Tumultuous & the Spirit of Hurdy Gurdy
(first appearing in The Equiery's March
Darren O’Brien and Tumultuous
at Green Spring in 2012 ©Zane Gorove
Like most Thoroughbreds, the 1999 dark bay by State
Craft (out of Lance’s Chance/Ziggy’s Boy) was bred for the
flat track. Purchased as a yearling for $7,000, Tumultuous never started
on the flat track. His first start was in 2003 on a steeplechase course
for owner Sharon Sheppard and trainer Alicia Murphy, finishing 9th in
a maiden flat in a field of 12.
Passed from trainer to trainer, the horse eventually landed with Tracy
O’Brien, to be sold as a foxhunter sales prospect. It was 1998,
and Tumultuous was by now 9 years old. Husband Darren was assigned the
task of hacking him to a nearby farm for someone else to try. By the
time Darren made it to the farm, however, Tumultuous was his, and Darren
was reluctant to leave him on trial. “He just felt right,”
A builder-turned-lawyer with no horse background, Darren O’Brien
had fallen in love with the girl, and the horses came along with her.
Being the good husband, he went “all in,” eventually joining
her in the hunt field—but never thinking that he might one day
race over fences!
The pair immediately began hunting, and soon Darren was sniffing around
Rod Cameron’s barn, curious about this racing over the sticks,
and asking for pointers from Rod, as Rod had been competing his foxhunters
successfully in timber races. “Rod was tough,” explains
Darren with a grin, “but he always had Tommy’s safety and
health as first priority—and he let me know that! Frequently!
I came second and it was a distant second.”
Their first race was the restricted maiden at the 2009 Bull Run Point-to-Point.
“It was great! Most exciting!,” recalls Darren. “My
first race, and I had forgotten my racing saddle. And it was raining.
The race was on, then off, then on. I was completely and totally soaked,
as was the ground. I had only one pair of goggles, so at times I just
could not see, and it was all Tommy! He took care of me. He allowed
me to ride along, and I did not touch his mouth. He set the pace and
picked his spots. And we finished. Fourth in a field of four, but it
felt like first place because there was so much drama! But I knew at
that point that Tommy was a special horse—and that he was my horse.”
Alas, at the next race, the 2009 NAPPA Championships, the pair went
2010: The Fever
In 2010, Darren and Tommy were back, starting in four races that spring,
with tough luck in three of them (pulling up at Piedmont, off course
at Elkridge-Harford, and losing the rider at Howard County). But there
was one bright, shining and inspiring race that spring, the Green Spring
Valley Point-to-Point, the race that changed everything!
In 2010, officials ran the amateur heavyweight timber with the foxhunter
timber. Although Darren went on to win more races, this is the race
of which he is the most proud, and this is the race that changed his
life. The field included Hunt Cup winner Patrick Worrall on open timber
winner Bequeathed, Hunt Cup winner Charlie Fenwick III on Irv Naylor’s
Hunt Cup horse Askim, and Jason Griswold on timber champion Western
Fling (owned by Stewart Strawbridge).
In less than one hour, Darren moved from crippling self-doubt to soaring
“I was sitting in the jockey’s tent,” explains Darren,
“looking at Billy Santoro and Mark Beecher, Patrick Worrall and
Charlie Fenwick the third. I thought to myself, ‘OK! Maybe everyone
is right! I may indeed need
Darren O’Brien and Tumultuous
(left) also at Green Spring in 2012 ©Zane
to seek professional attention, a shrink, or maybe some
medications that would quell that self-destructive, addictive adrenaline
craving, something that will dilute the testosterone levels. I need
But then, off we flew! And next thing I knew, I was keeping pace with
the big dogs, and then I was giving them a lead around the course! I
was in front by one length, coming around the final turn with one jump
left. I was attempting to move inside for the short line, when all of
a sudden a voice boomed: ‘Don’t try it, jock! That’s
my line!’ Holy crap! I froze! Hell,I almost jumped off. I was
shook, and Patrick Worrall grabbed that line, and the lead, and won
the race. But even though I came in second, in that moment, I realized
that those seasoned jockeys had taken me seriously, and had only beaten
me because of my inexperience. I was in it now!”
Despite coming in second in the race, Darren was first in his division,
and that win helped him secure the Gentleman Rider/Hunter Chase Timber
award for the season.
2011: A Crisis of Faith
It was the end of the hunt season and the voices in Darren’s head
had started to get louder: “I was a little too old. I started
too late. I was up against professional trainers, I was up against ‘real
jockeys’ and Maryland Hunt Cup-nominated horses. I was out of
my league? Should I even be racing?”
The turning point for Darren came when he stumbled on an article in
The Equiery. (Editor’s disclaimer: yes, this is our favorite part
of this article, so we let Darren tell the story from here.)
“I stopped my normal routine, walked to the closest comfortable
chair and read the story,” recalls Darren. “I read it twice,
maybe even three times that day. The author [Margaret Worrall] connected
me to that era, the era of Jay Trump, Mountain Dew—and to this
foxhunter, this Hurdy Gurdy and his rider, Kingdon Gould. This foxhunter
with this desire and determination to race. Who was this Hurdy Gurdy?
This Mr. Gould?
“A potential parallel universe? A very different time period,
but nonetheless, a connection. Mr. Gould’s determination, at just
the right time with just the right horse. Yes, the perfect horse!
“As I read on about Mr. Gould and the wonderful Hurdy Gurdy, I
tried to take myself back to what I thought the races would have been
like 30 years ago, the lack of technology, the nasty useless helmets,
no lightweight vests, no shock pads on the arms, spine or hips, no shock
trauma helicopters, no ambulances or paramedics strategically placed
along the course. These are significant advantages in racing these days.
Not that one plans on falling. But the point is, if I am doubting my
age and my capabilities, with all these high-tech safety nets, what
must it have been like for Mr. Gould in the 1960s? If he could do it
then, surely I could do it now.
“Mr. Gould seemed to execute everything he decided to pursue with
a high degree of precision and strategic planning. Take it on, and do
it right! Put more in, get more out! This Mr. Gould understood—hell,
he wrote the book! As the article intimates, and what I believe, is
if you put more into your life and into the people around you, you get
more out of life. More meaning, more depth, more love, more caring—and
far more excitement!
“But more importantly, in the story of Hurdy Gurdy and Mr. Gould,
I realized that I could do this, even though I am not—and do not
consider myself to be—a ‘real jockey.’ Like Mr. Gould,
I am determined. I love the challenge, the adrenaline, and the competitive
athletics. I have a wonderful, supportive family. But most importantly,
like Mr. Gould, I am lucky to have a magic horse; I am lucky to have
Tumultuous, my Hurdy.”
His spirits revived, Tommy and Darren made neat work of the 2011 season,
entering and winning two races.
Darren O’Brien with Kingdon Gould
and the Hurdy Gurdy trophy ©Crystal Kimball
2012: Movin’ Up
Now, come 2012, things got a bit more interesting.
Tommy and Darren started off strong, winning their home race, Green
Spring Foxhunter Timber, with a respectable field of four. Next up,
Elkridge-Harford, coming in second behind winner Brands Hatch.
But his final race of the season is one Darren would
rather forget, but at the same time, is proud that he did. The pair
had stepped up to an open timber, the $10,000 Howard County Cup, which
had a full field of six horses. “Tommy was so fit, he should have
won. I held him back way too long. I had made a bit change the week
before the race—against better advice. When we finished the race,
Tommy was very upset. You could see it. He was not happy with me. He
had hardly broken a sweat. He could have run that race twice.”
The duo came in fourth, with Sportsmans Hall’s Nondo crossing
the wire first, Billy Santoro up.
The season was over.
Darren and his wife, as usual, graciously attended the 2012 Maryland
Steeplechase Awards Reception. For several years in a row, Darren and
Tumultuous had received the Gentleman Rider/Hunter Chase Timber Series
Champion Award, an award based purely on who among the qualified has
the best racing record that season. It’s a routine award.
The board of directors of the Maryland Steeplechase Association had
a new award to present: The Hurdy Gurdy, which was to be presented to
the foxhunting horse and rider combination who met all eligible foxhunting
criteria, and who had the best racing season as determined by the committee.
The award conditions do not limit the foxhunting horse and rider to
foxhunter-only races. The award is given in memory of the great foxhunter,
Hurdy Gurdy, and his amateur/owner foxchasing rider, Kingdon Gould.
For the committee, the choice was obvious: Tumultuous and Darren O’Brien
exhibited gameness and sport in the spirit of Hurdy Gurdy and his rider.
But while obvious to the committee, the award would come as something
of a surprise to Darren! Darren had not noticed that the 2012 Conditions
Book featured a new award, and the story of Hurdy Gurdy had receded
back into the sands of time. When his name was called, along with Tumultuous,
as the inaugural recipient of the Hurdy Gurdy Perpetual trophy, Darren
was at first struck speechless. As the applause and camera flashes died
down, a still-stunned Darren effusively told the audience that it was
the story of Hurdy and Mr. Gould that inspired him to kick on, to keep
racing, to keep trying.
For 2013: Hunt Cup Hopes
After Rod Cameron’s paternal oversight, Darren and Tumultuous
are ramping up the intensity in their training under the tutelage of
“Billy, he is a technician. He has that magic touch. But Tracy
is still our biggest influence. She found Tommy, she helps me condition
him and care for him—and for me!
“We had a difficult start to the winter. Tommy started with a
bad bruise and ended with a bad split in the right front heel. He was
not sound until early February, but we are moving forward now. The ideal
plan would be that I would start him in a Green Spring race with a nice
finish, and then move him on to the Western Run Plate at the Grand National,
and after that…maybe the Hunt Cup!”
With Darren or Billy in the irons? “I would like it to be me!”
laughs Darren, “If Kingdon and Hurdy could run in it, then we
can do it! But we will see. It will be a group decision, with Billy
and Tracy holding most of the votes!”