Clearing final barrier In Hunt for history, Miller holds reins

April 26, 1991|By Ross Peddicord | Ross Peddicord,Evening Sun Staff

GLYNDON -- Blythe Miller could be on the brink of riding history.

Tomorrow she's one of four women riders set to overcome fear and four-plank rail fences and ride in the Maryland Hunt Cup.

Used to be women stood under parasols at this most awesome of steeplechases and rooted on the menfolk.

Now they've just about taken over the race.

It's the biggest contingent of females to ride in the Hunt Cup since Olympic champion Kathy Kusner challenged the race committee 20 years ago and insisted she ride.

Charles Fenwick Sr., current committee chairman, remembers it well. "The committee [comprised of local sportsmen, with the emphasis on men] just about flipped out," he recalled. "They wanted to know, 'What on earth is she thinking about?' "

Kusner was the first woman to ride in the race. Since then four others have competed and two women have won -- Joy Carrier twice in 1980 and 1981 and Liz McKnight in 1986.

But it's Miller, a shy, demure 22-year-old student at D.C.'s swank Mount Vernon College for women, who has the chance to break some new ground tomorrow.

She's seeking a sweep of Maryland's "Big 3" timber races, following back-to-back wins during the past two weeks in the My Lady's Manor and Grand National point-to-points.

She was the first woman in 89 runnings to win the Grand National last weekend and would be the first to win all three races.

Her mount is a front-running Chilean-bred gelding named Cabral, who Miller lovingly calls "Kibby."

Her riding style is a bit unorthodox. She's a gentle persuader. "Blythe has the ability to just let the horse do his own thing," said her mother, Nancy Miller. "She gets them to relax and enjoy what they do. In turn, that makes them really want to run for her."

Fellow jockey Jay Meister thought he had just about heard everything until last weekend. In the heat of battle while he had his horse under a drive, racing head and head over a fence with Miller, he saw her pat Cabral on the neck and heard her whisper "Good boy, Good boy" into Kibby's ear.

If it sounds like something out of "National Velvet," the Blythe Miller story is hardly a fairy tale. She's already proven herself FTC against the guys many times over. Her mounts last year earned more than $300,000, putting her ahead of every other jump jockey in the country except perennial leader Jeff Teter.

Miller followed up her win in the Grand National last Saturday by flying to Kentucky the next day. She beat her brother, Chip, in a $50,000 allowance hurdle race and then finished third in the $250,000 Dueling Grounds International Hurdle.

"She really felt bad about her beating her brother," her mother said.

By Monday, Miller was back at Mount Vernon, hitting the books. She majors in interior design and has interned this spring for a Washington firm that designs hotel interiors.

McKnight, who is seeking her second Hunt Cup win and was runner-up to Miller in the Grand National, not only has the highest respect for her colleague, but for all of the women riding in the race.

"These are true-blue good riders," McKnight said. "I have more respect for them as a group than the men who are riding."

McKnight entered two horses in the Hunt Cup, but scratched one of them, Cotuit, and will ride Pleasant Sea.

In addition to Miller and McKnight, the other two women riders are Sanna Neilson and Anne Moran.

Neilson, 22, is Miller's best friend, and her equal over fences, although she rides a lot less. Neilson rides Tom Bob, who under other riders has finished either second or third in three trips over the course.

"I talked on the phone with Blythe last night," Neilson said. "We're both real excited. Each of us wants to win. But if I don't, I want Blythe to win, and I know she feels the same way about me."

Besides riding against her best friend, Miller also is riding against her ex-boyfriend, Joe Gillet. And Neilson is riding against her father, 49-year-old Louis "Paddy" Neilson III, who has ridden in the race 16 times and won three renewals.

The relationships among the competitors is almost as complex as the 22-fence course.

Moran, like McKnight, is a 32-year-old mother with two small children. She's making her first Hunt Cup appearance on a horse named The Wool Merchant, who fell last year when ridden by a man.

She, too, respects her female competition.

"Blythe and Liz have entirely different styles," Moran said. "Blythe likes to ride on the front end and Liz prefers to come from off the pace. Liz is like a snake, waiting to strike. You know she's coming, but you don't know when."

As for Neilson, Moran said she gets a lot of run out of the old gelding Tom Bob, "more run than anyone thought he had."

Moran is optimistic about the women's chances.

She predicted: "We're going to finish 1-2-3-4."

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