Schlesinger finds leaping fences is her cup of tea


October 12, 1991|By Ross Peddicord

Butler -- It is mid-morning in the Western Run Valley, that horsey enclave northwest of the city.

Victoria Schlesinger has been up since dawn, riding horses.

Her name suggests someone with gentler pursuits, perhaps a poet or writer of romance novels instead of a woman jockey, one of few women who compete against a bunch of tough guys in the male-dominated sport of steeplechase racing.

The hurly-burly riding tactics and athletic derring-do of the steeplechase professionals are notorious and inevitably lead to what the veteran riders call "wrecks." Which is one reason most of the competitors are missing teeth. People in the sport still recall Jeff Teter, the game's leading rider, having his face stepped on by a horse during a spill last summer. But he bounced back.

So far, Mrs. Schlesinger still has her teeth, although she's cracked a collarbone and a few ribs in her two years of competitive riding.

This afternoon, the 26-year-old Mrs. Schlesinger climbs aboard Talkin Butter in the Breeders' Cup Steeplechase at Fair Hill.

This is not just an ordinary horse race. It is demanding -- 2 5/8 miles over 19 jumps. It has drawn stellar competition -- horses and riders from all over the world. And it will be pressure-packed for the riders -- the race will be telecast before a national audience between 5 and 6 p.m. today on "NBC Sports- World"; the winning horse earns $125,000.

For Mrs. Schlesinger, competing in this race is going to be one of those corny-sounding, but real, dream-come-true experiences.

She started the year as a lowly apprentice, but now ranks sixth in the national standings, winning with nine of her 48 mounts, which have compiled earnings of $106,675.

"In a short time, she's come from nowhere to someone with a reputation for riding winners," said Bill Gallo Jr., racing secretary and handicapper for the sport's governing body, the National Steeplechase and Hunt Association. "Teter is far ahead," he added, "but she's in the thick of things as far as everybody else is concerned."

Mrs. Schlesinger said it is the absolute love "of running and jumping horses over fences that drives me to do this. I want to win. But I'm not out to win everything or become rich and famous from steeplechasing. I won't anyway, because I compete as an amateur. It's just something I look forward to doing every day."

In the U.S., steeplechasing is small-time compared to the big-league business of thoroughbred racing at flat tracks such as Pimlico and Laurel.

Most steeplechases are weekend-only events that don't offer gambling (although there will be pari-mutuel wagering at Fair Hill today). Proceeds from the races usually benefit charities, such as Elkton's Union Hospital, the beneficiary of Fair Hill's endeavors.

Steeplechasing has, however, been growing in popularity. Ten years ago there were only about 30 hunt meets offering $1 million in purses. This year there are 40 individual race meets with purses totaling more than $4 million. Even tracks like Pimlico have begun to card an occasional jumping race.

Four years ago, Mrs. Schlesinger, who is from the English Midlands, came knocking at the barn door of Charlie Fenwick, Baltimore's own steeplechasing legend, who won the prestigious English Grand National in 1980, one of the world's most famous horse races.

She was turned away.

Mr. Fenwick balances training a 25-horse steeplechase stable with other business pursuits. He operates Valley Motors in Cockeysville with his father, Charles Fenwick Sr., and employs a staff of 10 to run the racing outfit.

"At the time, Victoria was just a rank pony clubber, as far as riding skill was concerned," Mr. Fenwick recalled. "I couldn't use her."

But she persevered, honing her riding abilities at a neighboring farm. When she approached Mr. Fenwick a year later, in the fall of 1988, she was hired.

She performed all the usual chores from exercising horses to mucking stalls. But one thing set her apart: her desire to ride races. There was also a seriousness of purpose.

Mr. Fenwick first put her on a few winners in 1990, then gave her a chance as his stable jockey this season.

"I thought I would get an English jockey to come over and ride Talkin Butter in the Breeders' Cup race," he said. "But then I thought, why not Victoria? She deserves the chance. I will say this about her: she knows no fear and she has ice water in her veins."

She also knows Talkin Butter, describing him as "a real character. He's like Bart Simpson, an explosive, bad child," she said. "But only if you make him mad. He's always in a fiery mood, but you have to tolerate him. . . . He's a real trier."

Mrs. Schlesinger grew up in Leicestershire, in the heart of England's fox-hunting country.

She first came to America to work with show jumpers, but returned to England to attend Northampton College, earning a business degree."

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