental interactive television betting program is dead in Maryland for this year, steps are being taken by four states -- New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware and Maryland -- to start a regional effort to promote an interactive phone betting network.
Representatives of tracks in those four states have been meeting to examine different cable television systems and to obtain proposals from various companies that would link tracks in the four-state area to one network.
Instead of regional wars, the new buzzword among track operators is regional cooperation.
It is the next step after signing off on reciprocal simulcast agreements and developing multi-card simulcast strategies.
However, one fear is that the larger tracks in California, New York and Kentucky could form their own consortium to try to knock out regional networks with a national interactive television betting program of their own.
Technology is available to start a regional interactive phone betting system, but getting permission from state legislators is an obstacle that could block local participation.
York OTB opens tomorrow
Penn National's newest off-track betting outlet, a $2.5 million facility in the Manchester Roads Shopping Plaza in York, Pa., will open at 11:30 a.m. tomorrow.
It is the second Penn National OTB located in close proximity to the Maryland border. The other is in the western part of the state in Chambersburg, a few miles over the Maryland line.
In response to the Penn National outlets, the Maryland tracks are negotiating to open OTB facilities in Hagerstown and at the Timonium Fairgrounds.
It is estimated that between 20 to 30 percent of the business at Penn's Chambersburg outlet comes from Marylanders. A Timonium outlet would serve suburban Baltimore County as well as northern parts of Baltimore and Harford counties, areas that will likely provide customers for the York facility.
A move is under way to place the name of Maryland steeplechase great Ben Nevis II on the ballot for racing's Hall of Fame. . . . Owner/fan Mark Lapidus has come up with an interesting idea: Why not stage a match race between the local fillies Norstep and Oh Summer, who have developed a heated rivalry? It would certainly add some spice to Laurel's live program. . . . Maryland thoroughbred tracks lost only one live card to bad weather during the winter of '95, something of a record in recent memory. . . . Aug. 1 is the target date for the debut of slot machines at Delaware Park. Live racing starts there April 15.
1995 STEEPLECHASE SCHEDULE
Date ... ... ... Post time ... ... Race ... ... ... ... ... Location
Saturday ... ... 1 p.m ... ... ... Howard County Cup .. ... Glenelg
Sun., 4/2 .. ... Noon .. .. .. ... Marlborough Hunt Races .. Davidsonville
Sat., 4/8 .. ... 1:30 p.m .. .. .. Elkridge-Harford Hunt Races ... Monkton
Sat., 4/15 .. .. 3:30 p.m .. .. .. My Lady's Manor Race ... Monkton
Sat., 4/22 .. .. 3:15 p.m .. .. .. Grand National ... ... ... Butler
Sat., 4/29 .. .. 4 p.m ... ... ... Maryland Hunt Cup ... ... ... Glyndon
Sat., 5/13 .. .. 12:30 p.m ... ... Potomac Hunt Races .. ... ... Seneca
Mon., 5/29 .. .. 1 p.m ... ... ... Fair Hill Spring Races .. ... Fair Hill