The staccato rhythm of racing commentary is shattering the peace of a Baltimore County valley:
“Foyle has led for about the last quarter of a mile. He still has about a five-length advantage as he heads toward the 15th. ... Foyle is over safely!”
The dark brown thoroughbred is galloping not around a racetrack but across open farmland that is staked out on this late-April afternoon with red and white flags. He’s a big animal with a giant stride. But at this point he’s barely visible to a couple of thousand people, some peering through binoculars, from a natural grandstand on a grassy Maryland hillside. He’s leading about 10 horses uphill at a divot-churning pace toward a stout, 4-foot-10-inch post-and-rail fence — a structure that has stood here for close to a century, ever since the most challenging horse race in America was first run across these fields.
The voice rises in excitement as the horse launches heavenward: “Foyle is the one to catch!”
The big horse clips the top rail — the commentator stumbles in surprise — and heaves to the left, pitching his rider, puppet-like, to the earth. He plummets forward, rolls over his now-empty saddle and scrambles to his feet.
“Foyle went down. ...”
His jockey — Sam Waley-Cohen, who flew in from England “for the experience” of competing in this rigorous test of horsemanship — is not the first to fall. Olympic pentathlete and Maryland native Suzanne Stettinius hit the ground at the second fence. But the commentator and the crowd on the hillside have already shifted focus to the finish, where two horses are running neck and neck between rows of standing spectators.
It takes 16 minutes for photos to reveal which horse won — almost twice the time it took them to complete the four-mile, 22-fence race. And it is several more minutes before the 2014 Maryland Hunt Cup , a silver tankard bearing the state’s coat of arms, and a challenge cup made by the celebrated early-19th- century silversmith Paul Storr, are presented to the winning owner, who clambers, along with his horse’s trainer and jockey, onto a painted hay wagon to receive them. He’ll get 60 percent of the $75,000 prize money — enough to keep his horse in hay for the coming year, but a fraction of the $1.5 million purse that will soon be awarded (along with nationwide fame and a blanket of 4,000 flowers) in the Preakness Stakes, 15 miles away at Pimlico.
Waley-Cohen is recounting his ride to the other muddied men and women who didn’t make it to the hay wagon. Foyle, he says, “was loving it, jumping from fence to fence,” until “he didn’t go high enough.”
The need to go both high and fast puts the Maryland Hunt Cup on a par with the world’s most storied steeplechase: England’s Grand National. But the race, which started in 1894 as a friendly challenge between two local fox hunts, is also deeply embedded in the lore and landscape of the valleys north of Baltimore where Alfred G. Vanderbilt once bred Triple Crown contenders.
With its local roots and global renown, the Hunt Cup is the most coveted trophy in the uniquely American pursuit of “timber racing” — a dangerous and endangered sport that is seeking to expand its horizons even as its world is shrinking.
Photos from the ’50s show tens of thousands of people on the hillside. These days, the crowd is closer to 5,000. Even within the rarefied realms of steeplechasing, (named for the Irish practice of chasing over hedge and ditch from church steeple to church steeple), racing over rigid posts and rails rather than brush hurdles is uncommon.
The timber race that attracts most attention in the Washington region is the Virginia Gold Cup, where a hat-wearing, high-society crowd of 50,000 tailgates beside the manicured turf and four-foot fences in Fauquier County. The tussocks here in Maryland could turn an ankle, and the jumps are higher, but the opportunities for social climbing are not. You might spot a tweedy European ambassador on the hillside, but you’re unlikely to see a Salahi.
The Hunt Cup, on the last Saturday of April, is the climax in a series of three weekend race meetings, a hard-fought rivalry that has defined the daily activities and lifelong ambitions of a few families — Bosleys and Brewsters, Fishers and Fenwicks — who have sold one another horses and married one another’s offspring over decades. Competing “was a rite of passage for the boys of the valleys,” says Michael Wharton, who owns one of the speediest horses around. And racing against Waley-Cohen last year was Adair Bonsal Stifel, who became the fourth generation of Bonsals (and first female in her family) to compete — “at the ripe old age of 47.”
“I decided to go for it the day before the race,” says Stifel, who broke her leg in a fall at the ninth fence. “The heritage, the history, was a big part of it.”
A heritage that gives new meaning to keeping things in the family.
“I bred the horse, and I bred the jockey. And I also bred the dam and granddam of the winner,” exclaimed Janon Fisher Jr. in 1962 after watching his son, Janon Fisher III, ride to victory.
When early nominations for the 2015 race came out in March, three of the 18 horses were trained by a Fisher. That’s Janon Jr.’s brother’s grandson Jack, whose mother’s grandfather and uncle owned winning horses while her husband and son (that’s Jack again) rode winners. To complicate things further, one of Janon Fisher Jr.’s grandsons is Adair Stifel’s husband.
That tribal tradition is the centerpiece of a way of life based on the “shared experiences” of farming and fox hunting, explains Peter Fenwick, president of the Valleys Planning Council, a nonprofit devoted to protecting the region’s rural nature from the relentless hoofbeats of change.
“Everybody was somehow connected to horses” when he was growing up, says Fenwick, 47. Now children choose lacrosse or baseball on weekends rather than riding. Families move away. The lack of locals capable of navigating the Hunt Cup’s fences at breakleg speed has sent trainers in search of talent overseas — for men and women from Ireland or England, like Waley-Cohen.
And most new settlers here would rather watch from the hillside than invest in the natives’ high-risk, no-profit hobby. Until now, says Fenwick’s brother Charles, a five-time winner of the race, the steeplechasing community “has done zero to reach out.”
“If the sport is to survive,” says Stifel, “we’ve got to work on bringing in new blood.”
The race has launched a new Web site where spectators can buy tickets, which must be purchased ahead of the event.
And last fall, as part of a new task force, Charles Fenwick stepped up to an unlikely challenge: create a marketplace and perhaps “an eBay for steeplechase horses.” This month , Fenwick chaired a symposium featuring speakers such as Wharton, followed by a live auction with innovative deals designed to give prospective owners a whiff of the oats.
Among the animals being trotted up for contention in the new steeplechase-saving marketplace is De Chera. The handsome chestnut is stabled alongside Foyle, a champion over timber , at Belmont Farm, with its view across the valley to the Hunt Cup course and a repair shop out back run by another Fenwick brother, Bruce, 65. There are tractors and trailer hitches, muck spreaders and dismantled mowers.
“Need something fixed that you just can’t find the right part for? We’ll fix it,” the Web site offers.
Fenwick will fix horses and the race course, too.
Often, Fenwick says, as he sits by the wood stove in his office, surrounded by saddlery, model tractors and photos of his steeplechasing successes, the right fix is only a wait away. And on this March morning just weeks before the big race, Fenwick is waiting for a thaw.
He rebuilt a couple of fences before the ground hardened, hewing as close as possible to the survey drawn up in 1922, when these fields became the Hunt Cup’s permanent home. He has dug up and replaced terra cotta pipes, many laid by his grandfather to channel away water that now forms ice sheets on the surface. He says a plywood silhouette of a bald eagle will shoo away the Canada geese. But there’s little chance of reseeding, as he often does in March, to turn winter pasture into a spring race course for a single 10-minute race. An Amish builder says the ground is frozen 23 inches deep.
Out on the frigid tundra, two goose hunters are hauling home feathered gray-and-white hulks, black necks swinging like ropes. And a few horses are nibbling grass through patches in the snow or pulling at hay in feeders.
Among them are would-be steeplechasers. “Second-chance horses,” Fenwick calls them. Many Hunt Cup hopefuls, like Foyle, have already failed in the one-mile sprints around the track that they were bred for, either physically or temperamentally unsuited to life in the fast lane. Fenwick has an eye for such equine athletes with staying power that might cost $15,000 compared with several hundred thousand for a yearling with Triple Crown pretensions.
Now, they are profiting from another of Fenwick’s waiting strategies: “You’ve got to put them in a field for a year and forget you own them,” he says.
Only when they have recovered from the frantic pace of flat racing will he begin the gradual process of finding out whether they have the stamina and joy of jumping to gallop four miles over fences at 30 mph — whether Pimlico’s castoffs can be victors in the valleys.
Not everything can wait. This year’s steeplechasers must be fit, and the ice leaves little opportunity to exercise De Chera over open fields. Fenwick loads his horses into a trailer and ships them to the next valley, where a wealthy businessman has built a vast indoor riding arena.
The sheer size of the Hunt Cup fences demands special skills. Equestrians refer to the elegant arc a horse describes over a fence as its “bascule” — the rounded spine and folded legs allowing the animal to clear great heights. Horses tend to flatten as they go faster, though, and a timber horse can’t skim through wooden rails the way a hurdler might through brush. Fenwick has seen “all types” succeed in the Hunt Cup. But a winner, he says, needs to have some bascule or show such power that its trajectory will carry it “flat like an arrow” uphill over a 4-foot-10-inch fence.
Fenwick is standing in the center of the arena, watching for a balanced, rhythmic stride, pricked ears and tucked legs when De Chera jumps. Small signs of the skill and scope that could make him a winner over timber — under somebody else’s name.
Because De Chera is one of several horses listed on the new auction’s Web site as a kind of equine time share. Here’s the deal: You pay a lump sum for 49 percent ownership during six prime weeks of the steeplechasing season. Fenwick continues to feed and train the horse. But throughout those weeks, the horse runs under your name, with the jockey wearing silks specially designed for you.
All to give an outsider an insider’s chance of winning.
‘It was a big deal early on to let ‘foreigners’ beyond GSVHC and Elkridge compete!” jokes Margaret Worrall in an e-mail. She’s referring to the two fox-hunting clubs whose friendly rivalry was the starting flag for the first members-only Hunt Cup in 1894.
Change has come haltingly. In her book celebrating 100 runnings, Worrall (whose son won in 1992) describes how the race opened up to all Maryland hunts in 1895 and to the rest of the country and Canada in 1903. The first “foreigner” to take home the trophy was a Philadelphian in 1909.
While jockeys — all unpaid amateurs — often come from overseas these days, most owners and trainers are still from Maryland and nearby.
Enter Lucy Goelet, 57, who moved almost 20 years ago to Baltimore County, where she began exploring ways to engage the love of horses she learned as a child in England. She met an ally in trainer William Meister, who has ridden in the Hunt Cup 22 times, three of them as the winner, and “knows every blade of grass” that Bruce Fenwick has sown.
Meister, 51, found Goelet a Maryland-bred horse — sired by the same stallion as Foyle — and spent seven years training Twill Do before entering him in the Hunt Cup in 2010.
“This is Lucy Goelet,” she remembers people saying before the race, introducing her to other owners who were longtime rivals or related (or both). Not only was she an outsider, but she looked like she had an outside chance of winning. Meister, who had planned to ride her horse, was on crutches after breaking his pelvis in a race the week before. The jockey he recruited to ride in his place had a day job as an analyst at an investment company, which left him with so little time at the stables that he worked out in the evenings on a mechanical Equicizer .
“Then,” Goelet says, “we go and win it!”
She sometimes offers visitors to the valleys a virtual taste of Twill Do’s 8-minute-48-second white-knuckle win from the comfort of her living room sofa. It’s a bit like watching a car chase on video. But instead of seeing it through a dashcam, your view is from the jockey’s helmetcam straight out between Twill Do’s ears, which bob up and down with each of his ground-eating strides.
What starts out as a gentle gallop across dandelion-flecked fields, with hops through holes that front-runners broke in the fences, soon turns into a come-from-behind, sit-tight-in-your-saddle (whoa, seat cushion!) sprint. You’re dodging downed jockeys and loose horses and keeping an eye out for stray spectators who might cross your path, in a neck-and-neck dash to the finish.
An upset victory in more ways than one.
There’s a Jay Trump Road and a Billy Barton Circle out here — paved suburban cul de sacs bearing the names of celebrated animals that claimed victory over open fields in the Hunt Cup. There are also great tracts of farmland where “disaster,” as Peter Fenwick puts it, was averted: animals grazing where a new town like Columbia almost sprouted.
Fenwick is driving a black SUV along a road marked “Horses and Hounds National Scenic Byway” with Teresa Moore, until recently executive director of the Valleys Planning Council. They are talking not only about maintaining open land, but also about maintaining a spirit of openness to the traditions that shaped this environment.
“We don’t want people to come to the county and isolate themselves,” says Fenwick, who owns a 170-acre farm, where trainers showed up to exercise steeplechase horses and cheer on junior riders soon after the snow melted.
A group of landowners founded the VPC in 1962, when Baltimore County’s population was exploding, from 270,000 in 1950 to 500,000 in 1960. (It’s about 820,000 today.) The pioneering organization, now operating in 130 square miles, slowed suburban growth largely by working with the county to limit public utilities. “You could only have as many houses as there were wells,” Moore says. Development was limited to the plateaus; suburban sprawl stopped on the slopes; and the valley floors, where water wouldn’t drain away, stayed open.
The nonprofit’s success in restricting development has made big properties all the more inviting to wealthy newcomers who may or may not know a forelock from a fetlock. “We want to be friends and educate people” about the region’s rural traditions, says Fenwick, who emphasizes the importance of outreach.
Vanderbilt’s Sagamore Farm is now owned by Kevin Plank, chief executive of the athletic apparel company Under Armour, who is restoring the property as a thoroughbred farm; ex-Oriole Cal Ripken’s house borders the Hunt Cup course; former Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis owns property nearby.
And over the hill are the scars of new construction where the Danish co-founder of the charm jewelry company Pandora has bought a farm that used to belong to Charles Fenwick. Michael Lund Petersen caused a stir by paying close to $10 million for the 150-acre property. He razed the house, and he and his interior-designer wife are importing French tiles and Italian stones to gussy up their Baltimore County home.
The neighbors have been welcoming but worried, Petersen says. One of the first questions that came up was whether the fox hunt could ride over his land — and he was glad to agree. On the weekend before the Hunt Cup, another timber race will come through. But he ruffled rural feathers by going to a golf course by helicopter (a practice he says he stopped after “getting a notice in the mail”).
“I’m a rookie,” Petersen says, figuring out the ways of the valleys as he goes along.
“I’m competitive, too” he adds, just days after winning the Pebble Beach National Pro-Am golf tournament. He already owns several race horses and entertains the quintessentially American fantasy of winning the Kentucky Derby. Now that he’s seen the kind of racing people do around here, he’s bought himself a steeplechase horse and says he plans to get another.
“I want to be involved,” Petersen says. “I have no experience. It’s going to take a little while.”
And it’s clear he wants to win.
It’s 7:30 on a Monday morning, and Charles Fenwick, 67, is just back from exercising a horse. He’s warming his hands over a cup of coffee and talking about the auction and the challenges ahead: His son won the Hunt Cup in 2008, he says, but neither of his two grandchildren “seem too excited about racing.”
Then he leans over the old oak kitchen table, with place mats bearing images of steeplechase horses, and holds up his iPhone 6.
“This is where the future is,” he says with sudden animation.
He starts flicking through podcasts of his favorite programming, then switches to the Racing Post Web site and describes how he can bet on a horse in England and watch it race.
“In a perfect world,” he says, “people around the world could bet on our races and watch on a cellphone.”
It’s “not inconceivable,” he continues, that the Internet could change the course of the Hunt Cup, allowing more people to enjoy the event from afar than ever sat on the grassy Maryland hillside.
It sounds like a pie-in-the-sky plan, until you think about the man who’s speaking. Fenwick knows what it takes to win against the odds. He rode a Maryland Hunt Cup-winning horse to victory in England’s Grand National in 1980 — the commentator sputtering in shock to see an “American banker” outriding Britain’s professional jockeys. The odds were 40-1 against him. The payout to the people of the valleys — to the farrier and the post office clerk who’d sent a few dollars across the Atlantic — was legendary.
If Fenwick’s plans were to pan out, who knows which horse would win? A big Maryland-bred horse like Foyle or Twill Do, trained by men whose life ambition was to win the race? A thoroughbred belonging to the Danish newcomer who bought the land Fenwick once owned? Or one of the horses sold as a timeshare?
There’s never a sure bet in the Hunt Cup.
Frances Stead Sellers is senior writer for the Magazine. To comment on this story, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org or visit washingtonpost.com/magazine.
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