Billy Meister sends out a pair of long shots tomorrow in the 99th Maryland Hunt Cup.
But the rider/trainer knows from experience that no matter how formidable the competition, "the Hunt Cup is a race where anything can happen."
In seven previous trips, Meister has run the gamut of "Ripley's Believe It Or Not" experiences. He has ridden excellent jumpers that have had rough trips and inexperienced horses who have risen to the occasion.
Meister, 31, has won twice. The first victory came aboard the highly regarded Freeman's Hill in 1988. Meister's saddle slipped at the ninth fence, then, unbeknown to the rider, the horse suffered a hairline fracture in his stifle (hip) at the 13th fence. Nevertheless, the pair completed the race and won.
In 1990, the "great leaper," Von Csadek, was so far in front that Meister had no thought of catching him. "He was about 65 lengths in the lead, but then, inexplicably, his rider [Patrick Worrall] came off at the water jump [21st of 22 fences]."
Meister, who had been far behind in second, galloped home in front with the Griswold family's long shot, The Hard Word.
Another year, Meister fell at the first fence but remounted and finished second. On that same trip, aboard a mended Freeman's Hill in 1989, he also slid into the water jump and nearly fell.
And he has also had his share of falls at the notoriously high third fence, where he has hit the ground twice, first while riding Onamystic in 1987 and then in 1991 on Night Train Lane.
So, Meister knows what it takes -- for horses, as well as riders. He knows they need to have not only the stamina to endure the four-mile race, but also must like to run and jump big fences.
Even though the pace is expected to be sufficiently fast tomorrow -- because of the hard ground -- that Ben Nevis II's course record could be in jeopardy, Meister is confident his long shots will perform well.
His best trip came last year aboard Hello Hal, who finished fifth.
Hello Hal, owned by Jack Griswold, will try again tomorrow. He will be the smallest horse in the race, standing 15.2 hands. "But the bigger the fences, the better he jumps," said Meister, who trains, as well as rides, the little bay. "He's got a big heart and he'll run all day."
Just a few weeks ago, Hello Hal's Hunt Cup prospects looked dim. He fell with Griswold over a cross-country fence. His owner broke three vertebrae and "Hal" severely cut the front of his left foreleg. "But it healed and we gave him a good test run last week in the Grand National, where he was fourth," Meister said.
The other Meister-trained entry, Red And Gray, will be not only a first-time starter over the huge post-and rail fences, but he will be ridden by the youngest Hunt Cup jockey, Jonathan Kiser, 16, a high school sophomore.
Red And Gray only appeared in Meister's barn a couple of months ago after Baltimore contractor Doug Croker purchased the inexperienced racer in Virginia.
"But the horse is an exceptional fox hunter and he has jumped well in his preps," Meister said, referring to the tall, white horse's recent second- and third-place finishes over the Grand National and Manor courses.
"He jumped awesome when Jonathan schooled him [Wednesday]," Meister said. "My brother, Jay, would have ridden him, but he is committed to Extra Edition. So I got Jonathan. He's young, but I like the way
he rides and he already has a ton of mileage under him. He's also got good hands and that's what this horse needs."
MARYLAND HUNT CUP
What: 99th running of the Maryland Hunt Cup steeplechase at four miles over 22 timber fences. The race is considered the most difficult over fences in the United States.
When: Tomorrow, 4 p.m.
2Where: Worthington Farms, Tufton Avenue, Glyndon.
Field: Ten horses are scheduled to run and will be ridden by amateur steeplechase jockeys. The favorite is Ivory Poacher, who won in 1993, but others with excellent credentials are Florida Law, runner-up last year; Buck Jakes, the second-leading U.S. timber horse in 1994; and Welter Weight, winner of the Benjamin H. Murray Memorial last week at the Grand National Point to Point.
Admission: Tickets at $30 per car must be purchased by today. Call (410) 666-7777. Tickets will not be available at the course.