`Welter' makes it three in a row

13-year-old gelding bests Southwoods in Grand National

April 22, 2001|By Kent Baker | Kent Baker,SUN STAFF

The 99th annual Grand National Steeplechase was a showcase for the old guys yesterday.

There in the stretch was the venerable Welter Weight, 13 years old and still running strong, striving mightily to hold off the late burst of Southwoods, one year his senior.

Astride Welter Weight was 50-year-old jockey A. Patrick Smithwick Jr., who won his first race over the Grand National course in 1968, retired from jumping in the '70s and returned because of his friendship with trainer Tom Voss and his affection for Welter Weight and the now-deceased Florida Law, both of whom he hunted with on Voss' farm.

Southwoods gave it a gallant try, but Welter Weight out-kicked him to the wire by a little less than a length and captured his third straight Grand National and fourth in the past six years. The Fit To Fight gelding is clearly the horse to beat in Saturday's prestigious Maryland Hunt Cup.

On a drizzly, overcast day, Welter Weight again flashed the consistency that has made him virtually invincible the past two years. His only defeat was to Swayo in the 2000 Hunt Cup, when Voss severely criticized jockey Mike Elmore for a blase ride.

"He's just a very, very good horse," said Voss, who will be going for the Maryland Triple Crown after winning My Lady's Manor with Ironfist a week earlier. "Welter Weight is a beautiful jumper, and we only run him three or four times a year so we don't wear him out."

The race was all about pace. Welter Weight finished in a snail-like 7 minutes, 10 seconds (the course record by Tarsky is 5:51) after no one seemed to want to take charge.

"I've never gone so slow," said jockey Charles Fenwick II, who was aboard Southwoods. "My wife was running past us."

At the eighth of 18 fences, Smithwick had had enough of the tardiness and sent Welter Weight to the front of a field reduced to four by four scratches. Make Me A Champ, with Billy Meister up, tried to pressure them several times and tired, missing the final fence.

Along came Southwoods, trained by F. Bruce Miller, to apply the final challenge. "We made a great run and were doing our best," said Fenwick. "But Welter Weight is Welter Weight, a champion."

"We started picking it up. We just couldn't hold back any longer," said Smithwick, the director of publications at Gilman School and a free-lance writer of note. "That first half-mile was really slow, so that made the rest of the race fast."

"I'd rather see my horse have an easy race now," said Voss. "Next week is the main objective."

A controversy developed in the secondary feature, the 36th running of the Benjamin H. Murray Memorial, when jockey Joe Gillet and Matchless, the eventual winner, jumped an obstacle before the start. It was off the course, which, apparently, saved them from disqualification and a possible fine for the rider.

"I asked the stewards if I could jump on the way to the start and didn't really get an answer. They said something about not jumping one on the course," said Gillet. "I was a little nervous today because I was on some young horses and I wanted to get him warmed up."

Matchless won comfortably and gave Gillet "the most aggressive horse I've ever seen around these big Maryland fences. He's a serious horse. He attacked them." Gillet has ridden Welter Weight, Florida Law and Swayo, all Hunt Cup champions, to victory over the same course.

First Purse $30,000, Grand National Steeplechase, abt 3 mi. over timber. Welter Weight A.P. Smithwick Jr.

Southwoods C. Fenwick III

Sam Sullivan J.D. Gillet

Time: 7:10. Make Me A Champ also ran.

Second Purse $15,000, Benjamin H. Murray Memorial Steeplechase, abt. 3 mi. over timber. Matchless J.D. Gillet

Lil Starving Marvin W. Meister

Solo Lord M. Hoffman

Time: 6:20 2/5. Flood Relief, Bowman's Crossing, Corona Effect, Pleasant Host also ran.

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