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Raven's Choice wins Hunt Cup after Imperial Way disqualified

A year ago, in the 118th Maryland Hunt Cup, Bethany Baumgardner lost a photo finish aboard Imperial Way to Guts For Garters.

In the 119th edition of the race on Saturday in chilly Glyndon in front of thousands of fans, Baumgardner and Imperial Way had even worse luck after crossing the finish line a half-length ahead of Mark Beecher aboard Raven's Choice.

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A few minutes after the 22-jump, 4-mile test of perseverance and endurance in the third and final chapter of Maryland's Steeplechase Triple Crown, race officials disqualified Imperial Way because a 20-pound lead weight pack slipped out of a pad that sits under the saddle during the race.

The decision made Beecher a winner for the second time in three years after he guided Professor Maxwell to a victory in the 2013 Hunt Cup. Last year's winner, Jody Petty, was second on Guts For Garters and Eric Poretz was third aboard Spencer Road.

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According to Gerry L. Brewster, part owner of Spencer Road and owner of two other Hunt Cup entrants, Brands Hatch and Catch The Echo, the judge's decision was unprecedented.

"Other horses have been disqualified before for going off the course," he said. "But no one has ever been disqualified for a mechanical failure like this."

Brewster said he could understand how it could happen.

"The horses are sweating and there's a lot of action," he added. "Things like that can happen."

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The hard-luck Baumgardner, 25, said she "had no idea that the weight was gone until I pulled the tack off my horse. It's very difficult, because my horse ran the race of his life."

The North Harford High grad said that she plans to give the Hunt Cup another try in 2016.

"Third time's a charm," she said, adding that support from her family and friends will help her come back even stronger next year.

Regardless of how it ended, Raven's Choice had a lot of ground to make up early in the race when Joshua G. bolted to a 35-length lead before fading.

Beecher caught up and then went ahead at the 19th fence and attempted to separate from the pack.

Imperial Way had other ideas, as Baumgardner drove the Merriefield Farm 10-year-old past Raven's Choice to the finish line.

Baumgardner's mother, Debbie, was deliriously happy as her daughter had apparently won the prestigious race.

"I'm on top of the moon — and then some," she said moments after the race.

Unfortunately for the Baumgardners, it was not meant to be.

Meanwhile, Beecher did not give up after the race once he heard about the missing lead weight pack.

It took the judges less than 10 minutes to disqualify Imperial Way.

"We crossed the finish line and I shook her hand," Beecher said. "It has to be heartbreaking for her, but 20 pounds is a lot of weight. At the end of the day, a win is win."

Beecher said his weekend work is not through, considering he's slated to ride in three races at the Middleburg Point-To-Point Steeplechase Races on Sunday in Virginia.

"I think [trainer Todd J. Wyatt] thinks I'll put on too much weight if I'm not racing," he said, joking about his busy schedule.

Beecher also lauded owner Cary W. Jackson and Wyatt for giving the relatively untested horse the opportunity to shine on American steeplechase racing's most prestigious event.

"Todd, Mrs. Jackson and I decided to come here to get the horse a year's experience, because he's only 8 years old," he said. "But to get a win in this situation is really unique."

Despite cool temperatures early in the afternoon, racegoers were treated to warming sunlight by mid-afternoon and the usual tailgating activities were in full swing throughout the day.

Tents and tables put to good use as fans gathered to enjoy the countryside and what is for many the most important rite of spring the area provides.

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