Gustav Dahl, jockey of Gold Cup winner Ebanour : Photos by Nancy Kleck
Gustav Dahl, jockey of Gold Cup winner Ebanour : Photos by Nancy Kleck

The Virginia Gold Cup Races mean many different things to the vast crowd that gathers at Great Meadow on the first Saturday in May. Gold Cup’s a great al fresco party and probably the largest gathering, outside of Churchill Downs, to cheer for the Kentucky Derby on the Jumbotron screens at the conclusion of the day’s races. For timber and hurdle enthusiasts, it’s an exciting race meeting that features the Commonwealth’s biggest timber contest whose heroes are the horses that stay the distance of the Gold Cup’s four miles and 23 solid fences.

Ebanour (IRE), piloted by Gustav Dahl, made it two Gold Cups in a row for owner Irvin S. Naylor and trainer Cyril Murphy. At the final fence, Dahl sent Ebanour surging to the lead for a 1½-length victory over Lemony Bay (GBR), Sean McDermott up. Hot Rize, with Gerald Galligan in the irons, finished third. Six started, three pulled up.

In 2017, Ebanour made only one start, a flat race, which he won. Naylor, who maintains a deep bench of Thoroughbreds, finishes regularly at the top of the owner standings in the National Steeplechase Association. From 2010 to 2016, he was first all but one year (2013). In 2015, Naylor broke his own record, which he set in 2011, with winnings of $778,650. Last year, he finished first on earnings that totaled $997,600.

Ebanour : Photos by Nancy Kleck
Ebanour : Photos by Nancy Kleck

Jack Fisher (Lemony Bay) dominated the 2016 NSA trainer standings, harvesting both titles, Races Won and Money Won, with 26 first places and purses that totaled $1,093,610. Fisher, as a trainer, has broken the million mark three times, including 2008 and 2015. He’s also a champion jump jockey — the one who piloted Saluter to a record six consecutive Gold Cup wins from 1994–1999.

Not all racing stables are huge, and syndicates (group ownership) make racing affordable for enthusiasts interested in closer involvement with steeplechasing. One good example is Holston Hall, led by trainer Russell Haynes whose racing string consists of Hot Rize and a couple others. He grew up under the tutelage of his late father, Bruce Haynes, a successful and well-regarded NSA trainer. When Bruce died unexpectedly in January 2008, Russell had been riding in races for four years, having started when he was 16. Racing was what Russell knew and loved. He’s still doing it.

Terrier Races : Photos by Nancy Kleck
Terrier Races : Photos by Nancy Kleck

Hot Rize is part of the Haynes family’s history with horses. Russell’s mother, Anne Haynes, is listed as the breeder, his father Bruce started and trained Hot Rize. Russell rode him on the flat and in hurdle races, then over timber a couple of times; his brother Will, also a jump jockey, did the honors aboard Hot Rize in at least two timber contests. (Youngest brother, Aaron, who didn’t get into horses, is in med school.) A few months before Bruce’s untimely demise, their hopes were riding high on Hot Rize as he trained for his racing debut. He ran twice on the flat, then beat only one horse in the 3-year-old hurdle at Colonial Cup (Camden, SC). Bruce, who would have figured out how to unlock the young horse’s potential, was gone. Throughout 2008 and 2009, the young horse continued to show championship form at home on the farm but didn’t perform while racing.

Hot Rize didn’t race at all in 2010. He went to trainer Karen Gray, who took him foxhunting, which proved a game-changer. Hot Rize learned to relax and have fun. In 2011, he started living up to expectations and, in his sixth start at the Aiken Fall Races, won a maiden claiming hurdle race by 28 lengths, according to NSA results archives. Two weeks’ later, Hot Rize placed second in his timber debut, then scored a four-length win in the open timber at the Colonial Cup.

Hot rize : Photos by Nancy Kleck
Hot rize : Photos by Nancy Kleck

In 2012, he ran three times, but the next year, at the age of 9, having returned to the Haynes family and under the ownership of Holston Hall, Hot Rize started eight times over timber, finishing in the money for six of them, including one win. 

In 2014, Hot Rize was considered a long shot when he made his Gold Cup debut in a very competitive field of nine, including the 2013 winner, Grinding Speed. He was also the “local” horse: owned by Holston Hall, a syndicate composed of family, including Anne and Russell, and friends, from this area and Tennessee. Irish jockey Willie McCarthy gave the 10-year-old gelding a textbook ride to victory in a thrilling finish. McCarthy earned three titles that year: NSA top jockey for Races Won and Money Won, and Leading Open Rider in the Virginia Steeplechase Association. Hot Rize’s five-start season recorded a second timber stakes win at Far Hills (NJ). 

Timber horses don’t run as often as hurdle horses because the timber races are much longer and the fences solid. Hot Rize raced once in 2015, finishing fourth at Iroquois in the timber stakes. This year, he ran third in the Middleburg Hunt Cup Timber Stakes at Middleburg Spring Races two weeks before he finished third in the Virginia Gold Cup. Gerald Galligan rode him in all three contests.   

Hopes ran high, of course, for all the runners in this year’s Gold Cup, but winning isn’t always measured by running fastest and first. Hot Rize, now 13, showed his heart, which is just as important as speed and jumping ability, even though he was bested by Ebanour and Lemony Bay, who happen to be younger by three and five years respectively.

Lemony Bay : Photos by Nancy Kleck
Lemony Bay : Photos by Nancy Kleck

“I was so proud of how Hot Rize ran and how happy he looked doing it,” said Russell Haynes. “He came out of the Gold Cup like he never ran. He’s turned out with his best friend, my former timber horse, Shady Valley, and we’ll start jogging mid-summer and staff hunting and I’ll let him tell me where he wants to go and what he wants to do. Hot Rize doesn’t owe anybody a thing so it’s all up to him. He’s a very special horse and makes you want to stay in the game for sure. I love this horse. He’s part of the family and has made sure the legacy continues.”

It’s heart that makes a champion — that indomitable spirit and will and courage to dig deeper — and it’s the equine characters who keep trying, like Hot Rize (aka Hotty), that make steeplechasing exciting, fun and, when you get to know the horses, incredibly heartwarming.   

This year, Mother Nature had an elemental hissy fit, delivering chilly rain for the Virginia Gold Cup, but the spirit of “party hearty” prevailed. You could tell the difference between experienced enthusiasts and tourists by their attire: waterproof and/or waxed jackets, hats and boots versus fancy hats, chi-chi sundresses and strappy sandals with stiletto heels. This year, Gold Cup’s milling multitude turned spectator areas, ordinarily sleek lawn, into chocolate mousse-like mud, prompting many fashionistas to go bare foot.

The hallowed grounds of the Gold Cup course itself, where great horses earn championship status, was deemed “soft” — a testimony to the efforts made year-round to keep the turf footing in tiptop condition. Horses and jockeys went out sparkling and returned splattered with mud that couldn’t dim the glory of winning and placing well.

As for the ever-popular Terrier Races, sponsored by Big Dog Pots Pottery in nearby Marshall, nothing dampened the spirits of these nimble, fleet little dogs and their equally keen people. Always adorably cute, their feisty antics attracted a huge crowd to the paddock to watch their practice runs and qualifying heats.

This year, 18 terriers were entered, and all but three were disqualified for going off course by dodging around the jumps to get to the lure. Lori Langford of Big Dog Pots presented the prizes, baskets with lots of goodies, to the winner, Swagger, the two runners-up, and a special gift basket for Carole Stadfield’s Angel, who raced for many years and won her share at Gold Cup but is now retired. Stadfield’s Gabriel raced but was among the disqualified.

“Swagger has one other win at Gold Cup,” said Terry Kirby, who was thrilled with the 7-year-old, her first Jack Russell. “It was raining and soggy, but Swagger didn’t care — all he wanted was the fox tail.”

Kirby credits her involvement with terriers and racing to her mother-in-law, Liz Patterson, who had three Jack Russells, including Swagger, who needed to be an only dog. When Swagger was 3, he went home with Kirby and she continued to race him under both their names. Although Patterson’s entry got eliminated, Swagger got the job done, earning glory for his proud co-owners.

If you missed the Virginia Gold Cup, there’s always the International Gold Cup Races in October, a sporting and social extravaganza featuring terrier races and gorgeous sleek Thoroughbreds soaring over timber and hurdles and on the flat, along with pari-mutuel wagering, in the spectacular setting of Great Meadow.

www.vagoldcup.com