It all looked so easy for 8-year-old Senior Senator and jockey Eric Poretz, who led wire-to-wire for a 5-length victory in the 122nd Maryland Hunt Cup on Saturday.
Senior Senator covered the course in Baltimore County's Worthington Valley in 9 minutes, 20 2/5 seconds.
Joshua G finished second, while Drift Society, the only other horse of the starting nine to finish, finished 140 ¼ lengths behind.
The race, run on the same course since 1922, is the final jewel in the Maryland timber series triple crown. In addition to being a social event extraordinaire in Maryland, it is also one of the nation's premier steeplechase races.
"The other races [in the Maryland Timber triple crown] are important, too," co-owner Irvin L. "Skip" Crawford said, "but this is the one everybody wants to win. It was special to win this race with him two years ago, but, under the circumstances, it's even better this time."
The circumstances were pretty scary.
Last year as defending champ, Senior Senator and Poretz failed to make it over the third fence. Poretz was sent tumbling and Senior Senator suffered a broken neck. After a plate was placed in his neck, Senior Senator endured an extensive year of rehabilitation.
"I want to credit veterinarian Dean Richardson for his hard work getting him back to this point," said Vicki Crawford, Skip's wife and co-owner of the horse. "He really saved the horse's life. You saw what a special horse he is today. He was jumping back to the barn after the race was over."
When asked if she had any concerns about running the horse again, Crawford admitted she did, but only a little.
"We didn't even know whether he would walk again, much less run another race last year," Vicki Crawford said. "We ran him in some point-to-point races [during his rehab], and he seemed to do well. He ran last weekend in the Grand National [in nearby Glyndon] and he won that, so we decided to let him run here."
The decision turned out to be a wise one. The horse started strong, and never trailed in the 4-mile race. About halfway through, he was challenged by a few horses, but always managed to pull away.
"He does well in the front, and he likes to run out there," Poretz said. "I'll admit I was a little nervous going over that third fence. We made some mistakes last year, and I didn't want to repeat them again. He just kept getting stronger, fence by fence. He was challenged a little towards the end, but he responded. It's a great feeling to win this thing again."
Next year will hold special significance for the Crawfords. According to Hunt Cup rules, the winner of the Challenge Cup trophy keeps it until the next race. If an owner wins the cup three times, though, they get to keep it permanently. The last time that happened was in 1983, when owner Miles Valentine retired the Cup for the sixth time in its history.
Poretz summed up the emotions of everyone involved with the win when asked to compare how he felt now with how he felt at this time last year.
"Last year, we were both very unlucky," Poretz said. "Today we both had a good day and we were both a little lucky."