When her mount streaked across the finish line to capture the Maryland Hunt Cup, Joy Slater described it thus: "It's like getting to heaven."
It has been 38 years since Slater broke the grass ceiling, becoming the first woman to win the 4-mile Hunt Cup, the world's toughest timber race. The 122nd Hunt Cup, with its 22 daunting fences, will be run Saturday in Glyndon. One woman is entered.
Since Slater's victory in 1980 (she prevailed again a year later), five other women have won the race.
"Long ago, I was a pioneer," the 64-year-old Slater said from her home in Unionville, Pa. And after she finished first, aboard an Irish gelding named Cancottage, Slater was photographed triumphantly, arm in arm with her mother, the horse's trainer, and grandmother, the owner. It was, in all respects, a female trifecta.
Did that rankle some narrow-minded horsemen of the day?
"I have faith that it did, absolutely," Slater said.
The steeplechase world took note. The media called her "America's National Velvet," after the film in which a girl (Elizabeth Taylor) wins the English Grand National.
By all accounts, Slater took acclaim in stride. Going into the race, she said, "I wasn't worried that no woman had ever won, and I didn't feel all eyes were on me. I just wanted to do the job."
Trained in show jumping — the equestrian sport filled with leaps and bounds — Slater coaxed Cancottage to clear the Hunt Cup fences, some nearly 5 feet high, with ease.
"A lot of people in that race had never jumped that high," she said. Even now, she continues to compete in show jumping events.
"I'll do it until I fall off once too often," she said. "I refuse to grow up."
The Hunt Cup first allowed women to ride in 1971, when Kathy Kusner, the country's first licensed female jockey, saddled up. She finished sixth. Race officials then barred women again until 1979. One year later, Slater won the 84th running of the event.
While Saturday's race features just one woman jockey (Bethany Baumgardner, on Imperial Way), 16 others have ridden in the past four years. But few who've challenged the Hunt Cup have been as mature as Anne Moran, who was a 36-year-old mother of three when she won by a head in 1995 aboard Buck Jakes. A fluke, it was not. The Irish-born Moran and the big grey gelding set a course record that day (8 minutes, 30 3/5 seconds) and then repeated as champs two years later.
"At the time, I had three children on the ground, was singing in the church choir and not looking to do any more riding," Moran, 59, a lifelong horsewoman, said from her home in Unionville, Pa. "But when the horse's trainer, Charlie Fenwick, asked me, I was thrilled. You wait your whole life to ride one like Buck Jakes, so you don't get to choose when the chance comes."
They bonded from the start.
"He was a beautiful and gentle giant," Moran said. "I fed him jelly beans and said, 'I'm happy to do whatever you like, Jake.' He liked to feel in control."
No matter that, in the Hunt Cup, she competed against men, much less some half her age.
"As far as I was concerned, it was an equal playing field," she said.
In hindsight, Moran felt she and her mount were in a zone that day.
"For me, that race was, like, in slow motion, just as in tennis when the ball seems to get bigger and is easier to see," she said. "And never, before or after, have I ever felt the power Buck Jakes had in going over fences. He would take off two strides before a fence and land two strides past it."
That Moran's mother surprised her by flying from Ireland for the race made her first Hunt Cup win sweeter. Moreover, victory came on the five-year anniversary of the death of Moran's father, an avid horseman.
"I remember looking up and saying, 'Thanks for helping,' " she said.
Nowadays, Moran and her husband, Michael, a retired horse trainer, care for their 230-acre farm, the site of the Pennsylvania Hunt Cup. She rides their four fox-hunters and is sometimes remembered for those classic timber wins.
"People say, 'I remember you riding Buck Jakes,' " she said, "but never, 'I remember you for being the woman who rode Buck Jakes.' "
Does Moran mind playing second fiddle to a horse?
"Not a bit," she said. "I'm just proud we won the Hunt Cup. My time was running out; I thought, 'It's not going to happen.' He made it so."