Halfway around the Maryland Hunt Cup course, Sanna Neilson asked her dad whether he wears goggles during the race.
"Yes," he quipped, "and I paint them black."
Paddy Neilson will be riding in the 4-mile steeplechase for the 17th time today, and he says he still is awe-struck by the enormity of the fences and the questions this most demanding course asks of both horses and riders.
There's a new twist this trip. Neilson, 49, is competing against his 22-year-old daughter, the first time a father and daughter -- or any parent and child -- have barreled full speed together over these legendary jumps.
"The sheer ebullience of youth" is what Neilson says he admires most in his daughter. "Her fearlessness and pure joie de vivre."
The 95th Maryland Hunt Cup, which will begin at 4 p.m., can be either an exhilarating or terrifying experience. Paddy Neilson knows both sides. He's won three times, including a textbook-perfect ride two years ago on Uncle Merlin.
There also is the agony of a crash. Neilson's worst of five falls came on Sir George in 1967, when he broke his jaw and knocked out eight teeth in a spill at the 20th fence.
It is Sanna's first ride in the race, and clearly time for some fatherly advice.
Walking the course with Neilson is a lot like strolling around Augusta National Golf Course with Jack Nicklaus. You feel lucky just to be there.
He offered some of these observations to his daughter yesterday on the eve of her first Hunt Cup ride.
"The most important thing is to try to have a smooth trip, to avoid the pitfalls," he said. That entails walking the course as much as possible to learn all the nuances of the lay of the land.
Between the 22 fences are beautiful, long straight aways of superb turf gallops, but here and there are dips in the ground, swales where the going might be deeper and certain panels at certain fences where there is less of a drop on landing.
"The pace in the race is apt to change four of five times," Neilson said.
Rule No. 1: Don't get left at the start. Even though the race is four miles, stay close to the pace. Neilson said the pace up to the third fence is quicker than one would expect.
Then it's the mammoth third fence which, at 4 feet, 10 inches, offers the first stiff challenge. "It's the toughest, although not the highest, fence," Neilson said. "It's hard because the horses don't know how high it is. Once they jump it, then they know what to expect during the rest of the race."
From the third to the ninth fences, the pace is fairly steady. Most of the horses and riders fall into some sort of procession and essentially stay there.
After the ninth jump, the course turns downhill and horses build up momentum. That's when the pace picks up for the second time, carrying horses through the next four fences, which are among the biggest on the course.
TTC "By that time, all the bad jumpers have been eliminated," Neilson said.
There is time for a little breather at the 15th fence.
"Then the race begins in earnest at the 16th," Neilson said. "You are just a mile from the finish, and it's time to get tactical."
By the 17th, you start "to sniff glory," he said, "or know you won't."
The next-to-last fence is the water jump, the smallest fence on the course at just 3 feet. "But it's tricky," Neilson said, "because the rest of the fences have been so big that the horses don't know how to gauge its height."
That was the fence last year that brought down Von Csadek, who had about a 40-length lead on the field.
Sanna will ride an old veteran, Tom Bob, today. He has run in the race three times and has been either second or third each time.
Her father rides a first-time starter named Daydream Believer.
The horse both know they have to beat is Cabral, winner of the My Lady's Manor and Grand National Point-to-Points the previous two weekends. Cabral is ridden by Blythe Miller, Sanna's lifelong best friend.
"Blythe and I have talked about the race, and I told her that if I can't win, I hope she does," Sanna said. "I know she feels the same way about me. As for dad, he's already won the race three times and he can take care of himself."
Then she turned and told her father, mock menacingly: "If we come over that last fence together," she said, "you better take a pull."
Hunt Cup field
Sixteen horses were entered for today's 95th running of the Maryland Hunt Cup, but only 13 are actually expected to start.
Two horses, Cotuit and Kevino, were scratched from the lineup last night.
Of the remaining 14, trainer Nancy Knox has two entries but intends to start only one. She hopes to run Ballybranogue,
saving her other horse, Sensory Perception, for the Virginia Gold Cup next Saturday. But she doesn't plan to make an official scratch until today.
If 13 start, it will be the largest field since 17 horses ran in the race in 1933, according to Hunt Cup committee chairman Charles Fenwick, Sr. The average number of starters is six or seven. The smallest field occurred in 1967 when there were only three entries.
The course is located at Worthington Farm on Tufton Ave. about three miles from Hunt Valley. No one is admitted to the course unless they have pre-purchased a parking sticker.
The purse for the race is $25,000.
# Post time is 4 p.m.
The lineup, and the riders:
1. Pleasant Sea Elizabeth McKnight
2. Gesticulate Edward A. Halle, Jr.
3. Tom Bob Sanna Neilson
4. Tingles Image Michael Elmore
5. Primal Bee David DeMichele
6. Cabral Blythe Miller
7. The Wool Merchant Anne K. Moran
8. Daydream Believer Louis Neilson III
9. Sensory Perception C.J. Meister III
10. Quisitor Michael Traurig
11. Free Runner Jack Fisher
12. Ballybranogue C.J. Meister III
13. Capital K Joseph Gillet
14. Night Train Lane William Meister