Ralph Day takes great pride in indulging the dandy inside him.
He may be another faceless, gray-suited commuter Monday through Friday, but on weekends transforms himself into a "proper gentleman" for the twice-weekly hunts of The De La Brooke Foxhounds W.
Take, for example, his ensemble for Saturday morning's season-opening hunt: fussy stock tie, spotless breeches and a full understanding of the etiquette of the sport.
"There are traditions that are meaningful, then there are traditions for tradition's sake," Day said, strolling the grounds of Yatten, an estate in Charles County, after a sore foot grounded him from riding. "We like to think our traditions are meaningful. It hearkens back to a day when, quite honestly, gentlemen were gentlemen and ladies were ladies."
Among the traditions closely followed by this Southern Maryland hunt club was the blessing of the hounds, a pack of Penn Mary-dels that don't actually kill the foxes whose scent they feverishly pursue. In this more politically correct day, members insist that the exhilaration of the chase is reward enough.
"Enliven us this day with a sense of the interdependence of all creation--of earth and sky, of horse and rider, of hound and fox, of host and guest," a priest prayed before the hunt. "And grant to all a sensitivity to the fragile beauty of all life and friendship."
Then the riders, astride gleaming horses, trotted behind more than two dozen hounds to the woods in a scene straight from an English pastoral painting. One woman riding side-saddle was clad in a long skirt and top hat a la Mary Poppins, while the rest of the members wore the uniform black boots, riding pants, white shirt and woolen vest. Men who had been "awarded their buttons"--a recognition of service to the hunt--sported scarlet jackets called "pinques." Women with the honor adorned their collars with the De La Brooke colors, royal blue with gold piping. All 50 or 60 riders wore gloves and helmets.
The huntsman led the troop to a spot for the "casting of the hounds," the signal for the hounds to set off after the scent of a fox. Once a whiff was detected, the huntsman blew the horn, his assistants sounded a hearty "Tally ho!" and the riders set off at a gallop, chasing the fox over hills and fences and through ditches and streams.
"The object is to chase the fox for as long and as fast as you can," explains Teri Wilson, huntsman Peter Wilson's mother. Teri Wilson doesn't ride, but considers herself an avid "hilltopper," one of many friends and relatives of riders who caravan by car to vantage points, hoping for a glimpse of the chase.
"The lifeblood of a hunt is its young people," Wilson said as she watched a young rider trot by on a pony. "Some families can say they have two or three generations in the field at one time."
The De La Brooke Hunt began in 1937 as the Charles County Hunt, according to the program distributed at last weekend's event. It was later renamed De La Brooke Foxhounds W after Robert Brooke, an Englishman credited with bringing the first pack of hounds to the colonies. Brooke's estate on the west bank of the Patuxent River lies within the hunt territory used today, according to the club history. Landowners allow hunt members to use their property as long as the riders don't trample flower beds or disrupt crops.
"Many of the other counties are so developed," said Ellen Zahniser, who is married to the hunt's president. "We're very lucky to have so much contiguous farmland preserved. We show tremendous respect to the property owners. There's lots of heritage here, lots of lore."
CAPTION: A sterling silver fox sits in the foreground as the Rev. John Ball of St. Mary's Parish in St. Mary's City prays during the blessing of the hounds.
CAPTION: The De La BrookeHunt, which began in1937 as the CharlesCounty Hunt, held itsseason-openerlast weekend atYatten Farm.
CAPTION: Freddie Foxwell, clad in her English riding outfit and riding side-saddle, talks with another rider at the season-opening fox hunt.
CAPTION: A rider gets a doughnut before galloping in pursuit of the fox.