James Stierhoff & Twill Do

2014 Hurdy Gurdy Perpetual Award Winners

(first appeared in the March 2015 issue of The Equiery)

By Katherine O. Rizzo


It was the Monday before the 2010 Maryland Hunt Cup. Amateur jump jockey and recent Towson University graduate James Stierhoff had a busy spring race season, culminating with back to back races that weekend. Now he was in bed, sick with the flu.

Mondays are closing day for entries for races. Monday mornings, in general, are a busy day for trainers, as they evaluate the situations of horses and available jocks after a busy race weekend. Hunt Cup entries were due by 11 a.m.

It was the Monday before the Hunt Cup, when James, sick in bed, received the call that would change his racing career: Billy Meister wanted to know if he would he be willing to ride a horse for him in the Hunt Cup?

James had never ridden in the Hunt Cup. Although he had been riding timber races since 2006, he had not yet had the privilege to ride in the Hunt Cup. Established in 1894, the Maryland Hunt Cup is the world’s biggest and most prestigious timber race. The granddaddy of timber races.

Billy wanted to know: did James want the ride aboard Twill Do in the 2010 Maryland Hunt Cup? The horse had finished fourth the weekend prior in the Grand National with Billy in the irons, but a fall in the next race had left Billy with a broken hip and Twill Do with no rider. This would be Twill Do’s first Hunt Cup.

Of course James wanted the ride. “I said yes, but with full disclosure told him I was home sick,” explained James. “He said to meet him the next day and we’d go from there.”

On Tuesday, still sick, James climbed aboard Twill Do for the first time. “We had a short school. Only two jumps. I was on him for maybe twenty minutes tops but Billy said that would do.” For the remainder of the week, James rested.

On Thursday, he headed out to Worthington Farms in Glyndon to walk the course. “I had a hard time of it. It was exhausting and I only walked the third through the thirteenth fences,” reminisced James. “I called my mom to ask her if I should walk the rest on Friday or Saturday morning before the race.” She suggested he finish the course walk on Friday so as to save all his strength for the race itself on Saturday. “It sounded like a good plan so I went with it.”

On Saturday, James weighed out for his first Maryland Hunt Cup.

That morning, Billy told James to just sit in the back and see what happens. “He put zero pressure on me. I think being sick actually helped me because I couldn’t really psych myself out.”

And then Will O’Keefe’s legendary voice reverberated over the PA: “The horses are now lining up across the course. The flag is up. They’re all in line…”

“And Away They Go!”
Across The Sky had a commanding lead throughout most of the race. James worked Twill Do forward jump by jump. Then at the 20th, Across The Sky refused. “I remember thinking, ‘what is going on?’ and then got neck-and-neck with Private Attack going into the 20th.” James and Twill Do got a little ahead of Private Attack, who had gone on to win the Hunt Cup in 2011, as they landed the 20th. “And then [Twill Do] just flew the last jump. Perfect jump,” he said, smiling.

As the pair crossed the finish line, many– including James–were stunned. “It took a minute or two to set in. I didn’t grow up watching races but I knew winning that race was the biggest deal of anything I could have done.” Impressive is probably an appropriate word as the Hunt Cup was James’ first win at a sanctioned race and Twill Do’s Hunt Cup debut. The win clinched the Maryland Steeplechase Association’s 2010 Horse of the Year title for Twill Do.

“It was an unbelievable feeling,” said Twill Do’s owner, Lucy Goelet. “Just incredible. I couldn’t have been more happy or more thrilled.”

That night, still sick, James lay in bed replaying the whole race. “I think the importance of the race really set in the next morning.”

So how does a young race rider go from point-to-points to winning the biggest race in American steeplechasing? Through a lot of homework, riding with some of the best and having the will to win.

“I wanted to be a cowboy”
James grew up just outside of Baltimore city in a non-horse family, playing lacrosse. “When I was nine or ten I wanted to be a cowboy,” he said. With that, James quit lacrosse and started taking lessons during the summer at St. Timothy’s School in Stevenson. One thing led to another and James went up to Vermont one summer during high school to be a working student for eventer and endurance rider Denny Emerson.

“He was hungry”
James spent three summers in Denny’s program, always riding borrowed horses. “Everyone loved having him around. He’s just a really nice guy. Very positive,” Denny said, adding that he knew clear back then that James was in this sport for life. “You could tell he was hungry. He wanted to be in the horse world. When you look around the higher levels of any equestrian sport, you see a lot of men but not at the lower levels. The boys like James who stick with it, really want it.”

Denny started to laugh when he reminisced about hearing that James had won the Hunt Cup. “I had just gotten back to the house for the night and was listening to messages on the answering machine and there was one from James. He said ‘Hey, it’s James. Holy crap! I just won the Maryland Hunt Cup!’ And that was it!”

“I think eventing taught me how to help the horse over a fence and this is useful for timber racing, though the margin of error over timber is far less,” James commented. He also said riding lots of different horses helped him the most when transitioning to race riding. “Figuring out how to pace horses and get them to relax while galloping was a little challenging at first.”

After Denny, James moved on to working at Belmont Farm with Bruce Fenwick the summer prior to college. After deciding he did not like that particular school, he took a year off from college and went to work again for Bruce. During this time, he had the chance to ride a lot of different horses before heading back to school, this time locally at Towson University. “James is just a good boy,” explained Bruce. “He is the Michael Jordan of steeplechase riding!”

While at Belmont, James heard that Jay Griswold was in need of an exercise rider. “He gave me my first shot at race riding,” James explained.

“What makes James so great at race riding is his solid foundation in the eventing world,” Jay stated. “This is very good for timber racing. That’s why he’s such a good Hunt Cup rider.” James’ first race over timber was onboard Jay’s Little Dewey Know, coming in third in the Novice Timber at the 2006 Howard County Cup Races. “And he just got better and better after that!” Jay explained.

James Making His Way
After Howard County, James rode Native Mark, also for Jay, to a fourth place finish in the Heavyweight Timber at the Green Spring Valley Point-to-Point a week later. With Little Dewey Know, he finished third again at the Elkridge-Harford Hunt Point-to-Point. All in all, James rode in 22 races during his first season of steeplechasing, and another 16 in his second season. Little Dewey Knew and Native Mark were regular mounts his first two years, but not the only ones.

It would not be until their third season racing together when both he and Native Mark would break their maidens in the 2008 Piedmont Fox Hounds Point-to-Point Maiden Timber, coming back to the winner’s circle again in that meet, this time with And the Eagle Flys for the Foxhunter Timber. (In 2009, Jay sold And The Eagle Flys to Mrs. William Class, Jr.. Billy Meister took over training and then eventually the riding.)

More horses and more wins. But no invitation to ride yet in the Hunt Cup.

Until Monday, April 19, 2010.

Twill Do’s Path to the Hunt Cup
Foaled in 2000, Lucy Goelet acquired the Maryland-bred (Dr. & Mrs. Thomas Bowman) Twill Do as a three-year-old, immediately putting him in training with Billy Meister. By Yarrow Brae and out of A Little Wild (by Wild Again), Twill Do’s little half-brother Foyle (2005) also turned out to be a timber champ, winning both the International Gold Cup and Pennsylvania Hunt Cup in 2013 and earning the MSA and National Steeplechase Association’s Horse of the Year.

At five, Twill Do entered in his first timber race, the Novice Timber at the 2005 Elkridge-Harford Hunt Point-to-Point, finishing third with Billy on board. A few weeks later, the duo won the Novice Timber at Plumstead Farm Races and then finished second in a large field at the Winterthur Point-to-Point.

In 2006, the dark bay gelding raced three times and won once, the Heavyweight Timber at Plumstead. No wins came in 2007 but then in 2008, he won again, this time in the Heavyweight Timber at Brandywine Hills Point-to-Point. That year, Billy began asking other riders to take the reins, including Billy Santoro, Matt McCarron, Jake Chalfin and James Slater.

Twill Do also crossed over into the show hunter world, winning several ribbons with Erica Gaertner on board. “He is a very attractive horse with a very correct jump so he does well in the show ring, too,” James said.

In addition to show hunters and timber races, Twill Do foxhunted and can still be found in the hunt field with Green Spring Valley Hounds. James said, “He is really quiet. Stands at the checks. Really likes being hunted.” Lucy laughed a little when talking about hunting Twill Do herself and said, “I am not as good a rider as James but Twill Do just loves it. It really is a treat to ride him.”

In 2010, Billy reclaimed the reins for Twill Do. Leading up to that first Hunt Cup, the pair finished third in the Open Timber at Brandywine and fourth in the Grand National Steeplechase.

Then Billy suffered that bad break from falling off another horse.

And then came James.

The Gentleman Jockey
“I had known James for a while through Bruce [Fenwick] and Jay [Griswold] and had ridden out in the hunt field with a him a few times,” said Lucy. “We are a one-horse sort of family operation and James proved himself very early on. They really trust each other. I wouldn’t trade jockeys.”

An injury kept Twill Do out of the 2011 Hunt Cup, so James took the ride on Gorgeous Charger, but a fall at the third fence kept them from completing the course. After another fall in another sanctioned meet, James realized that, as an amateur jockey (sometimes referred to as a “gentleman jockey”), he might need to be a bit more choosy about the mounts he rode. “I got knocked out hard. Mike Hankin was there and saw the whole thing. He told me not to go to work the next day. Of course I did - and got sent right home!”

By this point, James was working for Brown Advisory and considering starting his MBA. “With work and school and life in general, I’m just not able to ride as often during the week as I’d like.” Going into the 2012 season, Twill Do was on the top of his list for choice mounts. “I feel incredibly spoiled to get to ride him.”

Not A Fluke
James and Twill Do started out the 2012 season with a fifth place finish in the Open Timber at Brandywine. Next was a fourth at the Grand National leading up to the Hunt Cup.

As he prepared for the 2012 Hunt Cup, James recalled how supportive his owner and trainer were. “Billy and Lucy are great friends. Billy just gets it. He told me there was no pressure and I should just go out and jump around with the same plan of hanging out at the back.”

This time, James started to sneak Twill Do up after the 16th and with a great jump at the 17th, moved into the lead with Professor Maxwell right on his heels. This was all after Twill Do handily made his way over the fallen Private Attack at the 13th. “That was genius on his part! He just propped a little at take off and then picked his way over Private Attack all on his own. I just kept patting him all the way to the fourteenth.”

“He is a great intelligent horse,” Lucy observed. James agreed, noting that he is “extremely intelligent. You can feel him thinking under you. He thinks through any problem put in front of him.”

After the road crossing, Battle Op came up along side him and took the lead at the water. But then at the last fence, Twill Do jumped back into the lead. “He just hit that perfect stride again and landed with 100% of his momentum pushing him to the front.”

“It truly is remarkable to win again. Especially coming back after [Twill Do’s 2011] injury,” said Lucy. “And he won among such good company. It really is wonderful to be a part of it all.”

“Winning the Hunt Cup again proved that the first time wasn’t a fluke,” James said, smiling.

In 2013 and 2014, Twill Do made his way around the big Hunt Cup course, again with James as his partner. They finished fourth both years. “To have completed the Hunt Cup that many times and won twice is remarkable,” Lucy said. “It was soft going those last two times. He doesn’t like the softer footing. Both times he won the ground was rock hard,” James explained.

And now with the 2015 season about to start, things in the Twill Do camp are buzzing–though there is no official word as to what about they are specifically buzzing.

The Hurdy Gurdy
The Maryland Steeplechase Association annually presents the Hurdy Gurdy Perpetual Trophy, which was donated by the Gould Family, the Howard County-Iron Bridge Hounds and The Equiery, to a foxhunter/amateur race rider and horse combination that exhibit the same kind of spirit as Kingdon Gould, Jr. and Hurdy Gurdy. Full time lawyer and part time gentleman jockey Kingdon and his scrappy horse Hurdy Gurdy took on the best of the best in the steeplechase world at that time, including horses Jay Trump and Mountain Dew. They won some and lost some, but kept coming back because of the pure love of the sport and the partnership they formed, earning respect by all.

The Governor’s Cup committee recognized that Twill Do and James have that same sort of drive and partnership as Kingdon and Hurdy Gurdy. “James and Twill Do are very deserving of this award,” said Lucy. “They are both total amateurs at this and James very much enjoys this aspect of his life. I feel very lucky to be involved with both of them.”

James, his mother and fiancée Maisy Cottingham enjoyed the opportunity to meet Kingdon for lunch and to swap stories. “It was great listening to him talk about his relationship with Hurdy Gurdy. It definitely resonates with me. Some horses you just connect with on a different level,” James stated. “The whole concept of this award is really neat: to highlight amateur riders and horses.” James brought with him the helmet camera video from that first Hunt Cup victory. “I think Mr. Gould got a kick out of watching it.”

“Winning this with Lucy and Billy also makes it really special. Lucy cares about her horses as if they are her children. And Billy is the same. The teamwork is great.”

James went on to say, “It really is easy to look back and play the ‘what if’ game. What if Billy hadn’t gotten hurt? What if they had chosen another rider…there is no other race that I would rather have won.”

Thankfully, “what ifs” are only speculations. The facts are that this lacrosse-playing kid/financial analyst adult and this horse tackled the biggest timber race in world. And won it. Twice.

 

©TheEquiery2015

James being awarded the 2014 Hurdy Gurdy Perpetual Trophy at the Governor’s Cup awards dinner last June

Mark Beecher aboard Private Attack and James with Twill Do nearing the finish of the 2010 Maryland Hunt Cup

James being interviewed after his first Maryland Hunt Cup win in 2010

James describes Twill Do as always being relaxed on race day... here he is scratching his head on the first fence at the 2014 Maryland Hunt Cup.

James weighing out at the 2012 Maryland Hunt Cup

After skipping the 2011 Maryland Hunt Cup due to an injury, Twill Do won again with James in the irons in 2012.

James and Twill Do at the completion of their fourth Maryland Hunt Cup together

“I feel inredibly spoiled to get to ride him,” James stated after jumping Twill Do around the Maryland Hunt Cup for the fourth time.

 

Read more about Hurdy Gurdy and Kingdon Gould, Jr.