A toast to the Maryland Hunt Cup

April 30, 1994|By Steve McKerrow | Steve McKerrow,Sun Staff Writer

Look closely, and the inscription on one gleaming silver loving cup pretty much captures the nature of the sporting event celebrated by the Maryland Historical Society's newest exhibit:

"Presented to my rider, Albert G. Ober Jr., by Billy Barton."

Billy Barton won the Maryland Hunt Cup in 1925. He was the horse. Mr. Ober went along for the ride.

The equine element rules "The Maryland Hunt Cup: 100 Years of America's Greatest Steeplechase." It's a rich collection of paintings, photographs and memorabilia from the legendary steeplechase, whose centennial running takes place today in the rolling Worthington Valley near Glyndon.

The Billy Barton cup is part of a display celebrating the notable riders of the Hunt Cup. They are led by D. M. "Mikey" Smithwick and his record six victories in just a dozen rides, and Jervis Spencer Jr. and his record 20 total rides (with five victories).

But lauded at least as grandly are the eight horses that have won three or more Hunt Cups over the years -- from Garry Owen, the first to achieve the feat, to Cancottage, the most recent triple winner (in 1983).

"It is a world-class sporting event, and has an exceedingly long tradition," says Gregory R. Weidman, curator of the historical society.

For a pre-opening tour of the display this week, Ms. Weidman was wearing riding pants, in preparation for equestrian lessons later in the day.

With a laugh, she acknowledges that 18 months of preparing the Hunt Cup exhibit had something to do with her wanting to learn how to ride -- that and a daughter who takes riding lessons in school.

"It is really a whole culture. Some of these families have been involved in the Hunt Cup for four generations," Ms. Weidman says.

And, she says, Jay Griswold, chairman of the board of the society, has ridden in the Hunt Cup 16 times.

"He was naturally very aware of this big 100th anniversary coming up, and as we are celebrating the 150th anniversary of the Historical Society, it seemed the logical thing to do," Ms. Weidman says.

Funding for the exhibition came from descendants of John McHenry, winner of the first Hunt Cup, in 1894. One section traces notable Hunt Cup families, such as the line of Redmond C. Stewart, a rider in that first race.

The line has not lost its touch. His great-granddaughter, Sanna Neilsen, 25, won the 1993 Hunt Cup aboard Ivory Poacher. She will be riding today along with her father, Louis Neilson, 52, who will be riding in his 19th steeplechase.

One display case of the exhibit also notes the "Winning Women" of the event. Although numerous women have owned and VTC

trained horses over the years, the first female rider was U.S. Olympic equestrian Kathy Kusner, in 1971.

The same case also shows photos of the only husband-and-wife winners in the history of the cup: Turney McKnight and Liz McKnight, who won separate races aboard their horse, Tong (in 1982 and 1986, respectively).

"This is easily the largest loaned show we have ever done," says Ms. Weidman, noting that most of the 200 or so objects on display have been borrowed from Hunt Cup families.

She credits her volunteer committee, Stiles Colwill, Harriet Iglehart and Julie Fisher Colhoun, with locating and arranging the loan of display objects.

"We've really got some remarkable documents from the early years," she notes, such as the first program for the event and the original minutes and record book kept by Cup co-founder and secretary Ross Whistler.

Late in the collection process, a caller offered a prize exhibit: a hand-tinted photograph of the 1899 race, the earliest known action photo of the race, showing that year's winner, Reveller, leaping a fence with rider James Piper up.

Numerous photos also capture the social atmosphere of the annual late-April event. In the early years, well-dressed spectators would drive carriages to park on the hillsides to watch the race, whereas now they're likely to show up in station wagons.

HUNT FOR THE BEST

What: "The Maryland Hunt Cup: 100 Years of America's Greatest Steeplechase"

When: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Friday; 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday; 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. Sunday; through Sept. 25

Where: Maryland Historical Society, 201 W. Monument St.

Admission: $3.50 adults; $2.50 seniors; $1.50 children and students; $8 families

Call: (410) 685-3750

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