The fox got away, twice. The dogs got lost for a day, The hunters road home tired, 62 short of the 70 who had started.

Several bedraggled hours after opening day for the Goshen Hunt Club ended, rider Karen Jones summed up the situation: "There have probably been 200 hunting books written that would say (it) was a bad day for hunting.

"The hounds were scattered all over the countryside; the weather was too dry for scenting; the horses were not in a great shape; we were not in great shape.

"And the fox, a big red, got away all day, like he always does.

"But, we, like we always do, had a great time."

Here in the hills of Gaithersburg, where horse trailers are as common as roadside apple stands, late October can mean only thing to members of the Goshen club: The foxes are out and the hunt is on.

From now until the end of March, these farmers and lawyers and mothers and sons will trade their everyday clothes for riding habits and brave the upper Montgomery County terrain two afternoons a week in pursuit of a sport that was born in England in the 1500s -- a sport that gives them what some fondly call a bit of "the only life."

And, last weekend, as club members saddled up under the oaks at Avalon Farm for opening ceremonies, some might also have called it a bit of the unusual life.

"Father, remember us this season," intoned the Rev. Robert Wohlfort in what seemed appropriate churchly fashion. Dressed in traditional black cassock, tails flapping at his ankles and two friars at his side, the Lutheran minister stood before the airy farmhouse and appealed solemnly for a "safe ride." But, try as he might, Wohlfort's benediction was not enough to calm the supplicants gathered on the lawn for his blessing.

It wasn't that the hunters, dapper in their colorful riding finery, were less than reverent. There was another problem.

"Looks like I've got a few hounds up here who are getting a little curious," Wohlfort laughed as he stopped to peer at the pack of fox hounds sniffing at his pants. The 32 dogs had been brought before the minister for the annual "blessing of the hounds," an opening-day tradition that dates to the late 1800s in France. To keep the eager animals from tearing toward the fields, the huntmaster and his two aides tossed dog biscuits. Between asking "bless our hounds" and "bless our fields" came the master's distinctive "oyie, oyie!"

It was the second time Wohlfort had blessed the Goshen hounds, but it came only after some negotiating with master of the hunt Hardy Pickett.

"I had been asked to do it several times before. But there was no way I was going to go and just bless a bunch of hounds and be a colorful ornament." Wohlfort said he agreed to officiate only after Pickett allowed him to expand the ceremony beyond talking about "hounds." "You learn very quickly," Wohlfort advised, "that you never call them dogs."

That was at noon. Moments later the huntmaster's bugle sounded and in a flash of red and a flurry of hooves, riders and horses trotted down the gravel farm road. Another group of "hill-toppers" followed the hunt in cars.

"You can't know how much I miss it," said Marrian Curran as he joined the cavalcade of truck riders and other unmounted hunt enthusiasts who would spend the next couple of hours bumping along the dirt roads, stopping to listen for the baying of the hounds and usually catching up just as the pack took off for another spot in the fields. A short strip of a man, the 60-year-old Curran was a master with the hunt until his doctor advised him to retire from the sport four years ago.

"I would give up my left arm to get up on a horse again. There's the open air, the beautiful scenery, the sound of the dogs running. There's nothing like it.

"I'd say it's better than heaven. This, at least I've seen."

In the Washington area, members of more than a dozen hunt clubs probably would agree with Curran's assessment. But after last weekend's ride, some might be more inclined to call it purgatory -- a little sticky, but with promise of future rewards.

After more than three hours of traversing the back hills of private farms, during which two foxes escaped, several flasks were emptied and the afternoon's heat penetrated the thick wool hunting coats, the once lively riders slowly trotted home, their ranks diminished from 70 to a tired core of eight. Even a few of the hounds had given up the chase. They wandered home a day later.

"We usually lose most people on opening day," said hunt master Pickett, who was one of the eight who finished. "It was just too much. When you're riding and it's the beginning of the season, most of the people are just not yet sufficient riders.

"But I just kept going. It's the hounds. I love to hear the hounds. When you can get close to them and they're running hard, there's nothing like it."

And the fox?

"We don't really even want to catch one," said Jones. "I've been hunting seven to eight years and last year was the first we had a kill -- and that was feverish, mangy fox."

"We never get near a healthy one. We wouldn't know what to do with it."

The "blessing of the hounds" will be reenacted Sunday morning at 8 when the Marlborough Hunt Club meets at the Cheval de Chasse Farm, 4041 Mellwood Road, Upper Marlboro.