Racing by leaps and bounds

Howard At Play

April 08, 2001|By Nancy Menefee Jackson | By Nancy Menefee Jackson,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Blake Patrick Curry discovered one of the great joys of his life at the age of 9, when he went to riding camp.

Now, at 21, the Lisbon resident exercises race horses at Pimlico, trains show jumpers and rides in steeplechases, perhaps the most demanding of all riding disciplines.

Two weeks ago, Curry rode in two races at the Howard County-Iron Bridge Race Meet, a steeplechase event held at Meriwether Farm in Glenelg and benefiting the Department of Natural Resources.

He finished second in one race and won another, earning the Alda Clark Plate, named for a niece of Johns Hopkins who was a horsewoman and fox hunter who helped found the Howard County Hunt Club.

A bumpy ride

Steeplechasing, also known as point-to-point racing, is much like the more-familiar flat racing in process, if not surface. Several races are included in the day's schedule, and licensed jockeys hope to secure mounts.

"You end up calling around and politicking," Curry said. "People might see you ride a race well, or they want to enter a horse, and they'll get a list of jockey's names."

But unlike in flat racing, horses in steeplechase must jump a series of obstacles - fences, hedges, ditches. The post-and-rail fences range in height from 3 1/2 to 4 feet.

In the Maryland Hunt Cup, the crown jewel of the hunt season and the toughest race in the nation, the fences approach 5 feet. This year's event is scheduled April 28.

"That is a phenomenal race. That is my absolute dream, to ride in that race," Curry said.

At the moment, Curry rides in the amateur races, which do not have purse money and are sponsored by local hunt clubs rather than the National Steeplechase Association, which is based in Elkridge. But at any level, the sport is not for the faint of heart.

"You have to hit the fence just right," Curry said. "It's an incredible rush. There's a consequence if you're not at one with your horse."

When surrounded by horses all leaping the same obstacle, "you never know what will happen. You have to be able to react and to [pace] the horse when doing longer distances."

But when a race is ridden well, says Curry, "in about eight minutes, it brings out what everyone looks for in a lifetime."

Grandfather's influence

Curry was strongly influenced by his grandfather, Vincent Blake, who as a poor boy in New York rode horses in Central Park for rich people. After working as an electrician, he retired and bought a horse farm in New Jersey.

After attending riding camp, Curry knew he was the one to carry on the family tradition. Although he dreamed of being a jockey, that ended when his weight reached 130 pounds.

But West Friendship horsewoman and farm owner Gretchen Mobberley took him under her wing and introduced him to racing.

Now he buys horses from Canada, where they tend to be cheaper, and ships them to the farm his family owns in Lisbon, where he trains them to be show jumpers.

But steeplechasing is the province of thoroughbreds.

"You just can't match a thoroughbred's athleticism," he says. "I have a supreme love for horses. I love horses and the community that surrounds steeplechasing. ... It's like racing was 50 or 60 years ago. It's a form of a pastime, a family activity. ... You see everything from the kids playing with lacrosse sticks to people tailgating."

His enthusiasm even encouraged his father, Edward V. Curry Jr., a lawyer for General Electric Co., to take up riding.

Family business

The Curry family has 30 acres in Lisbon, with about 20 horses, including boarders.

"I own too many," Curry says, adding that he knows that despite his love for horses, "it's almost impossible to make this your bread and butter."

He's studying political science at Howard Community College, moving on in the fall to UMBC, hoping to become a lobbyist for the race horse industry someday.

Meanwhile, though, young show jumpers need to be taught how many strides to take between fences, and race horses need to be exercised on the track, and it's only the second week of the steeplechase season.

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