Marshall siblings are taking racing — and America — by storm

Marshall siblings are taking racing — and America — by storm

Marshall siblings are taking racing — and America — by storm

Charlie Marshall steers Blackhall (far left) to victory in the Maryland Hunt Cup

A fortnight ago Charlie Marshall was an ordinary point-to-point jockey, competent, clearly a bit underrated, but not rocking any championships and, in that world, best known for being the brother of Izzie Marshall who is in a tight tussle with Gina Andrews for this season’s ladies title.

But the Saturday before last he entered the annals of amateur riding history, putting himself up there with those American amateurs who came here and won the Grand National, when he became the first British rider to win the $100,000 Maryland Hunt Cup, America’s biggest timber race, on the stable’s third string, Blackhall, with a performance which, if nothing else, would get my vote for ride of the year.

The Maryland Hunt Cup is a unique race and, in terms of history and prestige up there with the National, Grand Steeple-Chase de Paris and Velká Pardubická, in the Czech Republic, as one of the world’s quartet of great steeplechases.

Charlie Marshall celebrates winning the Maryland Hunt Cup/Marshall siblings are taking racing — and America — by stormCharlie Marshall celebrates winning the Maryland Hunt Cup/Marshall siblings are taking racing — and America — by storm

Marshall celebrates becoming the first Briton to win the United States’s most prestigious steeplechase

It is the only race on the card, the prize money is generated entirely from car parking receipts, there is not so much as a coffee concession because everyone brings their own picnic and a there is a seven-year waiting list for a parking spot by the paddock.

The race is run over four miles and 22 solid timber rail fences, the most formidable, the third, measuring 5ft and, unlike Aintree, appears not much changed since it was first run in 1894.

Outside the timber racing community, the race is probably better known here than across the rest of America because it is inextricably linked to the National. In the pre-2012 days, when jumping and stamina were the key attributes you needed for Aintree, it was a National qualifier — provided you got a handicap mark by running three times in Britain.

The sporting American connections of four Hunt Cup winners brought them over for the National and their record is outstanding; Billy Barton was second in 1928, Jay Trump won in 1965 under Tommy Smith and Ben Nevis won in 1980 with Charlie Fenwick, while Uncle Merlin was flying and still in front when tipping up at Becher’s second time in 1990.

Over the years numerous British and Irish amateurs have had a go at winning it including Sam Waley-Cohen, who described it as one for the “adventurous”, twice. Hadden Frost, Bryony’s brother, was second.

Even Gordon Elliott in his amateur riding days was placed twice, Polly Gundry got as far as the third before, next stop, Baltimore Medical Centre, while Patrick Mullins got as far as walking the course this year — he rerouted to Sandown in the end — describing it as the “most intimidating” he had ever seen adding: “If it hadn’t been done 126 times, you’d think it wasn’t possible. Huge respect to Charlie.”

Briton given 10 days to prepare

But the field size is much smaller than the National, spare rides are hard to come by and, apart from bravery, it requires unerring accuracy from the horse, who needs to jump off his hocks, and rider. It is one race you do not want to be hitting the woodwork at all let alone too often.

When Marshall’s fiancé, Hannah Clarke, with whom he trains pointers in Dorset, sold a horse to US jump trainer Joe Davies a year ago she told him that her husband-to-be dreamed of riding in America. “We thought that was that,” explained Marshall, 26, who apart from having ridden 56 point-to-point winners also runs a business, Flexi Chase, making schooling fences. “But in January he contacted us and said he had a ride for me and asked me to come over 10 days before the race to accustom myself to timber.”

His mount, a 10-year-old former Irish pointer who was sold for timber racing because he was too careful jumping and lost too much time in the air, had finished fifth two years ago, a field behind the runaway winner Vintage Vinnie, and fell last year.

On the first morning schooling round the trainer’s farm, Marshall even thought timber racing might not be for him. “I was following Teddy Davies [the trainer’s son] on Vintage Vinnie and went flat down to these 4ft timber rails, no body protectors, his chin strap [of his crash helmet] undone, being chased by an Alsation which was snapping at the horses’ heels,” he recalls. “I was beginning to wonder if timber was for me but the more I did, the more I enjoyed it and I rode Blackhall to finish second in a prep race a week before the Hunt Cup.”

In the race the two-time winner Vintage Vinnie and Davies did their normal thing, opening up a 30-length lead. If you can imagine Crisp 30 lengths clear of Red Rum — it was that sort of scenario but with perfect judgment, he and Blackhall led the chasing group, gradually made up the ground and jumped past Vintage Vinnie in the air at the last to record an historic win.

“The fences are quite spread out,” added Marshall, who won by a neck, “if you’re on a bad jumper that’s a long time to think about the next but Blackhall never missed a beat. To start with I couldn’t believe it. The winner gets a great reception. I had no idea no British jockey had won it — I just wanted to ride in it. I didn’t go to set any record, I went to tick off the challenge.”

Winner’s speech scarier than race itself

Unbeknown to Marshall the winning jockey has to make a speech at a white-tie ball in the evening after the race. “I also had to give a running commentary as the race was shown on video,” he said. “The speech was far more nerve-wracking than the race. At least you can prepare for the race. But it’s their National, and even to start in it was something and they made me feel one of them.”

Now, of course, Izzie (one behind Andrews with a month to go) is back to being the sister of Charlie and her big brother suddenly finds himself in demand, not so much in Dorset but back in America. He flies back on Thursday for another Saturday of timber racing at the last meet of the season.

He is not resting on his laurels though. “I’d like a go at the Velká Pardubická next,” he says. Roll on October.

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