Dashing `Lord' wins Hunt Cup

Strong early move pays as Welter Weight unable to fire at end

April 29, 2001|By Joe Clancy | Joe Clancy,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Michael Hoffman was a busy man last week, traveling to Milan, London and Amsterdam on business. But he made sure to get home in time to win yesterday's Maryland Hunt Cup.

The 42-year-old investment banker from Leesburg, Va., turned back the calendar on the country's oldest steeplechase race by winning aboard his foxhunter-racehorse, Solo Lord.

Begun in 1894 as a sporting challenge for foxhunting gentlemen riding their own horses, the Hunt Cup hadn't been won by an owner-rider since 1984.

Now worth $65,000, the four-mile timber classic has become a specialist's race, with faster times, younger jockeys and owners who merely watch.

Not this year.

Hoffman put his horse in front at the outset and built a commanding lead over his three rivals. A mile into the race, Solo Lord led by at least 30 lengths and was nearly a fence ahead of heavy favorite Welter Weight, who was last early.

The bold early move came as a surprise, and all but ended the race. Welter Weight (Patrick Smithwick) ate into the margin late, but was no match for the winner, who scored by five lengths in 8:38 3/5 (the fifth fastest Hunt Cup).

Floating Interest (Joe Gillet) was third and Southwoods (Charlie Fenwick III) was pulled up just before fence 19.

Strategy keyed the upset victory, the first by a non-Maryland-based horse since 1991.

"I had to make them come to me," said Hoffman, whose previous two trips around the course with Solo Lord had ended in non-threatening, sixth- and fourth-place finishes.

"I've been around this course twice. I knew I had a good jumper underneath me and I knew our partnership, but I had to put the pressure on if I was going to beat Welter Weight."

The latter finished second for the fourth time in five years (to go with his 1999 win).

"I thought I was going to catch him," said Smithwick, an English teacher and director of publications at Gilman School.

"It was a big surprise when he went out in front like that because I thought I would be there. Welter Weight was making up ground, but when we crossed the road he just didn't have any gas left."

After fence 19, the race's outcome looked in doubt. Solo Lord had set a quick pace and was being reeled in with every stride by Welter Weight. Heading downhill into the 20th, the winner led by 10 lengths, but looked vulnerable.

"I looked over my shoulder going to 19 and saw those red colors," said Hoffman, referring to Smithwick's silks. "We turned the corner and let him roll down the hill. As soon as he landed [over 20], I just flew across Tufton Avenue."

The win was a career first for Maryland-bred Solo Lord. Purchased at auction at Timonium in 1994 by Gordie Keys for $1,300, the bay gelding never raced on the flat.

Taught to jump by Keys' trainer, Bay Cockburn, the son of Assault Landing was sold to Hoffman for "five or six thousand" as a foxhunter-timber prospect. Now trained in Pennsylvania by Bruce Miller, Solo Lord earned $39,000 yesterday.

"The horse has such amazing conformation that he just eats up the ground," said Hoffman, who received the traditional ice-water dousing from his fellow jockeys for securing the first victory of his career. "It doesn't feel like he's going fast."

Solo Lord's Hunt Cup preparations were anything but spectacular. He finished second at a point-to-point in Pennsylvania April 7, fell at My Lady's Manor April 14 and was third April 21 at Butler.

Hoffman hung partial credit for the win on his fitness program of cycling that kept his heart rate at 160 for 30 minutes.

"I'm amazingly fit for being 42 years old, and that helped," he said. "The doctors say I should weigh 175 and I'm at 154 pounds. I sat down and asked him to jump the last fence, and I wasn't tired this time, but I was last year."$65,000 Maryland Hunt Cup, 4 miles.

1. Solo Lord (Michael Hoffman). 2. Welter Weight (Patrick Smithwick). 3. Floating Interest (Joe Gillet). Also ran: Southwoods (Charlie Fenwick III). Time: 8:38 3/5. Owner: Michael Hoffman. Trainer: Bruce Miller.

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