The eyes of the nation may have been centered on Louisville on a certain Saturday not long ago, but just before, during and after the Kentucky classic a chapter of horse history with a smaller, and perhaps even more select, circulation was also being written. In Maryland, Virginia and Tennessee the peak events of the spring hunt-racing season (which-had been under way since March 23 and ends, appropriately enough, this week in Louisville) vied with the Derby for attention, offering not purses but prestige for the gentlemen riders, with cups the prize for a special test of courage.
For one rider, a 24-year-old licensed trainer at Jamaica named Eugene Weymouth, it was an active and satisfying interval in his avocational career of hunt racing. He was aboard the winner of the Maryland Hunt Cup on a horse that was bought eight years ago for $50. And, though he was downed at the Virginia Gold Cup, he bobbed up again to win the Iroquois steeplechase in his first attempt.
Weymouth, son of a Wilmington, Del. stockbroker, is one of a family with an affinity for horses. His parents both owned and rode hunters, his sister Patricia is a talented horse-show rider, and his brother Frolic is captain of Yale's polo team. Gene's childhood yen was for steeplechasing, but when he grew up to be a sizable 6 foot 3, weight became an insoluble problem. Timber races, however, are traditionally amateur affairs, and weight allowances always have been high. Gene's 150 to 155 pounds is no handicap.
So in Maryland on the Saturday before Derby Day, Weymouth found himself up on a horse named Ned's Flying, ready—with five other contenders—for the punishing race of four miles over 22 timber fences. The steep, violet-thatched hillside was crowded with some 15,000 spectators. Picnickers had packed their hampers, formed pools and pulled slips for a horse. "Ned's Flying!" exclaimed one spectator, examining his slip, "why, he couldn't win if he cheated!"
June 2, 1957
He couldn't have been more wrong, but for a while it looked as though he might be right. When the horses had rounded the course for the first time, Hugh O'Donovan's Lancrel, last year's winner, was leading. Two horses were out of the race, and Ned's Flying was trailing by five lengths. The field disappeared behind a knoll, then reappeared on the far side of the valley. Infraction had fallen, and although his rider had quickly remounted he was now trailing badly. Lancrel came to new grief at the 18th fence (he had earlier refused the 13th) and was out. It was now a two-horse contest between Ned's Flying and Gold Tar with E. H. (Tiger) Bennett aboard.
Since there was no public-address system, the spectators surged down the hill to see who the winner would be. It was Ned's Flying, bought as a broken-down 2-year-old for Mrs. C. Paul Denckla in 1949. For Tiger Bennett, the defeat was his 10th in 10 tries.
Contrarily, nobody was happier than Gene Weymouth. "In seven years of trying," he said later, "this was the time I least expected to win.... I even promised my father that I would quit riding in hunt races if I ever won the Maryland. But now that I've won it, I don't ever want to stop!"
Seven days later Weymouth was riding again, this time near Warrenton in the 32nd race for the Virginia Gold Cup. As in Maryland, the race was of about four miles over timber, with a steeply pitched hillside patched with buttercups forming the grandstand for some 18,000 spectators.
Virginia's day offered a card of six races, and the event that preceded the main attraction was, in a sense, more dramatic. It saw the first return of Mickey Walsh's Rythminhim to the winner's circle—a horse that two years ago lost the world's richest steeplechase by only a few lengths after injuring his pelvis on the last obstacle.
The Gold Cup, with its eight contenders, was the traditional and longdistance race of the day, and a fast pace was immediately set by Paddy Smithwick, last year's top steeplechase jockey, on Randolph Rouse's Ricacho. Alfred Smith's Grand Chal, ridden by Apprentice Jockey Joseph Aitcheson Jr., was in close pursuit, with the field strung out behind. The solid timber fences were safely cleared until the 12th, which sent Rider Phillip Fanning to the hospital with a shoulder injury, then the 13th, when a slip of his horse grounded Weymouth. Ricacho and Grand Chal retained their leading and second positions until the last fence, the 22nd. That final obstacle cleared, Aitcheson moved Grand Chal down the stretch to win the small but coveted cup by two lengths.
The Gold Cup, it would seem, is Weymouth's hard-luck race—in 1949 he was spilled in the event and suffered a skull fracture. This, combined with an injury he had received a few months earlier in England's killing Grand National when he was tossed from the Duchess of Norfolk's Possible, kept him on the inactive list for six months and out of the Army permanently.
Luckier this year, Weymouth, unhurt and unfazed, traveled on for still another big race in another state—Tennessee.
The course, which Nashville citizens claim to be the most beautiful in the world, is in a panoramic valley in Percy Warner park, was designed by Willie du Pont and built by the WPA.
"It looks pleasant," explained Dinwiddie Lampton, rider of the first Iroquois winner, "but when you're on a horse coming down that slope toward the first big brush jump, it's like being in a truck with the fluid out of the brakes and the accelerator stuck."
A wide assortment of mounts galloped down that slope before the main event—the 16th running of the Iroquois steeplechase. There was a mule race, pony races, a flat race for lady riders, and imported Jockey Gene Weymouth warmed up for the feature event by winning the Frost Hunter steeplechase on Harry Rhett's Port Call, incidentally setting a new track record.
For the Iroquois, nine horses walked to the start. Not only handsome trophies of silver and gold but a handsome purse as well were at stake. Mrs. William Hail's Another Hyacinth, purchased only a month before, caused some mild comment, but mainly based on curiosity about Rider Gene Weymouth. He had come to none of the prerace parties but had been working the horse and studying the course.
His work paid off. When front-running Jarrin John, last year's winner, began to fade at the 13th Another Hyacinth began to move. From seventh place he steadily passed on by the field, and when he crossed the finish he was a surprising 12 lengths ahead of the favorite, Hurst Park, while game old Tourist List panted in third. It was all the more surprising a victory as Another Hyacinth had never run that far before. But Weymouth had piloted the chaser over the course Cousin Willie had designed in a record time.
Later that evening at the club, Weymouth, the beau of the ball, danced in stocking feet and sipped champagne from a silver trophy.
"Now I know I'll never stop riding in hunt races," he announced contentedly. "If I did, what would I do with my weekends?"