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Temperamental Senior Senator to defend his title at Hunt Cup

Joe Davies drove his horse to Starbucks the other day. Not for coffee, but to calm him.

"He gets nervous going to races, and we wanted him to know the trailer is not a scary place," Davies said of his thoroughbred, Senior Senator. So the trainer hustled him several miles down the road from his Monkton farm and back, to try and ease his fears.

You do stuff like that when your horse is favored to win his second straight $100,000 Maryland Hunt Cup in Glyndon on Saturday. The grueling race, four miles over hill, dale and 22 daunting fences, tests the mettle of steeplechasers in a last-horse-standing grind.

Last year, at age 6, Senior Senator won the 120th Hunt Cup by one-half length, the youngest champion since Hall of Famer Jay Trump in 1963. Like that horse, Senior Senator was a hack at the track, until purchased by Davies and turned out for timber racing.

Now the bay gelding is a star. Last weekend, he won the $30,000 Grand National in Butler, then lit up a segment of CBS-TV's "60 Minutes," where he preened before the cameras and tried to touch them with his nose.

"With 12 1/2 million viewers, he's now the most popular Senator ever featured on '60 Minutes,'" Davies said. And oh, so demanding. Senior Senator has his favorite stalls and fields on the trainer's 167-acre farm, and keeps his handlers busy.

"He likes the hills at the top of the farm, and he'll only go in and out of certain gates. Do it backwards and he'll send his rider into orbit," Davies said. Bedding down, Senior Senator will balk at stalls in which he doesn't like the view, or even a hint of a draft.

"He used to stay out some nights until several months ago when he jumped a 3-foot fence, visited the neighbors' horses, then jumped back in and was here for breakfast," exercise rider Ashton Williams said.

Davies called Senior Senator "whimsical, temperamental and quite opinionated. He's a complicated horse, a special-needs horse, but he's so talented that we just try to listen to what he tells us. It's like having Frank Sinatra stay in your hotel: You want to keep him happy because he has a big show to do, and you don't want to put him in a bad mood because he might leave and cancel the concert."

It wasn't always so. A bust on flat tracks like Penn National and Timonium, Senior Senator made a name as a bucking nut case, fighting his jockeys and once throwing his rider during the post parade.

"He was a crazy coot," said Davies, who, nonetheless, bowed to the wishes of his wife, Blythe, and bought the horse for $7,500 in 2013. In his first race over hurdles, at Fair Hill in Cecil County, Senior Senator lost his rider, passed the field, jumped a fence and galloped through the crowd before returning to the barn.

"My mother-in-law said, 'Why don't you get rid of this worthless horse?'" said Davies, whose late stepfather, John Schapiro, owned Laurel Race Course.

Davies sold Senior Senator to a friend, Irvin "Skip" Crawford II of Boyds, but continued to work him, convinced the horse would find his niche. Timber racing, it would be.

"He squeals with delight when he jumps a big fence," Davies said.

To date, he has run seven times over fences: three wins, three second-place finishes and a disqualification in last year's Grand National, a race Senior Senator won but was dropped to last for interference.

The horse's biggest fan is his jockey, Eric Poretz, his rider since he took to timber.

"He's the best jumper I've seen in my life," said Poretz, of Lothian in Anne Arundel County. "He still does shenanigans — before his second timber race, he thrashed his head and knocked his groom unconscious — but he's so amazing out there. He has just sprouted into a beautiful, if thorny, rose bush."

And one worth putting up with.

"He's worth less than $5,000 on the flat, but he's priceless over jumps," said Davies, a three-time Hunt Cup winner. "He's not that fast, but he can sustain a 30 miles-an-hour pace over four miles like nothing. He loves showing off this stuff, as all animals like to do, whether a horse jumping over fences or a soaring eagle dive-bombing a pond.

"I know this: If Senior Senator hadn't found this venue, he wouldn't have survived."

Perish the thought, Poretz said:

"Riding him is like riding Pegasus, with wings."

mike.klingaman@baltsun.com

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