The sport of timber racing was profiled in last night’s episode of 60 Minutes, bringing one of America’s oldest, and perhaps unsung horse sports into the mainstream.
Timber racing is a form of steeplechase that features fixed wooden rail fences instead of the more commonly used brush hurdles. Jump racing in America is almost exclusively an East Coast/Mid-South endeavor, and timber racing is even more region-centric. The sport’s most prominent event is the Maryland Hunt Cup, a grueling 4-mile course featuring 22 timber fences standing as high as 5-feet.
Naturally, the thoroughbreds competing in timber racing would stand little chance in a 7-furlong sprint on the flat, but are some of the fittest and most willing sport horses on the planet. And the people who ride them over these courses…well, a special blend of “horseman” and “adrenaline junky”, to be sure.
CBS’s Charlie Rose paid a visit to the farm of one such junky, Paddy Neilson, a legendary figure in timber racing whose family has been involved in the sport since the 19th Century. Neilson galloped into the Maryland Hunt Cup winner’s circle three times as a trainer and jockey, and though the 75-year-old no longer rides in races, he’s passed the bug on to his daughters, Kathy and her sister Sanna.
“There’s just some magic about the power of that animal underneath of you,” Neilson explained to Rose. “And then when you ask him for everything he’s got the last quarter a mile or something like that and there it is, it is a marvelous feeling that only comes from doing it, really. It is great.”
(Quick aside: can we please go ahead and import the bandana-around-the-neck-look to other equestrian sports? Incredible.)
Rose also spent time with trainer Joe Davies, who saddled last year’s Maryland Hunt Cup champion, Senior Senator. Like many jump racers, Senior Senator (Domestic Dispute—Queen Kennelot, by Awesome Again) came to the sport after an unsuccessful stint as a flat racer. Not only was he unable to keep up on the track, he was temperamental to the point he was a hazard to his handlers. While the intensity and confinement of life at the track was a bad match for Senior Senator, he’s clearly thriving in his second act.
“We turned him out in a big field. And he became a happier horse really almost the first hour he was here,” said Davies. “He didn’t need discipline. He didn’t need to be manhandled. He just needed to be understood. And I feel like that’s what we were able to do.”
The now 7-year-old gelding will be back to defend his title in this year’s Maryland Hunt Cup on Saturday, April 29th.
Like all high-intensity equine endeavors, barreling over 4-5 ft. high solid fences for a miles at a time poses plenty of risk to horse and rider, but for those who live and breathe it, timber racing is quintessential equestrian; an ultimate test of ability, trust and guts.
WATCH: 60 Minutes on Timber Racing