Allan Shreve on Cool Fellow at last year's Blue Ridge Point-to-Pooint. Photo by Douglas Lees
They are competitors, friends, racing rivals.
Co-champions in the Seven Corners owner-rider timber series last term, Ken Shreve and Ben Swope agree: Steeplechasing is as much about camaraderie as it is about sport.
“We're not getting paid for this. It's all about the fun,” said Swope, whose Incaseyouraminer tied with Shreve's Cool Fellow for the 2012 division title.
“Okay, I'm a little bit of an adrenaline junkie, but, mostly, this is about a shared interest, something you can do with people you like, and with your family,” he added.
An insider called point-to-point the purest amateur sport this side of the old Olympic format.
Amateur racing is contested in limited divisions like the foxhunters' series and ladies' timber in addition to the Seven Corners series for jockeys who own their own mounts. The tight-knit circuit has a fraternity feeling, a relatively small circle of friends with a common ardor for an uncommon pastime.
These are jockeys, indeed some of them ride every bit as well as their professional counterparts who are paid for their skills.
But these jockeys have jobs, outside careers that take them to an office cubicle, some of them, in a suit and tie, leaving them to squeeze in the arduous physical toll it takes to train horses for after-hours.
There's good reason.
“The first time I ever rode a horse fast over a fence in a race, I was hooked,” said Shreve of his 2000 debut at age 30. He won. “There's no feeling like it.”
Though point-to-points run for trophies – “the pots and pans circuit,” it's sometimes called -- there are more rewards than the physical high.
As much as horse racing is an individual sport, it is one that lends itself to building life-long friendship. Competitors become more than that; they are a source of encouragement bonded by danger and speed.
They spend weeks, years, even decades rubbing shoulders in close quarters on the course, sweating together, laughing together, sometimes crying together. A special bond develops. Good-natured ribbing belies intimacy and affection.
Friendship built from rivalry starts with mutual respect.
“I've always liked Ben,” Shreve said. “He's a great guy, a good competitor. I've got a lot of respect for him.”
To be sure, in the post parade jockeys wish each other good luck. But come flag-fall, friends become adversaries.
Shreve and Swope are no different.
Part of the mutual respect, Shreve said, comes from recognizing that, like him, Swope is another of the “little guys” in the sport -- an owner-trainer-rider with just one or two horses, usually flat track rejects.
Today's racing business, 'chasing included, is driven by lucrative prize money and increasingly expensive horses. Only the point-to-point divisional circuit – the limited series races – remains the bailiwick of part-time horsemen.
For them, finding time and money to do it is always an issue. Both Shreve and Swope are fathers of two young children, and each has a busy career. The business of horse training takes a backseat to the business of life.
Still, Shreve and Swope have found the winning combination, knitting together work and play. They have figured a way to combine the serious work of getting their horses – and themselves – racing fit, at the same time running their busy households.
“It's a lot of work,” Swope said. “My wife has gotten used to it. She knows that when I'm training, I just sort of don't eat. But she's even more competitive than me, I think. She understands.”
Ken Shreve, 42, grew up in Loudoun County's hunt country, learning to ride from aunt Laura Lee Shreve Newman – one of the nation's first female jockeys – and showing on the A-circuit.
He foxhunted with his father, and grandfather, A.K. Shreve Jr. and Sr., whenever he could. They operated – still do – Maintree Farm near Leesburg.
Shreve studied business at college, leaving the horse world a few years while working in sales and marketing after graduation in 1995. Last year, he joined the family business, helping operate Maintree, a busy lesson and boarding stable.
It's a long stretch from the show ring to the racetrack; Shreve credits his racing career to the hunter pace circuit.
In 1999, Shreve and a friend raced in the fast time hunter pairs division. He found the combination of jumping at speed and competition intoxicating.
“Loved it,” he said.
He made his steeplechase debut the very next spring at age 30. Shreve won his first start, the foxhunters' timber at Casanova, with Rear View Mirror. He won the divisional title that year, stepping up into the more competitive Seven Corners races in 2001.
Seven Corners has long been a proving ground for amateur racing's finest. One of the sport's all-time leaders, Randy Rouse was a Seven Corners specialist, as was eventual national amateur champion Speedy Smithwick.
Shreve won the owner-rider series in 2005 and '06, and again in '09 and '11. He's not sure he has a Seven Corners horse for 2013, but he is training a turf horse for a client.
“I gallop my own,” Shreve said, counting the bond between horse and rider that develops from long training hours among reasons he sticks with the game. “I hunt all of them.” He whips for the Loudoun Hunt.
“Hunting is a great way to develop a good base of fitness. You spend so much time in the tack, you develop a really close relationship with a horse,” he said. “You're like a team.
“Yeah, it might be more relaxing to tailgate and have a beer and just watch the races on the weekends, but win or lose, you feel exhilarated at the finish line. It makes it worth it. With even just a trophy as your prize, racing is challenging, and rewarding.”
Seven Corners rider Matt Hatcher, who has raced against both Shreve and Swope, echoed the notion of friendly competition.
“You know when you're pulling up, after a race” in the little “finishing canter” so well known to jockeys. “You're just glowing, and you have this common bond. You're with people you respect and like, doing something you love.”
Ben Swope, 44, is a native of Westminster, Md. Unlike Shreve, who was born into the world of hunting and racing, Swope entered the industry by virtue of proximity, and youthful enthusiasm.
A neighbor in his rural township near Maryland's Mt. Airy, Charlie Conaway of Taylorsville, “had some jump horses. I just wandered over there one day when I was 11, 12 years old and just started helping him out,” Swope recalled. “Then one day, you're helping him ride, then one day you're galloping horses. It just sort of … happened.”
He didn't ride after high school when attending farrier school – the Eastern School of Farriers in southern Virginia -- but soon found his way back, acquiring his first racehorse with Conaway's help and started racing at age 20.
He's won his share – taking season championships with Incaseyouraminer – novice timber horse of the year in Maryland in 2011 -- and the Seven Corners series with Just Call Me Casey in 2002.
He said he has a couple in training for 2013, though Incaseyouraminer is down with a suspensory injury. He has a new hurdle horse he likes, Foolish Surprise.
Diet and exercise have always been the bane of the nearly 6-foot tall Swope.
“My body wants to weigh 175,” he said, a bit heavy for the assigned Seven Corners weight of 170, which includes the weight of the rider, racing attire, saddle and gear.
To “make weight” for sanctioned races – drawing down to 150 to make the lighter assignments on the professional circuit – Swope turns to exercise and diet.
“No beer,” he said with a weary sigh. “Eat a little, run a lot, work all day. None of the good stuff.”
As to his schedule as a sought-after blacksmith and farrier, Swope works long hours, “as many as I want to,” shoeing sport horses, racehorses, young stock, broodmares, dressage and more.
“I could work dawn to dusk,” Swope said. “It sure cuts into my training hours. You fit it in the best you can.”
Daughter Erin, 14, trains and rides with her father, with both exercising in the afternoon, after school.
Without the use of the all-weather footing of a training track, Swope said afternoon training is preferable; unlike typical morning track hours, frozen turf in his and his neighbors' fields has a chance to thaw by late afternoon. It gives them more training days and less jogging days, and, possibly, more chance for a fitness edge.
“You just get out there and do it,” Swope said of the mild uncertainly of riding after dusk some days in January, and forcing himself to get on when rain and sleet make riding uncomfortable. “You have to.”
Like Shreve, Swope also hunts most of his racehorses, acting as whipper-in to the Carrollton Hounds twice a week.
“That's a great way to get a horse fit, and jumping well,” he said.
Since the Seven Corners series requires horse and rider hunt at least six times in the current season, he said foxhunting is a natural training addition. “It makes your horse clever and steady.”
Family, naturally, is another vital ingredient for a winning season, Shreve and Swope agree. A strong support network is key.
“It's a little easier now that the boys are a little older, and I can leave them home for a little while alone,” said Shreve. “I've got lots of family support. I'm lucky in that aspect.”
Shreve's sons A.K. IV, 12, and Ethan, 10, show and foxhunt some, but they have not expressed interest in racing. They both wrestle and play basketball on their school teams.
“I don't force it,” Shreve said. “They ride in the summer, but they like to play other sports, too.”
Though he said horses didn't figure into his 2007 divorce, Shreve understands the horse business in general, and racing in particular, can be hard on a non-riding spouse.
The added pressure can doom a relationship, especially for the amateur rider, he said. Often, the riding spouse works all day, rides after dark, and has an unusual, limited diet. Free time is spent attending the myriad details it takes to contest a race division.
Then there's practically a whole season of weekends – eight weeks each spring -- taken up by sport, plus some-16 weeks of foxhunting for training and practice fall and winter.
“I would be a nervous wreck if I had to watch [my sons] race, so I can understand how some people don't like seeing their spouse in a dangerous [game],” Shreve said. “I can see how it takes a toll.”
Of the pressures of being a single working parent with shared custody of his two boys, Shreve says time management helps him juggle a busy schedule. “I'm training before sunrise some mornings in January,” he said. “It has to take priority.”
As for weight management, Shreve says he has to work at it. Though he weighed 150 – feathery on his big 5'10” frame – when he started racing in 2000, he now pushes the Seven Corners limit.
“Fortunately, I play a lot of basketball and jog,” he said. “And I actually like to sit in the sauna and steamroom.
“If I ever get a horse good enough to ride in the Gold Cup,” a goal, he said, “I'd have to lose some major weight.”
Swope understands self-discipline. “I do most of our [household] cooking,” Swope said. “I just don't eat it.”
His wife of 20 years, Wendy has learned to deal with the vagaries of the sport, Swope said. “She's used to it. I make it up here and there. I'll take her out to dinner, but I'll just get a salad.
“For Valentine's Day, I made Crab Imperial and lobster tail. I figured I could let go for just one night. But back to the diet the next day.”
Swope's daughter Erin, 14, is an avid junior field masters' 'chase competitor, series champion last year and training daily with her dad for the coming season.
Son Trevor, 10, isn't interested in horses. “He did some of the leadline pony races, but he just didn't stick,” Swope said. “Erin, though, Erin just took right to it. No magic key, she just wanted to.”
He's sure his family worries about him when he's racing – Swope knows from concern about Erin's racing. “You train hard, you learn to ride well, you take precautions,” he said. “If you worry about it, you shouldn't do it.”
Swope's dearest hope is that both he and Erin will be active on the circuit in two years when she turns 16 and can compete in “open” races. Then they could race “against” each other.
“That's when I can retire,” Swope said with a chuckle. “We ride together, hunt together, gallop together. I'd like to race together.
“Everybody asks me, 'well, what if she beats you?' I guess all that means is I did my job training her. It's sort of my dream, to pass this sport to the next generation.”
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