A Century of Steeplechasing

April 30, 1994

The Maryland Hunt Cup is a different event to different people. First of all, it is a horse race, one of the two premier steeplechase contests in the world. Second, it is the centerpiece for some of the major social events in the horse country of Baltimore County. Finally -- and most important in terms of numbers -- it is the occasion for what must be the largest picnic and tailgate party anywhere near here. The race is 100 years old today, and not much has changed except for the automobiles that now carry the throng to witness it.

Not many events cut across so many socio-demographic lines as the Hunt Cup. At its heart is the preserve of the relatively few families in the Valleys section of Baltimore County who breed horses and ride to hounds, with all the social trappings that go with those activities. But lovers of horses in general, and aficionados of thoroughbred racers in particular, are not defined by a particular social group. For them the race on the last Saturday of April is an opportunity to see some great race horses ridden by expert jockeys over 22 fences, all visible from the slopes overlooking the course.

Then there are the hundreds, perhaps thousands, for whom the Hunt Cup is little more than an excuse for the first elaborate outing of the spring. There are few sites more lovely for a picnic or tailgate party, and many who care little about the race itself vie instead in the grandeur of the food and drink they spread before friends. At $30 per carload, it's not an exorbitant celebration.

But those who don't already have an invitation to one of the private parties or a pass for the general parking lot will have to wait until next year. For some years in the '70s and '80s, the genteel picnicking was overcome by rowdy teen-agers on a beer binge out of sight of parents and police. Now parking passes -- the lone admission charge -- are sold only up to the day before the race by vendors who look the purchasers over carefully.

For all that the Hunt Cup festivities are somewhat anachronistic, they are a part of Maryland's heritage that can be enjoyed by all who want to. A century of timber-racing, for seven decades at the same Worthington Valley location, is a tradition worth preserving.

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