To most U.S. fans the sport of jumping—either over hurdles or in a steeplechase—generates the same amount of enthusiasm as the antics of the half-time band in football: it's pretty to look at, but let's get on with the main show. Many flat racing enthusiasts are even ignorant of the difference between hurdling and steeplechasing. In hurdling the jumps run about 4½ in steeple-chasing they are at least five feet. There are no water jumps in hurdling, and championship races go up to about three miles; those in steeplechasing go up to four miles. For these reasons, the pace in hurdling is faster and horses usually carry less weight.
The jumping sport is virtually owned and conducted by a handful of wealthy patrons and their trainers, most of them refugees from the fox-hunting fields who spend their time pursuing small purses at country meetings from South Carolina to New Jersey and the occasional stakes pot to be found at four major eastern tracks, Delaware Park, Monmouth, Saratoga and Aqueduct. The jumper himself, usually an aged gelding, seldom appeals to American audiences. (In Europe a champion 'chaser like Arkle may become a national hero.)
For years the aloof hunt-and-jump set blamed its unpopularity on lack of publicity, instead of admitting that what was really needed was an end to the monopoly of a few owners and the monotony of watching the same small fields tackle each other every other week. But when new owners and trainers were invited to come in, the invitation by the Establishment was more often than not extended the way the French open the door for American horses to run in the major Paris classics. "We want you to come, but we don't want you to win."
Luckily, horses know nothing of all this, and some new owners and jumping trainers couldn't care less. And this summer we have a new, tremendously exciting jumping star in our midst. His name is Quick Pitch, and he may be the best hurdler ever seen in this country. Quick Pitch is a big, catlike 7-year-old chestnut gelding with a wild white eye and a fighting, kicking disposition. He also has blazing speed and faultlessly smooth action over a jump. His owner, comparatively new to the jumping game but a man who has dabbled in a minor way in racing for 10 years, is 56-year-old Fortune Peter Ryan, the retired president of the Royal McBee Corporation. His trainer is his brother, 47-year-old E. (for Edward) Barry Ryan, a veteran horseman, a frankly outspoken critic of what he considers to be wrong with the U.S. racing scene in general (SI, June 8, 1964) and the first to admit he still knows little about the jumping game. "Hell," says Barry Ryan, "I'm a green hand with a green horse. This is the first jumper I've ever trained, and I really shouldn't have him. He was a top runner on grass on the flats. When we watched him age a bit we either had to drop him down in class—which I hated to do with a horse who held the American record for a mile and five-eighths—or else turn him into a jumper. I went to Pete Bostwick, who is as good a man with jumpers as you'll find, and said, 'Pete, he may be good, but I don't know anything about it. Will you train him?' Bostwick said he trained only for members of his family and turned me down. So I said, hell, I'll train him myself. But I'd never try it again!"
The last member of the new team is Quick Pitch's current rider, 27-year-old James Mahoney, eight years away from the horsy village of Kilcullen, less than two miles from Ireland's famous Curragh in County Kildare. Mahoney, who packs 142 pounds into a compact 5'2" frame, has twinkling blue-gray eyes and, since his first ride aboard Quick Pitch, "a grin on him like a jackass eating sweetbrier," according to Barry Ryan. Faced with competition from such top riders here as Joe Aitcheson, Tommy Walsh and Doug Small, Mahoney has had his first real break with Quick Pitch. They get along so well that the young Irishman comes to the Ryan barn at Belmont Park every day just to pat his horse on the nose. "The scene would make you cry," says Barry. "But this horse is bold and quick, and he needs a bold and quick rider. Mahoney has that rugged Irish optimism and he's brave as a bloody lion. He'll win any brawl he's in, and he'll ride anything."
So far the new combination has done wonders. Quick Pitch has won his last six races (in the first three he was ridden by Ronald Armstrong) and has broken records everywhere. After setting a track record for two miles and a 16th at Aqueduct and winning the Midsummer Hurdle at Monmouth, he won again at two miles and a 16th under the record weight of 170 pounds at Saratoga, setting another record as he coasted home 18 lengths in front. Last week at Aqueduct he was faced with the hardest test of his career, as Racing Secretary Jack Cooper assigned him 172 pounds for the 2½ mile Rouge Dragon Handicap. The next highest weight was 144 pounds, and one of the five opponents who lined up against him was in with only 131.
Weights, of course, are what make handicaps work. The better a horse is—or the better he is thought to be—the more he will be asked to carry in order to equalize the field's chances. Still, 172 pounds is unusually high. The highest weight carried by a winner of the Champion Hurdle at England's Cheltenham—which is where Quick Pitch may well wind up next March—is 168 pounds. The world's record for this sort of thing, incredible as it may seem, is 220 pounds, carried in Toulouse, France in 1945 by a horse named La Bise. "The comparison between the U.S. and European weights is a little academic," says Cooper. "Over there the pace is so much slower, and many hurdlers go even slower than brush [steeplechase] horses, so it's like trying to compare peanuts to popcorn. I know that no winning hurdler in the U.S. has ever carried more than Quick Pitch." Before the Rouge Dragon, Owner Peter Ryan walked into the Aqueduct paddock, shook hands with Handicapper Cooper, and cracked, "Thanks for the compliment, but don't be so nice to us from now on!"
Then the retired typewriter man, who bred Quick Pitch himself, by his own Charlevoix out of a Questionnaire mare named The Ghizeh (who cost all of $7,500), stood back nervously as brother Barry saddled the fiery old gelding. Jim Mahoney strutted out in Ryan's Yale-blue silks, and Barry asked him what he weighed. "I've been atryin' to get up to 145, what with nibblin' between meals and takin' a bit of beer," replied Mahoney, "but I only got to 142 today." To make up the assigned weight of 172 pounds, Mahoney used an especially heavy 12-pound saddle (some used by flat riders weigh less than one pound) and nine pounds of lead on each side of the pad under the saddle itself.
At the start of the Rouge Dragon, carrying the 172 pounds as easily as Mahoney carries his beer, Quick Pitch darted to the front, and he stayed there. "All the way he was jumping like a bird," said Mahoney later. When one challenger would make a mild run at him, Mahoney would open up again, and he went into the last of the 14 jumps 12 lengths ahead of Baird Brittingham's Gay Sparkle (137 pounds). The cheers from Aqueduct's regulars—hardly jumping enthusiasts—grew as Quick Pitch went into that 14th jump. Suddenly they turned to groans as he cleared the fence and bobbled slightly. But he recovered and straightened out for the run home. He crossed the line 16 lengths in front, with a new track record (his third this year) of 4:30[2/5] for the 2½ miles. "He took off a little wrong on that one jump," said Mahoney. "Nine horses out of 10 would make a mistake like that after going two miles, and it would take them another 16th to get back in stride. This horse is like a cat the way he recovers so fast. How can anyone say he is not a classic horse?"
The immediate future for Quick Pitch is the New York Turf Writers Cup on October 26, and Handicapper Cooper probably will slap two or three more pounds on him to keep that race from becoming another rout. Then, says Barry Ryan, "If we don't make a brush horse out of him, we'll send him to England's fine trainer, Fred Winter, and point for Cheltenham and the French classics. Winter wrote to me the other day and closed with 'I'm keeping his room dusted, just in case.' "