The Hunt Cup heavyweight

Steeplechase: Welter Weight, a consistent 13-year-old, will try to win the Maryland Hunt Cup for the second time today in Glyndon.

Horse Racing

April 28, 2001|By Mike Klingaman and Kent Baker | Mike Klingaman and Kent Baker,SUN STAFF

His feet have been trimmed, his muscles massaged. He has had a bath with Softsoap and a date with the acupuncturist, to ease his sore back.

Pampered all week, favored Welter Weight has been prepped and prettied for today's 105th running of the Maryland Hunt Cup in Glyndon. His handlers stopped short of braiding Welter Weight's mane - a nod to the haughty fences he'll be asked to jump, says M.J. Kirwan, his groom:

"We want his rider to be able to hold onto something ."

This is, after all, the Hunt Cup, the mother of all American steeplechases, a four-mile obstacle course that belongs on Parris Island. Imagine a horse race more than three Preaknesses long and tattooed every few furlongs by a fence that rises up like some Bunyanesque barrier.

Some hurdles are so daunting, they take on lives of their own. No. 3 is nicknamed "The Union Memorial Jump" for the hospital to which it has sent many a rider.

"It's the ultimate race in the world," says Tom Voss, Welter Weight's trainer. "It's also the worst day of my life because I'm asking a horse to do something he's probably not even supposed to do. Four miles and 22 fences, some nearly five feet high? It's the pinnacle of what you can expect of an animal."

Small wonder that it's a four-horse field, the best of whom is a 13-year-old bay with the pluck of Trigger and the bounce of Tigger. Six straight years, Welter Weight has run this race, winning once and placing second three times. He has been amazingly consistent of late, with four wins and second in his last five races.

The 1999 Hunt Cup champion, Welter Weight was runner-up last year to Swayo, a chestnut who ran the race of his life but is now hobbled by an infected foot. Swayo's absence today will have less effect on Welter Weight's chances in so grueling a race, says Ann D. Stewart, Swayo's trainer.

"Welter Weight is an absolute champion, but you still have to get around that course," she says. "You still have to pray."

Others entered are Floating Interest, Southwoods and Solo Lord. All will carry 165 pounds. Southwoods, ridden by Charles Fenwick III, made a stirring run at Welter Weight down the stretch in the Grand National last weekend, only to finish less than a length behind as Welter Weight won the race for the third straight time.

Floating Interest and Solo Lord both finished off the board at My Lady's Manor on April 14, although the latter, ridden by Michael Hoffman, came back last week to finish third behind Matchless in the Grand National co-feature.

"We're all trying to slay the dragon," says Joe Gillet, who'll be astride Floating Interest after winning on Swayo last year. "It looks like a coronation for Welter Weight. But even if they scratched every horse but yours from the Hunt Cup, you'd only be 10 percent less nervous.

"Every fence has tripped up the best horse-and-rider for the past 100 years. This is such a Herculean contest that if you make the tiniest mistake, you're gone."

Five years ago, Gillet was atop Welter Weight when the big thoroughbred grazed the 13th fence, fracturing a bone in his hind leg. The horse is a more savvy jumper now, he says.

"He's like a machine to ride," says Gillet. "Other horses may jump 20 fences brilliantly, then close their eyes and fall. Welter Weight is more consistent. What he lacks in brilliance, he makes up in smarts."

Like most steeplechasers, Welter Weight sprang from humble origins. Weaned on flat tracks, he broke his maiden as a 3-year-old in his second start at Delaware Park, then fared badly, losing one race by 21 lengths, another by 15. He was a 6-year-old running in cheap claiming races when Gillet noticed him at a track in Virginia, in the fall of 1994.

"First impression? Sloping shoulders, an intelligent eye, lovely hindquarters," Gillet recalls. "He had conformation, presence, a classy look about him.

"It was like spotting a beautiful woman at a party. If there were swimsuits for horses, Welter Weight would look good in one."

Gillet purchased him for Armata Stable, owned by Perry Bolton of Brooklandville and Ben Griswold of Glyndon. Having acquired their poster boy, they set out to toughen him up.

Gillet trained and foxhunted Welter Weight tirelessly that winter; together, they scrambled over streams and ditches and hog fences, traipsing after the hounds for hours on farms in Baltimore and Harford counties.

"He learned balance and patience and jumping skills," Gillet says. "It was like training a Green Beret."

Gradually, Welter Weight came around and began winning timber races. When Gillet moved to California late in 1995, Voss took over the training reins.

Voss, of Monkton, still takes the horse hunting each winter. "That's probably what has made him what he is today," he says. "Riding him now is like being in a rocking chair; he's a very light mover."

Welter Weight's jockey is Patrick Smithwick, 50, director of publications at The Gilman School. His father and uncle are both Hall of Fame steeplechase riders.

Since arriving in Maryland, Welter Weight has finished in the money in 22 of 24 starts. His signature victory? Winning the Hunt Cup, of course." `Wellie' has liked himself a whole lot better since then; you can tell from his attitude," says Kirwan, his groom.

"He knows he's cool."

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