Winner of the Willowdale Steeplechase, center, is Schoolhouse Woods with Bethany Baumgardener riding. Major Malibu (left) finished third and Soverign Fund, right, finished second.
In Chester County, PA, families with an equestrian connection often make the Willowdale Steeplechases their Mother's Day destination. Sun., May 10, over 10,000 people enjoyed the bright sunny day with tailgate parties, kids activities and a day of exciting National Steeplechase Association sanctioned racing action.
The featured event of the day was the $25,000 Willowdale Steeplechase, a 3.5 mile timber race for horses 5 years old and up, ridden by amateur riders. The race was won by Kinross Farm's Schoolhouse Rules, trained by Neil Morris, and ridden by Bethany Baumgardener.
The early leader for the race was Fritz Boniface on Personal Brew, who was alone well in front the first time over the water jump, but Boniface had a rough landing and came off a few strides after the jump. Willowdale's water jump is the only one of its kind in North America, with a 12-foot span and an 18 inch drop in elevation that makes it a unique challenge.
Boniface was far enough ahead that he had time to get out of the way of the oncoming horses, while Personal Brew continued to lead around the course until he was caught.
With a long race to run, Baumgardener stayed back in the pack with Schoolhouse Woods until the last two fences. She jumped the last alongside Sovereign Fund and early leader Major Malibu, then went past them in the stretch run. "The main objective is to shut him off, get him relaxed. I know he's got a big gallop and a big jump in him," Baumgardener said.
This was Baumgardener's first time on Schoolhouse Woods. "I've watched him race before. I've always really liked him. He's a really cool, very talented horse," she said.
This was also Baumgardener's first time at Willowdale. "It seems to be a really fun course," she said.
Jenny Memorial Timber
The Marshall W. Jenny Memorial Timber race was won by Lea Von, owned by Magalen O. Bryant and ridden by Kieran Norris, but only after a steward's inquiry that could have invalidated the entire race.
The entire field missed a flag on a turn, with all of the horses briefly going off course. The jockeys were called to the tower and after discussion, the results were allowed to stand.
"It was touch and go for a while there. Thankfully there were more intelligent people up there than me who made some valid points," Norris said. "It was a fantastic race. It would have been a shame if it was void. There were nice horses and a great finish. I was happy with my horse, he jumped fantastically, he deserved that win."
Norris held Lea Von with the pack until the final fences. "My ride was fantastic. It's always a pleasure to come to Willowdale, there's good fences and good horses and the ground is always right," Norris said. "The horse on the outside made a little mistake. That gave us momentum. Once my horse got his head out in front he didn't stop. It worked out perfectly."
Rose Tree Cup
The Rose Tree Cup Claiming Hurdle Race was won by Hockey Pop, owned by Mrs. John Fisher and ridden by Sean McDermott. This was Hockey Pop's second time over timber, and only his second race back after treatment for Lyme disease.
"It just shows his honesty and his ability," McDermott said. "He's such an honest horse and a good jumper he could make a Hunt Cup horse."
The Foxhunter's Chase was won by Prime Prospector, owned by Peter and Sarah Jay and ridden by Diana Gillam.
"When you have a horse that good, you just sit up there, keep him tucked in until the end. He jumped perfectly, didn't miss a fence and had everything left in the tank when it mattered," Gillam said after the race.
The Folly, a $15,000 Maiden Claiming Hurdle race finished out the day. It was won by EC's Favorite, owned and trained by Jonathan Sheppard and ridden by Paddy Young. Like the other winners of the day, Young let other horses set the pace, saving his horse for the closing stage of the race.
"Mr. Sheppard said to take my time...She was always traveling the best I felt, and she jumped the last well, then quickened away at the back of it," said Young, who was riding the horse for the first time. "With fillies you don't want to be too hard on them. She just needed some reminder just to say come on sweetheart, we're racing here."
The day of racing also included junior races for horses and ponies and the Liam Magee amateur training Flat Race, which was won by Chamirey, owned by Frank A. Bonsal Jr., and ridden by Martin Gomez.