Hugh J. O'Donovan, 87, horse breeder

December 17, 2003|By Jacques Kelly | Jacques Kelly,SUN STAFF

Hugh Jenkins O'Donovan, a thoroughbred horse breeder who rode the 1940 winner of the Grand National steeplechase and later owned a Maryland Hunt Cup winner, died of congestive heart failure Friday at Gilchrist Center for Hospice Care. The Upperco resident was 87.

Born in Baltimore and raised in Homeland, the son of a coffee company owner and horseman, he was a 1934 graduate of Gilman School and earned a degree in economics from the University of Virginia. He also studied investment banking at the University of Pennsylvania.

His father, who trained as a physician before going into business, owned a three-time winner of the Maryland Hunt Cup early in the 20th century, and his son took up riding as a 10-year-old.

"He was a good rider and horse enthusiast and always enjoyed life tremendously," said Joseph P. Pons Sr., a friend who lives in Bel Air and is an owner of his family-run Country Life Farm. "He loved racing, and steeplechasing even more. He was the kind of person who went from the cradle to the saddle."

And in April 1940, Mr. O'Donovan went to the winner's circle - riding to victory on Myrmidon in the Grand National, one of three races on the Maryland spring steeplechase circuit, on a wet Saturday afternoon in the rolling Baltimore County countryside. On two occasions, he placed second in the Maryland Hunt Cup, the biggest of the three races.

"Mr. O'Donovan captured an exacting and bitterly contested race from nine other entries," The Sun reported on the Grand National victory.

During World War II, he joined the Army and served as a first lieutenant in field artillery in Europe. His decorations included the Bronze Star and the French Croix de Guerre.

After the war, he became an investment banker, working successively for J. Dorsey Brown, Stein Bros. & Boyce, and Maryland Trust Co., all in downtown Baltimore.

In the mid-1950s, Mr. O'Donovan gave up banking and went into the thoroughbred breeding business on his 200-acre Grasslands Farm in Baltimore County.

A French-bred horse he owned, Lancrel, won the Maryland Hunt Cup in 1956. "The triumph of Hugh J. O'Donovan's 11-year-old gelding represented a clean sweep for Maryland since the horse is owned, trained and ridden by Baltimore Countians," The Sun reported after the race.

Mr. O'Donovan was named a director of the Maryland Horse Breeders Association in 1962 and later served as its secretary-treasurer until stepping down in 1979.

"Everybody liked Hughie. He was an amiable person," said Snowden Carter, retired general manager of the breeders association. "He was devoted to the horse game. In his younger years, he had been a really good rider."

After more than 40 years of breeding horses, Mr. O'Donovan had not produced a graded stakes winner until this year. His gelding, Perfect Moon, a third-generation member of a line of horses bred and raised at his sprawling farm, captured the Grade III Hollywood Juvenile Championship in July at Hollywood Park in California.

Mr. O'Donovan was a member of the Maryland Club and Green Spring Valley Hunt Club, where he had been master of the Green Spring Hounds.

A memorial Mass will be offered at 11 a.m. today at Sacred Heart Roman Catholic Church, on Sacred Heart Lane in Glyndon.

Survivors include his wife of 60 years, the former Achsah Carrington Stettinius; a son, John H. O'Donovan of Timonium; two daughters, Achsah S. O'Donovan of Upperco and Elizabeth O'Donovan Gurskis of Great Falls, Va.; and three grandchildren.

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