Two days after he won the Grand National Steeplechase March 29 in Aintree, England, one of the most grueling horse races in the world, Charles Fenwick Jr. was sitting behind a nondescript desk at an auto dealership in Randallstown, Md., a suburb of Baltimore.
"No, I haven't been able to get much work done," Fenwick said. "I'm still kind of overwhelmed by the whole thing."
It was that kind of weekend for Fenwick, who flew to England two days before the race -- standby on a British Airways flight. Wasn't that a bit risky? he was asked.
"I had a pretty good idea that I wouldn't get bumped," said Fenwick, 32, who was described by the Sunday Times of London in its race account as "a Baltimore investment banker."
"Somehow, investment banker sounded better than 'used car salesman on Brenbrook Road,'" said Fenwick, who in reality is also a partner with the brokerage firm of Alex Brown and Sons in addition to dividing his time between one of three car agencies his family owns in the Baltimore area.
Fenwick and his mount, Ben Nevis, a 12-year-old chestnut gelding owned by his father-in-law, Redmond C. Stewart, won $100,000 at Aintree. It was their second attempt over the rugged 4 1/2-mile course that includes 30 diabolical obstacles that average five feet in height.
Last year Ben Nevis fell at the 14th jump, the infamous Chair, a 5-foot-2 high, five-foot wide scrubbed pine monstrosity with a three-foot ditch in front.
"I was forced to go over the jump and two riderless horses who fell down in front of me," he said. "We landed on top of the jump and he shot me over his head."
This year Ben Nevis went off as a 40-to-1 shot and became only the second American entry in 137 years to win the race.The only other American winner was Tommy Smith, aboard the Maryland-bred Jay Trump in 1965. Only four of 30 horses finished the course. "We survived," said Fenwick.
Last year, Fenwick went all out to win the Grand National, taking a sabbatical and spending 4 1/2 months living and training in England with his wife and three children. This year, he decided to commute, flying back and forth -- standby, of course -- to ride in seven prep races.
"Last year, I primarily went to prepare for the face," he said. "Ninety-five percent of my effort was for that race. I rode every opening. I ran and played squash. And I never experienced the likes of the depression I had after falling off.
"I figured what the hell did I do this for? Is it really worth the ultimate sacrifice? It was a very personal thing. There were a lot of good things at the end, intangible things, the people we met and the experiences. But this year I felt I could do just about as well commuting back and forth."
Before this year's race, Ben Nevis had "done everything he could in the United States," Fenwick said. He won the Maryland Hunt Cup twice (1978-79) and Fenwick became the first rider since Mike Smithwick in 1948-50 to win that race three consecutive times. In his 12 starts in the United States the English-bred jumper was undefeated.
Ironically, in his 12 British starts before the Grand National, Ben Nevis was nothing but defeated.
Still, Fenwick now looks back at the Grand National and says he was not really astounded by his victory, even if everyone else was. "We knew we had a good jumper and the main objective was to stay out of trouble," he said. "It was a matter of survival and the unique thing was our strategy was right and I was able to execute it.
"Our trainer, Tim Forester, really had us programmed. I was the last horse over Beechers Brook (at the 22nd jump). I was lucky to stay out of the way of falling horses. My Horse has a lot of heart and stamina and he jumped well. I was concerned before the race because the course was very wet, with a lot of standing water. Ben Nevis historically hasn't don very well in those conditions. He fooled us, too."
At the finish, Ben Nevis was 20 lengths in front of the second horse, Rough and Tumble, but down the stretch, Fenwick admitted, "I was scared to death that something would happen. I did think of Devon Loch, the Queen mother's horse (that mysteriously collapsed just short of the finish line in 1956). By the third to the last fence, all I wanted to do was make no mistakes and keep Ben Nevis' mind on the race."
That night, Fenwick returned to the tiny village of Letcombe Bassett, an hour from London, where Ben Nevis was trained. He had a dinner party for about 30 people. "Then we stayed up until about 4 in the morning watching the race on the video replay, about seven or eight times."
The next day, Ben Nevis, now a hero, returned to the village and 250 townspeople turned out for a celebration. "It was something like if the Redskins would win the Super Bowl, but three was absolutely no jealousy that an American had won," Fenwick said. "They were proud that a horse from their village had won."
In late May, Ben Nevis will return by plane -- not standby -- to the farm in Maryland and be retired. He will not, however, be turned out in a field to grow old.
Ben Nevis will begin making the rounds of race tracks like so many famous race horses before him to be shown off to the public. "There's nothing left for him to accomplish," Fenwick said.