As the National Hunt season overseas builds to its apex, the Cheltenham Festival, we thought it might be fun to tell readers everywhere about Blockade (1927), a chestnut son of the great Man O’ War who participated in America’s most prestigious National Hunt races and was, from 1938-1940, an absolute superstar.
This is the story of a little horse with a heart as huge as that of his far more famous relative, Battleship.
But because his National Hunt career in the USA overlapped that of Battleship, who won the Grand National at Aintree in 1938, Blockade — whose career took place exclusively in North America — had to settle for second-best. In addition, as famously protested by John Hervey, aka “Salvator” in American Race Horses 1937 and again in the 1938 publication of the same name, National Hunt racing was in serious decline in the USA, with seemingly no will to save it on the part of those who patronized the sport.
But in 1938, when Blockade took the Maryland Hunt Cup in record-shattering time, he still had a lot to do to get himself noticed. That year his sire, the beloved Man O’ War, celebrated his twenty-first birthday — complete with cake and a live radio telecast of the event, moderated by the legendary Clem McCarthy.
The year before, another son of Man O’ War, War Admiral, had won the American Triple Crown; and Battleship famously took the 1938 Grand National at Aintree for owner Marion DuPont. But THE event of the year was unquestionably the Seabiscuit-War Admiral Match Race — a son and grandson of Big Red battling it out in a race for the ages. Here’s Clem McCarthy’s call:
It was no wonder, then, that Blockade was hardly in the forefront of public attention in 1938 despite an accomplishment that would have wowed National Hunt devotees throughout the United Kingdom. In fact, even though Battleship’s Grand National was a romantic tale of the grandest proportion, it could be argued that Blockade’s Maryland Hunt Cup victory was by far the more impressive…..
Blockade was born at Faraway Farm in 1927. His dam, Rock Emerald (1915), was a daughter of Trap Rock (1908), son of the great British champion, Rock Sand (1900). Rock Emerald’s colt was a chestnut with a small white blaze in the centre of his forehead. Like other famous Man O’ War progeny, Blockade was small, standing just over 15 hands at maturity. There is precious little on the colt’s early years, but he was sold by Sam Riddle as a yearling or two year-old, started running on the flat, showed little promise and was described as “unruly,” was gelded and then changed hands several times, as well as careers. An attempt was made to train him for show jumping and he was also tried as a hunter, but both of these initiatives fell flat.
It was at this point that Blockade was purchased by Mrs. E Read Beard and sent to the stable of Maryland horseman, Janon Fisher Jr., with the idea of training him for National Hunt racing.
Blockade was what is called “washy” — very highly strung and inclined to sweat up, “leaving his race in the paddock.” The gelding was also bothered by a weak ankle, a problem that had plagued Blockade from the start of his flat racing career and was not uncommon among Man O’ War progeny. Scapa Flow (1924), one of the best runners ever produced by Man O’ War, was similarly troubled and after breaking down in his three year-old season, was destroyed; Battleship was another who had issues with his legs, ankles and feet.
Blockade couldn’t have done any better than falling into the hands of Janon Fisher Jr.
A graduate of Princeton, Fisher founded the Maryland Horse Breeders Association and served as VP, Treasurer and Director of the Maryland Jockey Club. He was also Master of the Green Spring Valley Hunt Club for five years and Secretary of the American Trainers Association for thirty, working closely alongside the legendary Preston Burch to improve track conditions for horses and the people of the backstretch. A veteran of WW1, Fisher had started breeding horses in 1929 and by the time Blockade came along, he was also training them.
Fisher determined to build up Blockade’s fitness with regular hunting over the hills and dales of Maryland’s National Hunt country. The first winter the gelding spent with Fisher he was routinely taken out and over hunt jumps and by the spring, Blockade was still highly strung but less so than he had been when he’d first come to Fisher. In 1937 the gelding began to learn his new job, starting in five timber races, none of which he won. But Fisher had to have been pleased with the little gelding’s effort, because Blockade’s training continued into 1938 where the hours and hours of practice would all come together in a dramatic fashion.
In training method, C. W. Anderson compared Fisher to the equally unorthodox Hirsch Jacobs. Writing about Blockade in his book, Twenty Gallant Horses, Anderson says:
“Fischer never bothered to school Blockade over fences. ‘He’s a natural jumper and he knows his business. All he needs is a lot of galloping to get fit. It’s no use to school him over small fences. He has no respect for them and gets careless.Give him big, solid fences and a real pace. Then try to catch him.’ “
In April of 1938, with the lush scent of spring in the air, Blockade went down to the start of the Maryland Hunt Cup, run over a distance of 4 miles with 22 jumps along the way. His jockey, J. Fred Colwill, came from a family of seven and was about to graduate from the ranks of amateur to celebrated jockey, thanks to the little chestnut prancing under his 150-lb. frame.
The Maryland Hunt Cup is a steeplechase. In America, there are two types of steeplechase: hurdle and timber. Whereas the hurdle steeplechase is jumped over plastic and steel fences, as well as brush jumps of up to 52 inches in height, timber racing is conducted over solid and immovable wooden rail fences that, in the most extreme case, may reach five feet. The distance of a timber steeplechase is also longer than that of a hurdle, ranging from three to four miles (6 km). Timber jumps require horses to jump in an arc, in deference to the unyielding nature of the rail fences. An important factor in success at timber racing is for the horse to land in stride, so that it can carry its speed forward on the flat part of the race course.
Here’s C. W. Anderson’s account of Blockade’s win:
“…He went off in front and stayed there. The pace was terrific for such difficult fences, but it suited him. Blockade jumped big, much bigger than most horses. Those who took off head and head with him usually went down. He was cut on the pattern of his great sire: he did things in a grand way. His only mistake in this race was at the seventeenth fence…Blockade failed [to judge its breadth] by a foot and took out the top rail completely…[after which] Blockade drove on to a brilliant victory.”
And “brilliant” it was. Blockade and his jockey covered the 4 miles in a record 8:44 — a time that stood for 22 years. It was the little gelding’s first win for Janon Fisher Jr.
Finally, a horse who had failed at everything he had tried came up a winner. It may well have been Man o’ War’s best birthday present of all.
Blockade’s stupendous career continued. In 1939 and 1940, he won the Maryland Hunt Cup again. To win it once was outstanding. To win it three times was unprecedented. (Ironically, the next horse to do it, Mountain Dew, was out of a mare who was a daughter of War Admiral, bred by Janon Fisher Jr. and ridden by Fisher’s son. Mountain Dew and the great Jay Trump ran against one another in the Cup, placing first and second in alternate years. However, the year after Mountain Dew’s retirement, Jay Trump also completed “the triple.”)
Blockade’s 1939 win — in which the gutsy gelding edged out a superstar in Coq Bruyere — went down as the most exciting horse race of the season. As the Miami News of April 29, 1939 reported it:
“…Four miles over the toughest timber course in the country and the chestnut beat the gray by a bob or two of his silken head. It was by far the most thrilling race in this country in many years and the oldest Maryland inhabitant had to go back a long time to find something to parallel this 46th running…But there never has been one to match this throat-catching struggle of Coq Bruyere, John Strawbridge’s pet, which won everything else last year, to catch the front-running 1938 winner, on top from drop of flag to judges’ eye.”
The third win gave the 11 year-old Blockade’s owner, Mrs. E. Read Beard, permanent possession of the Gold Challenge Cup, donated to the Maryland Hunt Club in 1913 by Rose Whistler. In 1939, Blockade also won the Maryland Grand National, a race which — like the Maryland Hunt Cup — is still run today under its new name, “The Breeders Cup Grand National Steeplechase.”
By now, Mrs. Read’s gelding had become a legend in his own time. His victories made headlines across the country, and his groom, Walter Tyndall, was fond of saying, “Blockade? He’s diseased with speed.”
In 1941, the 12 year-old Blockade took the year off to recover from a tendon injury. Although remaining in Fisher’s stable, Blockade had been sold again, to a Mr. Charles Ewing Tuttle, Fred Colwill’s father-in-law. The sale took place in the same year (1941) that Colwill married Tuttle’s daughter, making it possible that Blockade was a gift to a new son-in-law.
1942 got off to a sorry start when jockey Colwill made a mistake on course, forcing horse and rider to watch as Winton, owned by Stuart Janney, galloped to victory in the 1942 Maryland Hunt Cup. The decision was made to start Blockade in the prestigious Virginia Gold Cup a week later.
Blockade went down at the seventeenth fence. As described by William Myzk in his book, “The History and Origins of the Virginia Gold Cup” :
“The crowd was hushed, waiting for word that their hero had only been knocked out, but no word came. The great Blockade had jumped his last fence and run his last race. A saddened audience went slowly home, knowing that they had witnessed the passing of one of the gamest sons of the great Man O’ War.”
Ride The Maryland Hunt Cup with a jockey and his horse, Twill Do. This is rather long (19 minutes) but even watching part of it gives a sense of what it took — and takes — to win the Maryland Hunt Cup three times in a row. And perhaps, as you watch, you will take a moment to remember a great little horse whose heart was as deep as the 4-mile course and whose courage dwarfed its 22 fences. (NOTE: I have watched the footage before posting it. One horse goes down and there are two refusals but no-one is hurt.)
Related articles on THE VAULT:
Anderson, C.W. Twenty Gallant Horses (ISBN-10: 0027055302; ISBN-13: 978-0027055306)
Winants, Peter. Steeplechasing: A Complete History of the Sport in North America (ISBN – 10: 1461708222; ISBN – 13: 9781461708223)
: 100 Years of the Maryland Hunt Cup (http://www.equiery.com/archives/Steeplechase/100YearsHuntCup.html)
McCausland, Christianna. Maryland Steeplechasing (ISBN-10: 0738542008;ISBN-13: 978-0738542003)
Myzk, William. The History and Origins of the Virginia Gold Cup (Virginia: The Piedmont Press)
NY: The Sagamore Press. American Race Horses 1938
The Miami News (April 30, 1939) “Blockade Wins In Close Race Maryland Hunt”
Chicago Tribune (April 28, 1940) “Blockade Wins Steeplechase And Hunt Cup”
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