A love of riding for amateur steeplechase jockey Connor Hankin

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Connor Hankin's dorm room at Virginia could be a tack room. There are collages of race horses on the walls and riding boots in the closet. On the desk sits a framed picture of Hankin and his BFF, Battle Op, an aging grey gelding on whom he nearly won the grueling Maryland Hunt Cup last year.

Clearly, Hankin has a thing for racing. Most mornings, the freshman from Butler rises at 7:15, drives to a farm outside Charlottesville, saddles his ride and gallops over the grassy hills, popping some fences, for nearly an hour. Then he returns to school for his first class at 11.

Hankin, who'll ride in the My Lady's Manor Point-To-Point on Saturday, is a rarity among steeplechase riders. He's 19, gung-ho and one of a diminishing number of licensed amateurs anxious to compete in a perilous sport rich in gentrified lore.

Nationwide, that jockey colony numbers 28 — down from 50 in 1996, the first year for which figures were kept, said Pete McGivney, general manager of the National Steeplechase Association.

"There certainly aren't the group of aspiring young jockeys that there were 30 or 40 years ago," said Charlie Fenwick, Jr., 65, of Butler, a five-time winner of the Maryland Hunt Cup. For some timber races, he said, "it's a challenge" to find enough competent riders to complete the field.

In Maryland, April is the toughest time to meet demands. The state's other big races are the Grand National in Butler on April 20, and the Hunt Cup in Glyndon on April 27.

Where have all the jockeys gone?

"Many kids today would rather play lacrosse or soccer than go foxhunting with their fathers, which is where the interest (in riders) starts," Fenwick said. "That's what happened with Connor. He got a good grounding in the sport and developed a passion for it.

"Guys like Connor are a throwback."

That portrayal suits Hankin, a Gilman grad. Last month, at spring break, he spurned surf for turf, passing up a trip to Florida to gallop horses on a farm in Monkton, from 7 a.m. until noon.

"Better there than Fort Lauderdale," said Hankin, who shed 12 pounds that week. "I'd much rather ride eight horses a day than sit on the beach, that's for sure."

Nor is he cowed by the hazards of the sport, like urging 1,200-pound animals going 30 miles an hour to hurdle post-and-rail fences nearly five feet high. Over and over. For as long as four miles.

"People who know the risks of steeplechase consider the jockeys to be a little nuts," Hankin said. "Nobody ever told me that I'm crazy, but there's certainly the perception that going fast, over fences, is dangerous."

Last year, his first in sanctioned races, Hankin fell at the third fence at My Lady's Manor, banged his head on the ground and was taken to Johns Hopkins Hospital with a concussion. Undaunted, he climbed back in the saddle a week later, on the same horse.

"I'm nervous before a race, but once I get on the horse and focus on the task at hand, it all goes away," he said. "Maybe I'm too young to be scared. But you accept the fact that if you ride 10 races, you might fall off once. There's no need to apologize for that. You cannot regulate safety into steeplechasing; it's like the NFL."

Hankin nearly crashed in the 2012 Hunt Cup, at the 16th fence, but rallied and finished a close second, three-quarters of a length behind. Credit his horse with the comeback, he said.

"He (Battle Op) was tired, after three miles, and there was this uphill fence," he said. "He hit it hard with his back legs and landed head down, front legs buckled.

"He could have given up and rolled on his side, and I would have come right off. But, somehow, he kept his balance, got up and we went on our way.

"That horse just didn't want to give up."

Hankin has the same dogged spirit, those who know him say. Two weeks after the Hunt Cup, he won his first sanctioned race in the Willowdale (Pa.) Steeplechase.

"Connor is a competitive kid and a quick read, and horses like having him on their backs," said Fenwick, a neighbor who mentored him for several years. "They respond well to his hands. I've never seen horses go badly for him, and that's a God-given talent."

Timber racing needs more young riders like Hankin if it is to thrive, said Jack Fisher, six-time NSA trainer of the year

"Connor is a true amateur and there aren't many of them left," said Fisher, of Monkton. "Most of these jockeys are cocky and arrogant, but not him. He's quiet, he's sharp . . . and he's hooked on the sport."

At Gilman, for his senior project, Hankin chose to gallop horses for Fisher, twice winner of the steeplechase Eclipse Award.

"Some kids do their internships with doctors or lawyers," Fisher said. "Connor? He's got the bug."

Hankin was 2 when he first sat on a pony. Growing up, he tagged along with his father on four-hour foxchasing outings on the family's 104-acre horse farm.

"Connor was my shadow," Mike Hankin said. Then, the boy rode to be near his dad, president of Brown Advisory and owner of Northwoods Stable.

"As a kid, I wasn't into the sport at all. I'd decided to give it up," Connor Hankin said. "Then I got a pony named Scooby Doo. He was awesome, he has his own Facebook page — and he made the sport fun for me."

But what sold him was seeing his father's horse, Bug River, win the Maryland Hunt Cup in 2004.

"There's a picture of Connor hugging the trophy after that race, and the look in his eyes still cracks me up," said Regina Welsh, then Bug River's trainer."He was lovin' it."

"That win really sparked my interest in racing," Hankin said. "To see one of our horses, whom we'd owned for six years and who hadn't done much of anything, win such a historic race, as a longshot, was neat – let alone the cool trophy that came with it."

Bug River, now retired, won the race again in 2006. A third victory for Northwoods, on April 27, would retire the Challenge Cup to the family farm.

"That's our goal," Hankin said.

At 16, he won his first race, at the Elkridge-Harford Hunt Point-To-Point, aboard Make Your Own. All of his mounts are family-owned. His father sees to that. Even the horse Hankin rides at college, an Irish foxhunter named Blake, was vanned there from home.

"As parents, it's important for us that Connor not get on just any horse, but one that he knows," Mike Hankin said. "We have to let him follow his passion, but we can do things to make it safer, like giving him horses that have a decent shot of getting around a course."

Makes sense, his son said.

"I'm lucky that I can ride horses whose quirks and personalities I know well," Connor Hankin said. "That's the best part of racing. Sure, there's the adrenalin factor — going fast and jumping fences — but that's not the main reason I do it. I like the part where it's just you and the horse, with an unspoken agreement to help each other out and give your best effort.

"It really is a team sport."

mike.klingaman@baltsun.com

Steeplechase season

Event: 103rd My Lady's Manor

Date: Saturday

Start: 1:30 p.m.

Place: Ladew Gardens, Monkton

Event: 111th Grand National Steeplechase

Date: Saturday, April 20

Start: 3:15 p.m.

Place: Butler

Event: 117th Maryland Hunt Cup

Date: Saturday, April 27

Start: 4 p.m.

Place: Glyndon

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