Steeplechase jockey Connor Hankin

Steeplechase jockey Connor Hankin (Photo by Harry T. Aycock / April 28, 2012)

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.