It has survived any number of wars, the encroachment of suburban development and the sheer march of time, so the Maryland Hunt Cup is expected to clear even its latest hurdle -- fear and loathing of the rowdy young people who in recent years have invaded the turf of the Rolls-Royce-and-silver-candelabra set.
But even as the world-renowned steeplechase is set to go tomorrow -- as it has almost every last-Saturday-in-April since 1894 -- the Hunt Cup is caught in a struggle between tradition and change that is raising concerns over its future.
Only 5,000 spectators are expected to attend this year, continuing a drop-off that began in 1989 when Hunt Cup officials instituted tighter admission procedures to control what had become a boisterous and besotted crowd. The restrictions might have worked too well -- the Hunt Cup, which once drew as many as 30,000 spectators, lost money last year for the first time, and is underpressure to consider changes that would bring back the crowds.
But therein lies the dilemma: Officials want only the right kind of crowd. Not the kind that were descending on the rolling countryside of Glyndon in northern Baltimore County to raise, as Hunt Cup secretary Charles Fenwick Sr. discreetly puts it, "heck."
Rather than watch jockeys and horses jump 22 fences on a winding, heart-stoppingly strenuous 4-mile course, many instead were spending the day in the parking area getting drunk or high, starting fights, playing loud music and otherwise offending the more serious-minded racegoer as well as neighbors of the private farm on which the race is run. Arrests and complaints became common for a time.
"The problem really was young people. We do not want to go back to having those orgies, where we had 14-year-olds so drunk they couldn't walk," Mr. Fenwick said. "We would prefer to cancel the race than provide a place for children to get drunk and fight."
Yet the admission restrictions designed to discourage the rowdy set have served to dissuade others aswell, some say. Under the new restrictions, a racegoer has to pick up an application form at one of six area locations, fill it out with name, address and license plate number, mail it to the Hunt Cup Committee with $30, then wait for the committee to mail back a parking sticker.
"Nobody wants to go to the races that bad. It was a knee-jerk reaction to the rowdiness, and then they wondered why last year no one came," said Joe Gillet, who is riding in tomorrow's race. "If they keep discouraging the crowd from coming, soon no one will come."
Mr. Gillet, 29, accused Hunt Cup organizers of being uninterested in broadening the event's appeal. Unlike other steeplechases around the country, the Hunt Cup has resisted corporate sponsorships, additional races, entertainment, concessions, or even public address announcements to explain what's going on, according to Mr. Gillet.
"If you don't provide any vehicle for the general public to understand what the race is all about, you can't expect someone to sit in a field all day and not entertain themselves," said Mr. Gillet.
Jack Fisher, 27, a trainer and jockey also among the 16 expected entrants tomorrow, believes the Hunt Cup needs to do more marketing and promotion to stay alive.
"They haven't made any effort to get people to come, which is a shame," said Mr. Fisher, son of one of the eight Hunt Cup Committee members. "If they don't promote it, it's going to die."
But Hunt Cup traditionalists say that the race sells itself. In fact, they believe its pure traditionalism is not a hindrance but rather its best selling point.
"It has a mystique all its own. It hasn't changed at all in my lifetime," said Margaret Worrall, a Glyndon resident and horse owner who was born on a Hunt Cup day and has been in attendance just about every year thereafter. "It's still just a day in the country."
"The people who run it are so aware of the legacy they're responsible for, they've resisted change," said Charles T. Colgan, executive vice president of the National Steeplechase and Hunt Association, the governing and marketing group for races such as the Hunt Cup.
But the legacy most people now seem to associate with the Hunt Cup is of more recent vintage. And it'sone that supporters are trying to shake. "About 10 years ago, it had become an attraction for certain large groups of unruly youngsters," said former U.S. Sen. Daniel Brewster, who has been attending the Hunt Cup since the 1930s. "They went there for a binge. But that is under control now."
Baltimore County police spokesman E. Jay Miller confirmed that previous races had attracted young people who drank and became disorderly. Indeed, the event was bringing together two distinct crowds: the horsy set tailgating with champagne and classical music and the rowdy set partying with beer and rock-and-roll. Tales of public nudity and other randy behavior ran rampant.