McCradys (right) with rider Julie Nafe overcame Fort Henry (left) in the stretch to win the side saddle race at Willowdale. Credit Marcella Peyre-Ferry
The Willowdale Steeplechase races in Kennett Square, PA, celebrated 25 years on Mother’s Day, Sunday, May 14. In recognition of hitting a milestone anniversary, a special feature was added for horsemen: a one-time chance at a special $100,000 bonus to any horse winning both the featured Willowdale Steeplechase race and the Pennsylvania Hunt Cup in November.
Taking the winner’s share of the Willowdale Steeplechase’s $35,000 purse, and earning a chance to try for the bonus in the fall, was Doc Cebu, owned by Charles Fenwick, Jr., trained by Jack Fisher, and ridden in the 3.5 mile amateur steeplechase by Hadden Frost.
The race had nine starters, but Doc Cebu followed Grand Manan under Gonzague Cottreau away from the field from the start. These two separated themselves from the rest of the runners by as much as 20 lengths at points. Although Grand Manan was in front for most of the race, Doc Cebu had enough left after the final jump to close in and pass Grand Manan, ultimately winning by nine lengths in a time of 7:36 4/5.
“We knew it was going to be a strong gallop, so I was sharp at the start. I didn’t want to miss any ground. We got over the first two, and I had a listen behind us, it sounded like we were a long way clear and we were. So then I started riding my own race as much as I could,” Frost said. “Doc’s a strong horse. Luckily he wasn’t too strong, so I was able to get a breather into him here and there. He was sensible and didn’t exhaust himself, so we had enough to get home. It’s not ideal tactics, but sometimes you have to go to plan B.”
There were heavy rains the day before the races, but footing was good. Still, none of the six sanctioned jump races on the card had all starters complete the course. Several non-finishers were pulled up as non-competitive, but there were also a rash of falls and loose horses.
In the $15,000 Marshall W. Jenney Memorial Foxhunter Chase, only four horses finished out of the seven starters. At the wire it was Amelia McGuirk who rode Prime Prospector to a win for owner Peter Jay and trainer Todd Wyatt.
“He’s a lovely jumping horse. When they went, they weren’t going quite as quick as he wanted to go. He dropped his head and I let him gallop around, I guess they made a lot of mistakes behind me,” McGuirk said, explaining that the race did not go as they had planned. “He’s not super quick. He’ll usually run on down to the first, he usually jumps up into the air and they run by him and I fit in behind. That’s what I tried to do, but when he started traveling better and jumping better he went to the front. When he went to the front he grabbed ahold and loved it. When they tried to come to him, he wanted to keep on going.”
McGuirk had another win for Wyatt in the first division of the $15,000 Landhope Cup Maiden Timber on Witor, owned by Blair Wyatt.
The second division of the Landhope Cup was won by Aquies, owned by Irvin S. Naylor, trained by Katherine Neilson and ridden by Gerard Galligan. Aquies ran in the middle of the pack until the later stages of the race when he turned on the speed to win by over nine lengths in a time of 6:27 1/5 on the three-mile timber course.
Neilson is definitely a fan of the horse. “We won a race on the flat with him at Philadelphia Park, he got claimed, I went and bought him back,” she said. “I had to pay a little more, he was worth it though.”
Other NSA Sanctioned race winners were Codrington College, owned by Hudson River Farms, trained by Jonathan Sheppard and ridden by Darren Nagle in The Folly maiden claiming hurdle race, and Cognashene, owned by Pathfinder Racing, trained by Neil Morris and ridden by Kieran Norris in the Rose Tree Cup conditioned claiming hurdle.
In the Liam Magee Amateur Training Flat Race, Overawe, owned by Achsah O’Donovan, and trained by Alicia Murphy, was the winner of the two miles on turf for rider Sara Katz.
Side Saddle Race
Before the sanctioned races began, Willowdale added a new feature, the Miss Nancy Nicholas Memorial Side Saddle race. Nine riders took on the challenge of the two-mile course, twice around the five timber jumps added to the course just for this race.
Coming out on top in a driving finish down the stretch was Julie Nafe on McCradys. “It was a perfect course, perfect footing, the fences were amazing, and after the first fence you just get comfortable,” she said. “I had the most flawless horse to take me around the course, so it made it a wonderful trip.”
Nafe had a win on the same horse earlier in the season at the Brandywine Hills Point to Point races, that time riding astride. She also hunts and does some showing aside. Comparing the two riding styles she feels the difference is more for the rider than the horses. “She takes great care of me. It’s just a little different going into your fences.”
McCradys is owned by Lauren Schock, who also owns and trained Chewy, the winner of the small pony race with 13-year-old rider Anna Farber from West Chester, PA. ”He was just amazing, honestly. He loves running, I love running,” she said. “It’s a once in a lifetime experience to race. This race, it’s just the crowd of people -- that they watch you and they support you -- it feels really good.”
In the Medium Pony Race, fourteen-year-old Charlie Marquez of Columbia, MD rode Count Chocula to a win for EHM Stables and trainer Betty McCue. “He’s very kind. He’s very good at the start, he’s calm, then he runs like a storm,” Marquez said.
Large Pony Race winner Hot Chocolate was part of a family effort, ridden by Joey Dipierro and trained by his grandmother Michele Schofield Davies.
“She’s pretty easy, you’ve just got to give her a little encouragement at the end,” thirteen-year-old Dipierro said after the race. Dipierro, from Cochranville, PA, hunts Hot Chocolate with River Hills Foxhounds. “We just bought her this year, but I’ve been riding her every week.”
Dipierro wants to race in the pony division as long as he can, but when he moves up to a horse, Hot Chocolate will still be a part of the family. “I’m short enough I can hunt it. (Joey’s) mom could fox hunt her too, because she’s the same size,” Schofield Davies said. “She’ll be here forever.”
A lead line pony race for riders age six and under was won by Work To Ride’s entry Betty the Brat, ridden by six-year-old Schyler Smith. Work to Ride, based in Philadelphia involves city youngsters in riding, racing and polo. Trainer Lezlie Hiner regularly brings junior riders to Chester County pony races where they compete with energy and enthusiasm.