Lessons From Maryland's Steeplechase Scene
Wednesday, April 8, 2009
It was like a scene from a Dick Francis novel or from that old British series "To the Manor Born." I was standing there in the drizzling rain watching dapper jockeys on exquisitely chiseled horses gracefully bound across fields and over rail fences. Around me were ruddy-looking spectators sensibly attired in Wellies and Irish tweed caps. Officials cried, "Horses on course, horses on course," to scoot people out of the way.
Just north of Baltimore lie the pastoral hamlets of Monkton, Sparks, Cockeysville and Butler, comely settings for about half a dozen steeplechase races, including one that equestrians consider the oldest and most difficult hunt race in the country, the Maryland Hunt Cup, whose first running took place in 1894.
The Foxhall Farm Trophy Chase kicked off Maryland's steeplechase season on March 15. Even in the rain, the view was captivating. Only . . .
Where was the champagne? The cheers of a glamour crowd? The tailgate parties? The heart-stopping rush of witnessing a no-holds-barred race?
"The Foxhall race is really more of a training ground," explained retired lawyer and former rider of these races Turney McKnight, who is head of the race committee for the My Lady's Manor challenge (Saturday). Many of these same horses will compete in Maryland's triple crown -- My Lady's Manor, Grand National (April 18) and Maryland Hunt Cup (April 25) -- so the jockeys want to practice but not overexercise the steeds, McKnight explained. The big three: That's where an enthralling race and a social scene converge. Here's some of what I learned about all the action.
Lesson No. 1: Some races are grander than others. McKnight gave me a quick primer: "A steeplechase race is a race run across large wooded fields on a course anywhere from a mile and a half to four miles in length, with riders jumping over fences."
Sometimes called hunt races or timber races, the sport sprouted from fox-hunting and harks back to England and Ireland, centuries ago. Maryland's steeplechase tradition may not be quite so old but is distinguished by the fact that many of the families who are involved today are descendants of the original founders of the sport in this area. "Stewart, Griswold, Pearce, Fenwick, Bosley, Voss, Fisher," recited McKnight, are some of the families with long local histories in steeplechasing.
What make a timber race challenging, McKnight said, are the length and difficulty of the course, including the height of the jumps.
"Each of the three -- My Lady's Manor, the Grand National and Maryland Hunt Cup -- represents a progressively [more] difficult challenge to the rider, ranging from the Manor's jumps set at about 3-foot-7 to Hunt Cup's, about a foot higher," he said.
The most formidable are also the most exciting to watch, and you don't have to be a horsemeister to have fun. Which takes us to . . .
Lesson No. 2: Bring friends, refreshments and joie de vivre. My sister Claire, who lives in Monkton, is the one who's gotten me interested in these races. She and her friends like to attend My Lady's Manor, and Claire offered a spectator's observations.
"My Lady's Manor is the big one. Lots of people get dressed up: women in hats, men in bow ties and bowlers, looking like something out of 'The Great Gatsby,' " she said. Everyone packs a picnic (curried chicken salad, crab cakes, nice bottle of wine), and some go all out and set up china, silverware and fine linens.
Best of all, said both Claire and McKnight, is that you can position yourself wherever you please on the field. "Some people like to stand by one of the jumps; some like to be at the finish line. You can even go to the paddock if you want," McKnight said.
At last year's Manor race, "we were right up against the fence and watched as the horses pounded by -- it was thrilling," Claire said.
Lesson No. 3: Have a backup plan in case it rains and a follow-up plan for an extended stay. I've got those covered. On my previous visits, the two of us astride a Vespa, rather than on a horse, Claire has shown off her "neighborhood" of winding lanes; vast, white-fenced green acres; and grand old country houses.
The area is full of places of local legend, such as the Manor Tavern, whose history dates to 1713; Boordy Vineyards, Maryland's oldest family-run winery, hosting outdoor concerts in summer and wine tastings year-round; and the Milton Inn, a gourmet restaurant housed in a nearly 270-year-old fieldstone building.
Lesson No. 4: Who needs political horse races when you have the real thing?