'Gentlemen jockeys' pursue prize in tony event Hunt Cup races to 100

April 29, 1994|By James Bock | James Bock,Sun Staff Writer

From his hilltop manor house, J. W. Y. "Duck" Martin Jr. surveys his family's breathtaking domain: the 605-acre Worthington Farms, a verdant bowl of pastureland just north of Baltimore in the heart of Maryland's horse country.

Every spring, as sure as thoroughbred foals grace these fields, red and white flags appear atop the Martins' post-and-rail

fences. Their Worthington Valley pastures become the site of America's toughest steeplechase and one of Maryland's toniest social events.

The Maryland Hunt Cup, a grueling timber race over four miles of turf studded with 22 unforgiving fences, marks its 100th anniversary tomorrow. Racegoers picnic on champagne and potato salad spread out on tailgates of Volvo wagons and on hoods of Merce-des sedans.

Started in 1894 as a challenge between fox-hunting clubs, the race and the life of the horsy set that sponsors it have changed remarkably little. "Gentlemen jockeys" have piloted their jumpers over this same dandelion-dotted ground near Glyndon since 1922 except for a three-year suspension during World War II.

The Hunt Cup exudes tradition -- a single race run at 4 p.m. the last Saturday in April, with neither pari-mutuel wagering nor major commercial sponsors. All riders are amateurs. It's usually over in less than nine minutes. Then the silver cup is awarded from a hay wagon.

"It's the Kentucky Derby of steeplechase," said Mr. Martin, who won the Hunt Cup in 1972. "You can see the whole race from this hill. It might be the best race to see in the country."

The race spurs a yearly gathering of the landed gentry -- a tweedy crowd that knows the bloodlines of owners and riders at least as well as those of horses -- and an exclusive $150-a-person Hunt Cup ball to which fox-hunting men wear scarlet tail coats.

The event is also a barometer of the Baltimore County hunt country's ability to resist development pressures and to preserve a tradition in which children ride almost as soon as they walk.

But for the people at the center of the Maryland Hunt Cup, the race is above all an affirmation of their passion for horses and a celebration of century-old family ties.

At 54, Mr. Martin, a shy, unpretentious man, has made his life in this valley's barns and pastures breeding race horses. He is master at the Green Spring Valley Hounds, whose 125 member families fox-hunt fall and winter across much of northern Baltimore County and form the core of horse people who keep the Hunt Cup alive.

Literally to the manor born, Mr. Martin is heir to Chicago and Pittsburgh fortunes in finance and steel. He married the former Glenn Reynolds, a tobacco and metals heiress.

But mention the social aspects of the Hunt Cup to Mr. Martin and he winces. "It's about the horses and the land," he said, "not the parties."

The affluent up-country locales known generically as the Valley include, from south to north, the Green Spring, Caves, Worthington, Western Run and Belfast valleys. They are home to 20,000 residents, of whom less than 10 percent are part of traditional Valley society.

The area's Colonial settlers date to the late 17th century, when they paid the Lord Baltimore 200 pounds of tobacco for every 100 acres of virgin soil granted them. But it was not until the 19th century, as wealthy Baltimore industrialists joined the local gentry on the land, that the Valley became the pocket of privilege that endures to this day.

In the Valley, impeccable breeding is not a prerequisite for Maryland Hunt Cup horses or people. But it doesn't hurt in either case.

Slow thoroughbreds

The horses, as a rule, are thoroughbreds too slow to win on the flat track. By age 6 or so, a properly trained animal with the right mix of size, stamina, jumping ability, headiness and courage might turn into a noble enough steed to be deemed a "Maryland Hunt Cup horse."

As for riders, D. M. "Mikey" Smithwick, 65, whose six Hunt Cup victories are the most by any jockey, was not born into Valley society. He is the son of an Irish immigrant horse trader whose skill won him entree into equine circles. He now trains horses for the race.

But more typical of Hunt Cup bloodlines is Sanna Neilson, 25, last year's winning rider (and the third woman to win since gender barriers came down in 1971). She can trace her pedigree to the first Maryland Hunt Cup.

Ms. Neilson's great-great-grandfather, C. Morton Stewart, a Baltimore shipping magnate, bought a Valley mansion just after the Civil War, where he entertained the likes of Charles Dickens and Cardinal Gibbons.

The shipping king's son, the strong-jawed Redmond C. Stewart, a legendary fox hunter, had much to do with creating the horse-loving Valley society that patronizes the Hunt Cup today. (He rode in the original 1894 race, losing by half a length.)

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