Though Bennett’s American steeplechasing record Saturday was a one-of-a-kind accomplishment, six or more wins in one day is unusual — but not the first of its kind.
Amazingly, the British record was set by the son of the man Bennett said taught him everything he knows about race riding: Champion flat jockey Richard Hughes won seven races on a single 1996 day at Windsor near London. His father Dessi Hughes, a Kildare, Ireland-based steeplechase trainer, introduced young Bennett to riding and racing when he apprenticed at his Osbourne Lodge four years ago.
On the flat track stateside, Hall of Fame jockey Pat Day won eight of nine races on a card in 1989, and Jorge Velasquez and Jerry Bailey have both won six consecutive races over two days.
Virginia steeplechase historian Will O’Keefe said he thought Bennett broke a point-to-point record set by Randy Waterman with five wins at the 1979 Blue Ridge races.
Chris Antley won nine races in a single 24-hour period in 1987 — four at Aqueduct in New York City and five more later on the night card at nearby Meadowlands in urban New Jersey. Eddie Castro won five races in 2005 at Calder Race Course in Florida, and legendary Joe Aitcheson, long the U.S. leader, won five races at the Virginia Gold Cup meet in 1967.
American steeplechasing Hall of Famer Jerry Fishback, a Fauquier County native, said he won four races one day at the Camden, S.C. meet, with one second. “[Tom’s] is a record that will stand for a long time,” Fishback said. “Most [American jump jockeys] don’t ride six, much less win six. Congratulations to him.”
Setting a record most believe will never be broken, circuit newcomer Tom Bennett won six races at the Old Dominion Hounds Point-to-Point April 5, making a near-perfect run at the Rappahannock County venue.
It was a ridiculously successful day for the red-headed 21-year-old Irish native, who said he “could hardly believe” his great racing luck over the Ben Venue course. “I never dreamed it,” said Bennett, who joined Jimmy Day’s Clarke County training operation earlier this year. “I’d hoped I’d get to ride some nice horses, but this is more than I expected.”
Bennett teamed with Day for five of his six victories early on the card, capping the program by winning the $4,000 timber feature with maiden Adios Diablo for trainer Doug Fout.
Current leading owner on the circuit, Maggie Bryant’s homebred Adios Diablo stepped up in open company in just his second try over timber, handling veterans Ed’s Big Bet (Chris Read up) and Whodoyoucallit (Woods Winants) in the three-mile headliner.
Bennett — who was making his own first start over timber after a short apprentice career in Ireland — reserved Adios Diablo off the early pace. He joined leader Whodoyoucallit on the backstretch, jumped the last in front and prevailed over a late rally by Ed’s Big Bet, a length clear at the wire.
Unique to American steeplechasing, solid timber fences “ride similar,” Bennett said, to the imposing chase obstacles in British and European chasing. Like American post-and-rail timber, the chase hedges are far stiffer than the smaller, more forgiving hurdles, requiring more jumping effort and athleticism.
“They told me to ‘wrap up’ on the horse early,” Bennett said with a laugh about conservatively trailing around the course at first. “I got a hang of it after a few jumps.”
Bennett said he’s still feeling his way around America and the slight differences in everything from steeplechase obstacles and the sport’s rules to regional accents and restaurant food.
It’s harder for a young rider to get “a chance” back in Ireland, Bennett explained, with more competition for mounts. Like many jockeys on the circuit, Bennett followed an insider connection — Day’s brother in Ireland sent him to Virginia — to see if riding on a smaller circuit might give him a chance to shine.
The gamble has paid off for Bennett.
“Back home you sort of get lost in the shuffle,” said Day of the difficulty of “making a name” for yourself on the gigantic Irish chase scene. He followed a similar path as Bennett, moving from Ireland in 1983 to ride for Hall of Fame trainer Burley Cocks, racing for 17 years in nearly 400 races.
“In Ireland, there’s 20 more just like you [lined up] for the race rides.” On the smaller U.S. circuit, Day said, there are always more horses than jockeys, making a skillful 10-pound apprentice like Bennett a hot commodity.
For his part, the shy red-head is taking the newfound celebrity in stride. He didn’t start with any family connection to the sport. A native of Wexford on Ireland’s east coast, he’s the son of an offshore fisherman. Bennett didn’t fancy a career on the water, so he signed on with a local permit-holder in his village before attending Ireland’s well-regarded racing academy and apprenticing for leading trainer Dessie Hughes.
He rode about 80 point-to-points, winning eight, before coming to America earlier this year.
“I like it,” he said of the tight-knit friendly circuit and northern Virginia’s rural landscape. “Reminds me of home.” Bennett lives where he works, at Day’s training facility near Millwood.
Bennett opened his ODH account with a pair of turf scores in both novice rider divisions, winning with Bruce Smart’s Bonded and Michael Smith’s Cul Baire. He rode the Irish-bred Manacor to win the $4,000 open hurdle, steering Bryant’s Plated home in the maiden. He rode stakes prepper Spy in the Sky to win the amateur hurdle.
Only Virginia turf series winner Rhetoricalquestion (Matt McCarron up) broke Bennett’s perfect run. And frankly, Bennett factored in that race as well, though not how you’d imagine. Bennett finished fifth aboard Smart’s Fall Colors, but was disqualified for failing to weigh-in after the race.
“I know I’ve just got to remember,” Bennett explained, “but in Ireland, only the top four are required to weigh-in.” Back home, he explained, jump races often have 10, 20 or even 30 starters, making a mandated weigh-in procedure at the finish line confusing and time-consuming. “No excuse,” Bennett said with a frown.
He was all smiles, though, when ODH master Gus Forbush handed over a check for $1,000 at the end of the day as meet leading rider. Bennett said it will help pay for his pending work visa.
“I think the prize money was a lovely addition, but we always run lots of horses at Old Dominion, anyway,” said Emily Day, assistant to husband Jimmy. “It’s a great place to get in a dress rehearsal for the [upcoming National Steeplechase Association sanctioned] meets. It is a great course.
“The [$1,000] trainer prize was a lovely surprise. I’m sure Jimmy didn’t consider it beforehand, but what a nice bonus to bring home at the end of a banner day.”
At Saturday’s Dogwood Classic near Richmond, leading Virginia owner Bryant scored another hurdle victory, winning with maiden Annual Update (Robbie Walsh). Middleburg’s Riverdee Stable connected with first-time starter Hear the Word (Ross Geraghty) in another maiden division, with Rappahannock-based Clorevia Farm taking the training turf race with hurdle prepper Dr. Skip (Walsh).