UPPERCO -- It is the day before the Maryland Hunt Cup, and owner-trainer rider Ned Halle is strumming his banjo.
He's playing the bluegrass standard "On and On" to the delight of his 1-year-old daughter, Ellen.
Halle is a member of "The Butler Boys," a country music group that plays at local parties. He's named his 80-acre farm Five String after the instrument he loves to play.
Halle just hopes he's got the right rhythm in the Hunt Cup today when he and his mount, Gesticulate, gallop down into the 4 1/2 -foot third fence.
Eleven horses are expected to run in the four-mile, 22-jump timber classic at Worthington Farm in Glyndon. Two of the 13 original entries, Tot Elah and Bold Seven, have been scratched. Post time is 4 p.m.
The favorites in the race are Von Csadek, ridden by Patrick Worrall; previous winner Uncle Merlin, with Louis L. "Paddy" Neilson III aboard; and Pleasant Sea, ridden by Liz McKnight.
It is the third Hunt Cup attempt for Halle, a 41-year-old lawyer and horseman.
He and "Gessie" fell at the 19th fence in 1990.
"Driver error," Halle recalled. "I put Gessie in behind two other horses and he couldn't see the fence. That's one thing I've learned: It's important for the horse to actually see what he's going to jump."
Last year Halle and Gesticulate, a son of 1976 Preakness winner Elocutionist, fared much better. They finished a fast-closing second to Sanna Neilson on Tom Bob despite "hitting a rail at the 13th fence so hard, it knocked a [directional] flag off," he said.
It was a superlative effort for a rider who admits he's "strictly amateur" and a horse that had been injured badly at Pimlico.
Gesticulate was given to Halle by Washington attorney Gilbert Hahn after the then 5-year-old gelding fractured a sesamoid.
"I kept him in a stall for four months while it healed," Halle said. "Then when I started fox-hunting him, he quickly developed into a good jumper."
Halle admits he's come a long way in his riding skill. "On my first fox hunt, when I was 14, I fell off three times," he said.
Halle is a man with diverse interests.
He majored in biology at Brown University, with the idea of becoming a doctor. His father, Edward A. Halle Sr., is senior vice president of Johns Hopkins Hospital.
"But then I took a year off, traveled in Europe and Africa, took odd jobs working on construction crews and in stables, and changed my mind," he said.
He drove a cab in New York while he attended business school and eventually worked as a stockbroker for Alex. Brown & Sons.
"Then I decided to go to law school," he said. Halle now specializes in civil litigation with the Baltimore firm of Fowley, Beckley and Stevens.
"You get the same adrenalin flow from riding in the Hunt Cup that you get waiting for a jury to come back with a verdict," he said.
He met his wife, Cindy, playing polo. She previously coached at the Maryland Polo Club "and called foul on me for dangerous riding," he said.
Cindy Halle now coaches the polo team at Garrison Forest School, which recently won the national girls interscholastic title at a tournament at the University of Virginia.
"Ned definitely goes for the gusto," his wife said.
Halle said he never really knew why he wanted to ride timber races.
"I remember the first year when I rode in the race," he said. "I walked the course, and when I went to bed that night, all I could see was fence rails. I felt like I was in jail."
But then his pal, Turney McKnight, explained his fascination for the sport.
"Turney said he loves it because it is so challenging, you have to reach for the ultimate in both yourself and your horse. If you don't do it, you never know what you could or couldn't do."
After two tries, Halle said he has developed a basic Hunt Cup strategy: "Stay out of trouble, let the horse see the fences, then hope we have enough kick left at the end."
NOTE: Car stickers for admission must have been previously purchased and are not available at the course.
Hunt Cup entries
%# Horse .. .. .. .. .Rider
1 Cabral .. .. .. .. Blythe Miller
Tingles Image .. ..Mike Elmore
3 Gesticulate .. .. .Ned Halle
4 Uncle Merlin .. .. L.Neilson III
5 Pleasant Sea .. .. Liz McKnight
6 Ballybranogue .. ..C.J. Meister III
7 Kevino .. .. .. .. Irv Naylor
Snowmaker .. .. .. J.W.Delozier
9 Capital K. .. .. ..Joe Gillet
10 Primal Bee .. .. .David DeMichele
11 Von Csadek .. .. .Patrick Worrall