Hunt Cup enough to make anyone jumpy

April 28, 1994|By Ross Peddicord | Ross Peddicord,Sun Staff Writer

At about 10 a.m. yesterday, Louis "Paddy" Neilson III started to feel the hackles rise on the back of his neck.

"That's when I realized," Neilson said, "that the Hunt Cup is now just hours away."

Neilson, 52, is set to make his 19th trip around the demanding, four-mile Maryland Hunt Cup course on Saturday, more times than any other living rider.

The course has 22 fences, composed of rails nearly as thick as telephone poles. Five of the fences are 4 feet 10 high. Neilson says he feels the same way about them that he did when he first rode the course in 1958, when he was 16.

"Those fences look plenty big when you stand beside them. But they look a heck of a lot bigger when you gallop into them on a horse. I remember as a kid -- I guess I was just about 10 at the time -- hearing old Ben Griswold say that riding the Hunt Cup course was the most exciting nine minutes of his life.

"I don't know if I'd go that far," Neilson said. "But just getting around the course requires incredible precision, skill and courage on the part of your horse, despite the help or hindrance from his rider.

"It's that super effort from a marvelous partner -- the task the horses are faced with and how they can dispatch it with skill and competence -- that's fun to experience and really makes it special."

The Hunt Cup, which celebrates its 100th anniversary Saturday, started as a friendly rivalry among members of Baltimore-area fox hunting clubs.

"The clubs decided to devise as tough a race as possible to see who had the best horse," said Charles Fenwick, secretary of the Hunt Cup committee.

That was in 1894, long before motorcycles, three-wheelers and stock cars. Over the years, the race has became a spectacle for genteel Evel Knievels on horseback.

Once the race became acknowledged as an ultimate test for horse and rider, wealthy owners from across the nation began acquiring horses just to try to win it.

"It really became a big thing in the 1920s," Fenwick recalled. "There was one wealthy sportsman named Benjamin Leslie Behr from Chicago who won the race twice and then spent all kinds of money trying to retire the Challenge Cup [for winning three times]. He never did, but I remember one year he had as many as four horses in the race."

What makes the race the Mount Everest of steeplechases is the course, which, since 1922, has been located at what is now Worthington Farms, owned by J.W.Y. Martin Jr.

Fenwick said the height of the fences was standardized in 1931 and has not varied since. It is those fences that have brought down 171 horses in the past 69 runnings at the Worthington Farms site, resulting in the deaths of eight horses.

Three of those horses, including Trouble Maker and War Gold, who was the last to die, in 1953, are buried in the woods near the 17th fence.

Fenwick remembers one horse, Eddie Cantor, falling at the second fence in 1929. "He lay there, and everyone thought he was dead," Fenwick said. "But after the crowd left, the horse got up and was OK. He came back to run the next year. But he fell at the same fence and was killed this time [in 1930]."

About 20 percent of the falls occur at the third fence, nicknamed the "Union Memorial" since so many riders have been carted off after a spill there and taken to the Baltimore hospital of the same name. It is still called the "Union Memorial," although injured jockeys now are dispatched to the Greater Baltimore Medical Center in Towson.

No rider has been fatally injured. Fenwick recalls the worst incident occurring when the sport's all-time leading jockey, Joe Aitcheson, fell at the 13th fence on Little Springs in 1950. "Aitcheson was in Union Memorial for a week and a half," #F Fenwick said.

No horse has been killed in 41 years and rider injuries have been less serious recently "because the horses are now better conditioned and the riders are more skilled," Fenwick said. "In the old days, the fields were larger, and a lot of the horses were fox hunters. They might have jumped well out hunting, but when they were in a race and asked for speed, it was a different matter."

Fenwick's son, Charlie Fenwick Jr., a five-time winner who retired as a rider on Monday, said so many spills occur at the third fence "because the horses are still fresh. They haven't relaxed yet, and they are tense," he said. "There are a lot of people around on both sides of the fence, and when you cross Tufton Avenue going into the jump, you hit a low spot in the ground, sort of a bowl. The fence is uniquely situated. The field kind of funnels down into the jump, and the horses are on the muscle. It's the first big fence on the course, and it sits up and gets in your face real quick."

According to Fenwick Jr., who compiled an analysis of the fences since 1946, 55 percent of the starters complete the race.

Neilson said he has "covered the globe in the Hunt Cup as far as spills are concerned." He has fallen twice at the third fence and one time each at the ninth, 17th and 20th jumps. His worst injuries occurred when his mount, Sir George, came down with him in 1967. "I broke my jaw and knocked out eight teeth," he said.

4 He also has had horses refuse or balk at fences.

Despite the risk, Neilson said he has no thoughts of retiring as a Hunt Cup rider soon. "Although at this stage," he said, "you kind of take it one day at a time."

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