If Baltimore had a hometown hero in the Maryland Hunt Cup on Saturday, it was Ned Halle.
The 40-year-old lawyer didn't win the race -- he finished second to 22-year-old Sanna Neilson from Lewisville, Pa., on Tom Bob -- but he got a winner's ovation when he jumped off his horse Gesticulate in the unsaddling area.
Halle doesn't pretend to be the world's greatest jockey. He admits he's strictly an amateur and rides just for fun.
What's more, he didn't pay a small fortune for his horse. Gesticulate cost $1, even though he is sired by 1976 Preakness winner Elocutionist and had been a good winner in high-priced claimers.
When Halle picked Gesticulate up at Pimlico four years ago, the horse came with a broken leg.
"In fact," Halle said, "it was the second time he had fractured his sesamoid [an ankle bone]. But his owner, Gilbert Hahn [who races under the stable name of Meeting House Farm] was a family friend, and he wanted to give the horse away to a good home."
Halle gave Gesticulate four months of stall rest, and then began the long training process that ended Saturday in the Hunt Cup paddock.
Halle did not have the smoothest trip.
Last year he decided to give the Hunt Cup his first try. He debated whether he should ride Gesticulate himself or get Jack Fisher, a younger jockey, to pilot him over what is considered the ultimate test for a steeplechase horse.
Halle decided to ride. He ended up getting as far as the 19th fence, just three jumps from the finish, when he and Gesticulate fell.
Halle dusted himself off and decided to give it another try this year.
"I agonized all week whether to go to the front near the pace-setters or stay behind," he said. "I finally decided to stay behind, and I'm glad I did. They went out so fast, it didn't make sense."
Halle had an uneventful trip until he almost fell at the 13th fence, one of the largest jumps on the course. "But we survived, and when I looked over I saw Liz McKnight [on Pleasant Sea]," he said. "I regard Liz as the smartest rider around, and I was pleased I was in the same position as she was. I used her as my pilot."
Unfortunately, by the time they got to the 18th fence, McKnight fell. "What had happened is that Jack Fisher [on Free Runner] fell first," Halle said. "Then Liz moved over and tried to jump clear of him. When she fell, I had to jump between both of them and their fallen horses."
By that time, Neilson was so far in front, it would have taken Secretariat to catch her.
"But I started picking up horses, and decided to ride just as hard as I could," Halle said. "I couldn't really see where Sanna was and decided to go for it."
Neilson ended up winning by 10 lengths in one of the fastest Hunt Cups ever run.
But the man flying near the finish was none other than Ned Halle, riding the horse with a twice-healed broken leg.
* A field of 13 horses, no injuries and ideal weather made the 95th Hunt Cup one of its most successful renewals ever, said Charles Fenwick Sr., the race committee chairman.
Seven horses finished the race, five fell and one refused at the 19th jump. But all the competitors had well-schooled horses.
* Last year, for the first time ever, the Hunt Cup lost money. But Fenwick predicted this year's race would break even or perhaps show a small profit. "We ended up with about 5,000 people," Fenwick said. "We reduced some of our expenses, and sales in some of our parking areas were slightly ahead of last year."
Fenwick said there were no reported incidents involving police. He said he hopes next year that some of the strict admissions procedures can be dropped, making tickets easier to purchase.