The atmosphere of Legacy Chase at Shawan Downs on Saturday, September 28 was, like many sporting events, filled with smells from the food trucks, sounds of children playing, and buzzing of people walking around between races. But, during the race, most eyes are on the course. Trainers and owners of the horses cross their fingers for a smooth ride with no injuries- and hope to come out on top. Horse racing has been a long time tradition in Maryland. Regardless of winnings, earnings and bets, people from all over the region come to watch and participate in these events. Even jockeys from Ireland race in events in Maryland.
Steeplechase jockey Ross Geraghty rents a house on a quiet farm in Fallston, Md. Having nothing but his landlady’s horses, grass and barns around him, the view outside his little living room window is picture perfect. But such scenic and humble surroundings are only part of his life.
Geraghty has been racing horses for the past 19 years, and he has raced in countries all over the world. Although he started off in his native country, Ireland, Geraghty is currently making his mark in America. He is the Champion Jump Jockey of 2012, and has won numerous awards over the years. He has also won at Far Hills twice. With a smile, he says this is the biggest race of the season.
“It’s been pretty luck for me. This is the richest race of the season,” he says in his thick Irish accent. “It’s a quarter of a million dollar race.”
Geraghty competed in this year’s Legacy Chase. Sitting outside his quaint home on a white lawn chair, he holds his brown coffee mug and recalls the process of preparation for a nearing race. Much of the training is long term to ensure that the horses and himself are in shape for such race day. Each morning, Geraghty rides and exercises the horses he will be racing. Even though the trainers prepare the horses more than he does, riding them before races is beneficial because he may not ride them at all before race day.
“During the week it’s nice to go and sit on them and get a feel for them,” he says. “My job is really just to be there on the day.”
Geraghty then grabs his coffee mug and cellphone and walks up a tiny hill to his landlady’s barn. The red, yellow, and white polo shirt he wears with a number one on it is bright in the sunshine. Going through the wide opening of the barn’s entrance, he makes a sharp left and begins petting the first horse he comes to. Whinnying and bobbing their heads at the sight of Geraghty, he leisurely walks through the dimly lit barn and pets each of the five chestnut horses.
Because none of them are his own, he does not feed, bathe or ride them. He does, however, have a barn in Ireland, where upon retiring, he may train horses. As for now, his future as a jockey in America looks long and steady.
“Since I’m the current Champion Jump Jockey, owners and trainers come looking for me,” he says with a laugh. “They want me to ride for them and make their horses look good.”
Unlike the jockeys, some attended the race just for a good time. Many of the locals have attended the Legacy Chase since it started 13 years ago.
With his sports jacket under his arm, Willie White, Monkton resident, flips through his program in search of the information for the second race of the day, while the announcer introduces horses, riders and owners. As the horses circle in front of the announcer’s stand and the jockeys hoist themselves onto the saddle, White decides who he’ll place his gentlemen’s bet on.
As he scrolls through the page, his finger stops on each jockey and their listed weight, each horse and their recent wins, and the trainers involved.
“The bulk of them take place in April, that’s when things get really exciting” he says as he places a five-dollar bill into his friend’s hand. They shake on it. “It’s purely for fun, and the beauty of the sport. You can’t beat a gorgeous fall afternoon at Shawan Downs.”
And they’re off. As the field (the horses in the race) approaches the first fence, White’s lips move as if to whisper advice to the jockey, hundreds of yards away. His eyes closely follow the tight group of horses, and he nudges his friend’s arm.
“Its four, three and six, I think,” he predicts. The horses approach the bend, and White maneuvers his way into a spot on the fence. “I want to see them go over the last fence,” he says. Thundering hooves against the ground signal their approach, but then there’s a moment of silence as they clear the fence almost effortlessly.
“The second lap won’t be so easy,” White says. “This fence is much harder the second time around.” He takes a step back as the horses go out of sight for a moment. He stirs his cocktail and refreshes himself with a long sip. Children run behind him, chasing each other on their stick ponies and squealing.
“These races are tradition for a lot of people around here, but many don’t know a thing about racing or horses; they’re just here for the sights.” With a life revolving around horses, White enjoys coming to see people he knows and even some horses he’s ridden. “Everything about these races is fun,” he says, “the girls in sundresses, the horses, and the drinks.”
The crowd turns back to the fence as the field approaches the home stretch. The momentum and energy of the race seems to travel like a wave, through the crowd standing along the rail, as the horses pass them and progress towards the finish. People cheer for their favorite horses, as White keeps a close eye on his bet as they cross the finish. He lets out the breath he was holding and relaxes his shoulders as he says to his friend, “Fork it over,” with a grin.
The atmosphere of Legacy Chase is, like many sporting events, filled with smells from the food trucks, sounds of children playing, and buzzing of people walking around between races. But, during the race, most eyes are on the course. Trainers and owners of the horses cross their fingers for a smooth ride with no injuries- and hope to come out on top. After all, it is the trainers who have spent all year working with the horses for that moment.
The five horses in the barn begin to bob their heads, grunt, and pace their stalls as soon as Willie Dowling walks in- for the third time that day.
“It’s dinner time,” he says to them. The grunts grow longer and deeper as he hurriedly prepares their buckets of grain. Dowling, an equestrian from Ireland, began his career as a jockey and recently switched gears to training. Instead of riding the horses only during races, he now rides them every day and gets to watch the races from the rail.
“I do miss it sometimes, especially when one of our horses wins,” he says, “but then I remember why I quit.” He says that towards the end of his racing career, he wasn’t “falling the way [he] used to.”
“When you’re heart isn’t in it anymore, that’s when you’ll really start to get hurt,” he says, after reminding himself of all the injuries he sustained during his racing years. His injuries include, but are not limited to, a broken jaw and collar bone.
He picks up a stack of grain-filled buckets and scurries from stall to stall dumping them as fast as he can, to keep the horses happy. All is quiet now, except for the sounds of them eating. As his three-month-old jack-russell terrier, “Stella,” insistently licks the remnants of sweet feed from his palms, he tries to unwrap the bandages from the legs of “General’s Prize,” a.k.a. “General,” who is sore from the race on Saturday.
“General here, is only 5,” he says as he walks the chestnut horse into the wash stall across the hall, “and this was his very first race over timber.” Earlier in the day, Dowling took General on his first ride since the race to get his blood flowing again after having a few days off post-race.
“We stood in the stream for a while today, didn’t we bud?” he says, as he nudges the horse. General seems more interested in the hose water splashing his legs. Dowling says the cool water in the stream helps ease the soreness in their legs, just as it would for us.
Stella drags away one of the bandages to play with it. As she tugs it, it streams down the hallway of the barn like a roll of toilet paper. Dowling chases after her yelling, “Stella, I need that,” with frustration in his voice- he had just rolled it up. He recovers the unraveled cloth and begins re-rolling it. He throws a stick for Stella and quickly grabs a lead-rope as she runs away.
“As he leads two of the horses out of their stalls, the others groan as if to complain that they aren’t first to go out. He finishes turning out the other three horses, and then walks over to the four-board fencing near where General is grazing in his paddock.
“He is one of my projects for the next few years,” he says, “and I hope to get another race in him in November before winter, when he’ll just fox-hunt to stay in decent shape.” Dowling will train General for the three big races in April, and hopes that in a year or two he will be fit for Justin Batoff, his owner and a less experienced jockey, to ride him in the Hunt Cup.
“I had higher expectations for him for Saturday’s race, but I’m happy that nothing serious went wrong and his faults are all things we can easily improve on, with time,” Dowling says. “We will begin again tomorrow morning and every morning after that. I like spending all of my mornings here with him.”