Bay Cockburn, champion equestrian, dies at 57

February 3

Bay C. Cockburn, a huntsman, horseman and jockey who led fox hunts, won steeplechases and trained champions in the Virginia horse country around Fauquier and Loudoun counties, died Dec. 25 at the Loudoun Cornwall Hospital campus in Leesburg. He was 57.

The cause was complications from melanoma, said Len Shapiro, a friend and former sports reporter for The Washington Post.

Until he suffered a paralyzing fall from the saddle 15 years ago, Mr. Cockburn was at the top of his game in equestrian sports, known for a ferocious tenacity, a passion for winning and an uncommon affinity for coaxing maximum efforts from horse and hound.

Riding his favorite mount, a mare named Don’t Tell Ma, in a fox hunt years ago, Mr. Cockburn was thrown from his saddle while jumping over a fallen tree. So hard and fast did he fall that he was knocked out of his riding boots, which remained fixed in the stirrups while Don’t Tell Ma galloped on in pursuit of the hounds.

Undaunted, Mr. Cockburn continued the chase, running along the wet and muddy trail in his stocking feel while blowing his horn and shouting to his hounds.


Bay C. Cockburn, a huntsman, horseman and jockey who led fox hunts, won steeplechase races and trained champions in the Virginia horse country around Fauquier and Loudoun counties, died Dec. 25. (Courtesy of family/Handout)

In steeplechase races, too, he sometimes fell from his mount while jumping a fence, stone wall, hedge or tree limb, only to scramble to his feet, remount, recover lost ground and win the race. Especially in the final stretches of a race, a friend said, Mr. Cockburn seemed to have a supernatural knack at getting an extra measure of speed from a tiring horse.

“I never met anybody tougher,” said Dennis Foster, executive director of the Millwood, Va.-based Masters of Foxhounds Association and a retired Army lieutenant colonel who served 28 years in special operations units.

But on April 17, 1998, Mr. Cockburn’s riding career came to an abrupt end. He fell from his horse on the eve of the Middleburg Bowl point-to-point race, permanently damaging his spinal cord and breaking two vertebrae. He regained consciousness lying flat on his back under a tree, unable to pull the riding helmet off his head.

He would never ride a horse again. He would train horses from a motorized wheelchair and follow a pack of hounds on a hunt, sometimes getting stuck in a ditch or muddy road, sometimes tipping over.

Bay Crosby Cockburn was born in Shuckburgh, England, on May 18, 1956. Both his parents were fox hunters and breeders of ­steeplechase horses.

He raced horses and participated in hunts in his early years and later trained horses in Ireland. He settled in Virginia more than 25 years ago and most recently lived in the Loudoun community of Unison.

With him, he brought a British accent so thick as to be incomprehensible at times. On more than one occasion he was asked to “please speak English.”

He also brought equestrian talent. Between 1988 and 1998, he raced 433 times in steeplechases in Virginia and Maryland. He had 85 wins, 74 seconds and 54 third-place finishes. He trained 68 winners. He was the leading rider in the Virginia Steeple Chase Point to Point Year End Awards for 1990, 1991, 1993 and 1994.

Mr. Cockburn’s marriage to Chrissy Keys ended in divorce. Survivors include two children, Katie Cockburn of Long Beach, Miss., and Sam Cockburn of Starkville, Miss.; his mother, Anne Cockburn of Warwickshire, England; a brother; and a sister.

At heart, Mr. Cockburn “was a showman,” said Barbara Riggs, a friend who delivered a eulogy at his memorial service. “He wanted people to have a good time.”

Directing and guiding his hounds in pursuit of a fox, Mr. Cockburn was like “a conductor directing an orchestra,” Riggs said.