He used to be called Duke.
That was the nickname for a gelding named Elberton Fling when he was a yearling at Frank and Martha Hopkins' farm near Darlington in Harford County.
"He was rough and rank, with a sort of John Wayne-type of personality," said the Hopkins' daughter, Amy.
The horse was so temperamental, even after he was broken and sent to be a flat runner at Laurel, that the Hopkins' trainer gave up on him. "Our trainer said he was hopeless, so we ended up giving the horse away -- for free," Martha Hopkins said.
A couple of years later, with a new nickname, Fred, the once recalcitrant Elberton Fling, is one of the favorites today in the $25,000 Miles Valentine Novice Stakes for steeplechasers at Fair Hill Race Course near Elkton.
So far this year, Elberton Fling has made four starts over jumps. He won one race and has finished third in three of the most prestigious stakes races on the spring hunt-meet circuit. He was third in the Temple Gwathmey Handicap in Middleburg, Va., third at the Continental Cup in Great Meadows, Va., and third just a week ago in the National Hunt Cup in Radnor, Pa.
In each of those races, he was ridden by Keith O'Brien, 22, who is the sport's leading apprentice this season.
O'Brien is the son of former jump jockey Leo O'Brien, an Irish-born trainer who now conditions a string of flat runners at the New York tracks. Just last week, O'Brien became the first American-based trainer to win an Irish classic, when he shipped a New York-bred colt named Fourstars Allstar to Dublin and won the Irish 2,000 Guineas at The Curragh.
O'Brien tried to pull off an unusual double Saturday, when he sent over a New York-bred filly named Irish Linnet to run in the Irish 1,000 Guineas, the filly counterpart to the colt classic. But Irish Linnet ended up an also-ran.
While his father is making history, young O'Brien is learning to become a jump jockey. He works for Janet Elliott, who took over training Elberton Fling last winter. Elliott trains about 30 jumpers at her farm near Oxford, Pa.
Her first-string rider is Jeff Teter, a leader in the sport, but she also is bringing along two apprentices, O'Brien and Timothy Keefe of Laurel.
Keefe acknowledges that Elberton Fling was tough to handle when he first arrived at Elliot's training center. "But it must be something about farm life," Keefe said. "He loves it here and has now become a pleasure to ride."
Elberton Fling is the third choice in the nine-horse Valentine field. The 9-5 favorite is Nobelist, who has won three of his four starts this year and is trained by Jonathan Sheppard. Second choice is My Lear.
The Valentine is carded for horses that had not won a race over jumps before 1991.
"Usually once a young jumper breaks his maiden, then wins a non-winners-of-two allowance race, there is no place to run him in this country, except against tough older horses," said Gregg Morris, director of racing at Fair Hill. "That's why we wrote this race. The young horse can run in a stakes with a decent purse against horses with similar experience. The idea is to encourage owners to bring along young horses."
Facts and figures
What: Fair Hill Races: 5 hurdle races, 1 timber race, 3 flat races.
When: Today, 1 p.m.
Where: Fair Hill Race Course near Elkton can be reached from Baltimore by taking Interstate 95 north to Exit 100. At the exit, turn left on Route 272 toward Rising Sun. Turn right at Route 273, which goes directly to the course.