David Semmes squinted as the horses raced around the final bend at Thornton Hill Farm Saturday. His fists clenched and unclenched as he silently willed his horse to take the lead.
As Semmes looked up the long homestretch, it was almost like he was peering back in time.
Jockey Jacob Roberts unleashed the talented veteran’s best run following the final fence; Fogcutter devoured the early leaders and swooped to the wire three lengths — and counting — ahead of his mismatched rivals to win Saturday’s featured open hurdle race at the seventh annual Thornton Hill Hounds Point-to-Point near Sperryville.
“I’ve been here before,” Semmes said with a smile as he crossed the track to get into the winner’s circle at the mountainside course. “Many times.”
From 1971 to 1986 Semmes was a leading competitor in the owner-rider timber series on Virginia’s point-to-point circuit. He remains intimately involved in steeplechasing as an active owner, hands-on from his Indian Run Farm in Huntly, just a couple of villages north of Bill Fletcher’s Thornton Hill spread.
“I just love this course,” Semmes said of the Thornton Hill circuit, hilly and spectator-friendly. The venue was brimming with a big early fall crowd, eager to cheer the competition at the season’s circuit opener. Semmes said he was particularly happy for Saturday’s victory as it was his first with Fogcutter, newest addition to his small steeplechase string in training with longtime friend Dot Smithwick.
Indian Run purchased Fogcutter from Tom Voss’s Maryland-based stable mid-summer.
Roberts reserved Fogcutter far off the early pace but kept him well within striking distance as Waracha (Suzanne Stettinius up) held the lead in the early going. Harry’s Crown (Carl Rafter) moved to Waracha at the last fence and these two battled through the stretch but both were helpless as Fogcutter came flying to win going away.
“He jumped really well,” said Roberts, last year’s Virginia and national champion apprentice. “Classy.”
Owner Semmes was circumspect. “Dot found him for me,” he said. “She’s been my trainer for four, five years now, but we’ve known each other for 40. We don’t need a lot of conversation. She just told me I ‘wanted’ this horse. I’d say she was right.”
Semmes, former master of the local Old Dominion Hounds and longtime Rappahannock resident, counted this his 46th time at Thornton Hill. Before Thornton Hill Hounds split off from the original Rappahannock Hunt in 2002, Semmes competed in the Rappahannock races here. “I must’ve ridden this course 20 times or more,” Semmes said, reminiscing about his experience at the mountainside venue. “You never forget barreling off that hill,” the steep west-facing slope of Turkey Mountain used on the timber circuit. “It’s quite a thrill.”
Fogcutter broke his maiden for Voss and owner-breeder Fox Ridge Farm at Colonial Downs in 2008. He tailed off poorly last autumn, falling at Saratoga in August, again at Montpelier in early November and at Camden two weeks later.
Dropped into claiming company this spring, Fogcutter regained his stride, running well (second) at both Middleburg Spring and Tanglewood before winning at Fair Hill in late May. Semmes purchased the horse mid-summer — he raced for Indian Run, Voss as trainer, at Colonial Downs in late June, finishing sixth, then shipped to Smithwick’s Sunnybank Farm near Middleburg for rest and preparation for a fall campaign.
The regally-bred 7-year-old is by Woodman, champion son of Mr. Prospector, out of the Red Ransom mare Upper Noosh. Champion Red Ransom was bred in Virginia by the late Paul Mellon.
A new feature on Virginia’s fall circuit is the experimental use of the new “SafTFence” hurdle. The fence looks exactly like the National Fence — a portable, green, tarp-covered foam roll set in front of a firm frame topped with dark plastic simulated brush. The primary difference between the SafTFence and the National Fence is that the rear frame is somewhat shorter, and the box is constructed of plastic rather than steel.
“I like the new fence,” said three-time Virginia champion Carl Rafter, who won the maiden hurdle with Mimi Abel-Smith’s Different Drum. “It jumped well . . . the spot on the course was perfect — it was set uphill so the horses were backed off a little already. The jumps are a couple inches bigger, so the horses are wanting to stand off (from them, for their take-off spot) more. Is that good or bad? Well, that depends on the horse, I guess.
“That plastic is pretty tough, though. I mean, sometimes you can barely break the plastic on a water bottle. I think the reason this fence might be better is the height, not the materials.”
Fellow jockey Jeff Murphy, reigning leading rider, also thought the jump rode well. “It felt just the same galloping (up) to it,” he said. “No different.”
In the timber feature, Buck Kisor’s veteran Gather No Moss (Mark Watts up) assumed command at once and held a comfortable lead until approaching the last fence. There, rival G’Day G’Day (Rafter) threatened but stumbled upon landing and lost his rider. Gather No Moss finished alone, maiden Aero (Jeff Murphy up) second.
Rafter suffered a non-displaced fracture of his right knee in the fall. He injured the same leg two years ago at the Blue Ridge fall races, and again last spring at Fairfax. Rafter could be sidelined for six weeks, or more, he reported.
Two first-timers got into the winner’s circle at Thornton Hill, Alex Thomas booting home Peggy Steinman’s Piney Mountain in a division of the open turf. Vika Monroe steered maiden Belalang to win the turf sprint.
Without any measurable rain in the region for more than three weeks, entries for Thornton Hill were relatively good considering the state of the economy and testing conditions for training this summer. The race committee irrigated the course, easing the firm ground a bit in an effort to keep racing safe.