A generous slice of yesterday

Dan Rodricks

April 22, 1991|By Dan Rodricks

Saturday afternoon, on an estate in Butler, there fell before the eye a moment, brief as a sigh, when a gathering of horsemen in long coats prompted some fanciful must-have-been's.

This must have been how steeplechase looked 100 years ago, at the end of hunt season, on an English manor.

Or, this must have been how the posse looked as it gathered to hunt down the James gang in Minnesota.

Or, given the slightly soldierly bearing of some of the men, and the earth tones and textures of their rainy-day dress -- oilskin coats, some with caped shoulders, the color of forest; dark brown boots splattered with mud; smart-looking campaign hats the color of deerskin -- this must have been what a British officer saw as his cavalry assembled in a French farmer's field one afternoon in wartime.

Or, this must have been what the muster of judges looked like at the Grand National of some long-ago yesterday, back when the horses broke from Thomas Janney's estate, ran across the DeFord's and the Stump's, and finished at Brooklandwood.

These imaginings lasted but a moment, which is standard for such things these days -- especially in Hunt Valley, where the scenery continues to slip away. So much of the landscape has either disappeared or been spoiled by the building of ersatz manors, you have to snatch glimpses of how this stretch of Baltimore County must have looked at the turn of the century, or even at the turn of the last decade.

Sometimes the world is a lot prettier when you imagine how it used to look.

What a pleasure it is, then, to attend the Grand National, which probably looks the same as it has always looked.

The Grand National is one of those relatively quiet occasions in which the wealthy horsey folk frolic while their chums and a few voyeurs watch from the spectator's hill. It is a La-Dee-Da sport, of course, an endearing anachronism perhaps. (If Hunky

Sauerhoff finds out I went, he'll make me burn my Honorary Son of Pigtowne card.) But it is a true Maryland tradition. Events like the Grand National -- and My Lady's Manor, which comes before it, and the Maryland Hunt Cup, which follows -- put a classy sheen on Maryland sporting life, and they provide a real connection to the past.

I like events that give a slice of yesterday without contrivance, and there aren't many of them.

Saturday's was the 89th Grand National, which has been run annually -- except during the war years, when the race committee called off "our beloved luxury" -- across the countryside of Baltimore County. The current course was established after World War II on what were then the estates of Edwin F.A. Morgan, Redmond C. Stewart and Mrs. Irene Fowble. It's an extraordinarily beautiful setting. If you squint away the Land Cruisers, the Jags and the other yuppie-mobiles, if you block out the hydraulic lifts used by stewards for viewing the race, you have a classic picture of Hunt Valley before they called it that.

In fact, without this picture, what's Hunt Valley? A mall.

Shortly after 3 p.m., groomed and pampered thoroughbreds paraded through the soggy grass of the paddock, as spectators, most dressed country squire casual -- fashion ran from old L.L. Bean to new J. Peterman, and many of the guests could have modeled for Ralph Lauren -- huddled along a snow fence to gawk. Andrew Barclay, huntsman in red jacket, blew on his little horn to summon horses and riders to the starting line. Then we all moved up the sharp hill to a place that allowed us to see the first pass of the field, the distant stretch run, and the final -- to the finish line. The horses jumped 18 fences over the three-mile course.

The winner was an impressive gelding named Cabral, ridden by a young woman named Blythe Miller. Cabral already had won the point-to-point at My Lady's Manor. Now, should it capture the Maryland Hunt Cup this Saturday, it would be the first horse since 1964 to win all three races the same year. That would give steeplechase society a genuine sensation.

Should it want one.

These particular horsey people do not go much for sensation, and they do not necessarily want to share it with everyone anyway. Since the booze-induced rowdyism and other troubles at the Maryland Hunt Cup a few years ago, tickets have been harder to get. Attendance has dropped significantly.

Years ago, up to 15,000 people turned out for the Grand National, according to press reports, and twice that number attended the Hunt Cup. Ah, well, chaps, the world must have been more civilized. Must have been nice.

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