Exploding across the finish line, jockey Marsha Spencer swept to victory in a hail of dirt and dust aboard Thoroughbred Uh Oh Pigeon. That was 1983, at the Charles Town Races.
It would be her last race as a jockey. When the horse was settled back in a stall, and her tack was cleaned and put away, Spencer walked away from a hard-fought career riding Quarter Horses, and later, Thoroughbreds, at a time in racing history when few females had an opportunity compete in the predominantly male sport.
Her experiences on the track could fill a novel. And they would come to fuel the imagination of her first child, Erin Durst, whom she was pregnant with the day she ran that last race.
“My mother rode racehorses in the South at a time when there were hardly any women on the track,” Durst says. “She had to change into her racing silks in the nurse’s station because there was no jock’s room for girls.”
Race name: Blink His Gone
Sire: Dare and Go
Dam: Chief’s Time
Foal date: 11That Durst is proud of her mother’s pioneering rides is clear, and likewise, Spencer has funneled her savvy with Thoroughbreds to help guide her daughter in an eventing career that has recently taken off, surpassing her own prior feats on the racetrack.
“Growing up with a mother who was a jockey meant I was born into the horse world,” Durst says. “She trained racehorses for a good part of my life” after she ended her riding career, and Durst was captivated.
“I can remember being a kid on the track with her. I had a little pony and I can remember galloping across the track,” Durst says. Watching the gallop riders workout in the morning, she longed to be like them.
She eventually got her chance. A friend of her mother’s, who went on to become a hunt master in foxhunting, took Durst under her wing and began teaching her the foundations of dressage. “She told me dressage was just walk, trot and canter and I thought it must be easy,” Durst says, chuckling.
Awakening to the sheer difficulty of what it takes to perform dressage well was just one of many lessons she would master as she began eventing her first off-track Thoroughbred, I am the Taxman.
“We evented up to Training level together, but he wasn’t really cut out for cross country,” she says. “We’d get through the first two phases, and then the third would always be disappointing.”
But she grew because those rides, gaining experience and biding her time while she went to college to study exercise physiology, and later, pharmacy.
Even when her studies forced her to put riding on the back burner, in the most sedate study hall doing her homework, Durst might take a mental journey back to the wide expanse of a cross-country field.
Riding horses, says the full-time pharmacist, is “like a bug you can’t shake.”
While in her second year of pharmacy school, Durst and her mother returned to the Charles Town Racetrack on a tip that there was a fine horse in need of a second job.
Blink His Gone was a massively built 17-hand gelding who exuded flash and confidence. The son of Dare and Go, the only horse to beat Cigar in a race, was rehabbing from a bowed tendon, prepping again for racing when Durst and her mother came to meet the five-year-old.
“I fell in love with him right there,” she says.
A favorite among jockeys and exercise riders, Blink was one horse many at the track wanted to hang on to, she adds, noting that some hoped to retrain the Thoroughbred for an on-track career ponying racehorses. “Everybody loved that horse. He’s a big, red chestnut with four white legs and he just exudes confidence,” she says.
Where track riders saw a pony, she saw an eventing star.
She snapped up Blink and put him into training a short time later.
Finishing her degree, she began working with Blink on her West Virginia farm, training him from the ground up. A year-and-a-half passed before Durst took a break to renovate a farmhouse with her husband, build a six-stall barn, and fence off 20 acres.
Then the hard work began.
Rising every morning at 5 a.m., Durst rode her horse either on the farm, or at lessons that were often over an hour’s drive away. “I haul to every lesson because we live in the boonies,” she explains.
Along the way, she connected with riding coach Paul Ebersole, and it was with him that her riding blossomed. “He provided me with so much good coaching that everything just took off from there,” she says.
Last year she competed in two Novice and four Training level competitions, and wrapped up last year with a Three Day in October.
This October, with her mother rooting from the sidelines and taking pictures, Durst and Blink had their best dressage test ever, coming in fourth. The best part of the test? “My halt at the end,” she says. “He was perfectly square, and in that moment, I knew we had done a good test.”
And over jumps in the same event, Blink took care of Durst.
“The last outing for everyone was at the rain-soaked, bone-chilling Morven Park Horse Trial. Erin was fourth after dressage in Open Preliminary” and later demonstrated how to “take the second fence with no stirrups—clean,” Spencer wrote in a journal entry published by Eventing Nation.
Spencer has been chronicling her daughter’s efforts in the Area II Eventing world for Eventing Nation as the team comprised of mother, daughter and ex-racehorse gear up for the biggest challenge yet. In late October, they’ll head to Kentucky to compete in the Hagyard MidSouth Preliminary Three Day.
It’s been a long, winding road getting there. Beginning with Spencer’s career at the races that ended at Charles Town, and then to start again with her daughter, and with a horse from the same track.
When Durst and Blink burst from the gate and move into a gallop, she will carry on with the legacy created by a strong athlete who ran her race before Durst was even born. And she’ll feel satisfied that she has arrived, on a horse she trained herself, in the dark morning hours on her farm.
“It definitely brings things full circle.”