On October 22, the winningest groom of Maryland Hunt Cup winners, Donald Howard, accompanied by his wife Ethel Howard and their granddaughter Sara Manakin, attended the International Gold Cup Races as honored guests of Jennifer Youngman, a racing official with the National Steeplechase Association.
“The hospitality was very good,” said Howard. “It was a really good experience, very interesting and very nice. It really couldn’t have been any better.”
Youngman made certain that local photographers and publications knew about Howard’s day at the races. “Donald’s a real nice man, and we talk when I see him at the races,” said Youngman. “He always made good comments about a lot of the horses running and we talk about who are the best riders in Maryland and Pennsylvania, etc. He was groom for Nick Arundel’s Sugar Bee, winner of the Maryland Hunt Cup, and that horse ties him to this area. I thought it would be nice to treat Donald and his wife to a day at Great Meadow. Their granddaughter, Sara, drove them down here from where they live in Maryland.”
Howard’s association with the Maryland Hunt Cup, a four-miles and 22 fences, began after he started working for the Fenwicks, historically, a powerful family in the world of horses, hunting and racing in the Worthington Valley, north of Baltimore. The Fenwicks have been associated with many Hunt Cup wins as trainers, owners, and riders. Howard witnessed his first Maryland Hunt Cup winner in 1959 when Bobby Fenwick trained Fluctuate, the horse he rode as Master of Foxhounds with Green Spring Valley.
“I have worked for three Fenwicks – Bobby, Cuppy and now Charlie Fenwick,” said Howard. “I had an uncle used to take care of horses, Herb Madden, and when I first started fooling with horses, I worked for him. I used to watch him very, every carefully, everything he did, and I learned from him. Everything I learned about horses, I learned from my uncle Herb.”
A story about Howard, written by Muffy Fenwick for the Maryland Horse in July 2011, puts the winningest groom’s record at 10 horses with a combined total of 15 wins in the Maryland Hunt Cup: Fluctuate (1959, 1960); Jay Trump – 1963, ’64, ’66; Early Earner – 1972; Ben Nevis ii – 1977, ’78; Dosdi – 1979; Ivory Poacher – 1993; Buck Jakes – 1995; Swayo – 2000, ’03; Askim (NZ) – 2008.
Sugar Bee, owned by Arthur W. Arundel, founder of Great Meadow, won his debut start in the 1987 Maryland Hunt. He was trained by amateur jockey Charles Fenwick Jr., whose 14th start resulted in his fifth win. Sugar Bee’s groom, of course, was Howard.
When asked if any stand out in his memory or were his favorites, he replied diplomatically: “As a matter of fact, all of them were my favorites. All of them were good horses, because if they weren’t good, they wouldn’t win the Maryland Hunt Cup, right?”
Ben Nevis II might have been a good racehorse, but he was the dickens to handle. All the same, Howard spoke with respect for the horse, piloted by Charlie Fenwick to two victories in the Maryland Hunt Cup before going across the Atlantic to Aintree to win the Grand National. Howard figured out how to get along the horse. Apparently, Ben Nevis had a sweet tooth and a fondness for chewing tobacco.
Grooms don’t get official recognition when their equine charges win, but Howard’s record is still very impressive. Of course, the NSA, jump racing’s governing body in the U.S., keeps track of the standings for leading owners, trainers and riders. It’s too bad there’s nothing official about grooms who look after great Thoroughbreds whose athleticism and speed are the reason why racing over fences exists.
“You have to love animals [to be a groom], and horses have different personalities so you have to get to know each one,” said Howard. “A good groom spends a lot of time with the horses and knows them well. They can spot problems with a horse and let the trainer know because it may affect how the horse performs.”
When it comes to what’s most important when taking good care of horses, Howard keeps it simple. “Make sure they are eating well and they’re happy in their environment,” he said.
Howard and his wife raised six children, but none of them had the horse gene. “None of my children and none of my grandchildren are horsemen,” said Howard. “I’m the only one. I didn’t do any riding in my youth. I had about 15 foxhunting horses and it took most all my time to help take care of them. I did some foxhunting – I rode in my truck to watch. They call it hilltopping.”
Still, Howard gets high marks and praise for his character and work ethic from all sorts of people in the horse world. His granddaughter, Sara Manakhi, works as a registered nurse in the emergency room of a Baltimore hospital, said: “I’m always joking with my grandfather, but I have to say that he has taught me a lot about how to be a caring, honest, fair and hardworking person — through his example.”
Howard’s legacy involves nearly 70 years of working with horses and ponies, as and the people and children have been important to him as well. When asked what he has yet to achieve on his bucket list, he laughed and said, “We’ll leave everything just like it is.”