A rite of spring, with horses

Way Back When

Race: Maryland's Hunt Cup, in its 103rd year, brings well-heeled Baltimoreans out for the steeplechase, and the social scene.

April 24, 1999|By Frederick N. Rasmussen | Frederick N. Rasmussen,SUN STAFF

If the weather is fine today, and even if it's not, convoys of Volvos, Land Rovers, Suburbans, Explorers, Mercedes Benz sedans and a few vintage motor cars will be hitting the road early this morning.

They will be bearing Maryland Hunt Cup steeplechase fans dressed in tweeds, caps, Villager skirts and floppy-brimmed straw hats. Eventually this mass of motorized humanity will converge at the intersection of Tufton Avenue and Falls Road in the Worthington Valley and, for a while, turn it into a Baltimore version of Times Square.

"Old race-goers recall a spring in the early 1920s when the late representative Nick Longworth, Alice Roosevelt's husband, stood in spats at a crossroads and waving hands clad in yellow chamois gloves, skillfully untangled what seemed to be a hopeless snarl," wrote Francis F. Beirne in "The Amiable Baltimoreans."

While spats and chamois gloves may be in short supply, it's a pretty safe bet that dressy carloads of preppies, scions of old Maryland families and notables from the world of racing will be out in full for the 103rd running of the Maryland Hunt Cup today -- an event reputed to be the oldest and stiffest timber race in the world.

Once a spot is selected and the car parked, picnic hampers bulging with fried chicken, Smithfield ham, chicken salad and deviled eggs will be off-loaded from trunks or displayed on tailgates. All to be washed down, of course, with oceans of Chardonnay and beer from boutique brewers. An occasional al fresco Martini may even be savored.

It is a Maryland springtime ritual that, except for three years during World War II, has occurred without interruption for more than a century. The culmination of the steeplechase season, it continues to draw crowds numbering in the thousands.

The horses are a draw, of course, but so is the scene, painted this way by The Evening Sun in 1944: "The air is laden with scents of spring; violets and dandelions are in profusion. A widening stream of gayly garbed folk pour from the parking areas on the slopes to the right and left of the course. They walk past flowering cherry, apple and peach trees. Far against the wooded hill on the other side of the course, pink and white dogwood wave slightly against a backdrop of all the green that a Maryland countryside boasts at this season."

The race itself, run over a four-mile course, has been compared to England's famed Grand National at Aintree. Perhaps one of the most thrilling and dramatic races was the 1926 Cup, when a crowd of 10,000 witnessed Howard Bruce's Billy Barton, ridden by Albert G. Ober Jr., defeat 24 other entries to win the race in a little over 9 minutes.

Just before post time, The Sun reported that year, "Approximately 10,000 persons stood with eyes intent on the prancing horses. ... Seven to five was offered on Billy Barton and even odds on Burgoright."

At the 15th fence, Burgoright reached Billy Barton.

"From the hillside came shouts, which swelled into roars as the horses raced, Billy Barton barely in the lead. The leader reached the eighteenth fence a second ahead of his rival. He sprang forward but his hoof struck the top of the rail, he tripped and fell," observed the newspaper.

As Ober remounted, he charged after Burgoright, which also suffered a spill. At the next jump, Burgoright refused to jump and Billy Barton shot past him, finishing the race some 20 lengths ahead of the nearest challenger.

That same year, Billy Barton also won Maryland's Grand National, the New Jersey Hunt Cup, the Virginia Gold Cup and the Meadowbrook in New York.

In 1928, the horse was shipped to England and finished second in the Grand National at Aintree, considered the most grueling of all the jumping classics. A year later, he returned to the event, but fell early and failed to finish. He returned to Maryland and retired from racing.

When Billy Barton died at age 33 in 1951, The Sun lamented: "Billy Barton's great heart, which drove him on to remarkable racing triumphs, finally yielded."

"For a horse, Billy Barton covered a remarkable span of years," added a Sun editorial. "It seemed that in whatever he did, Billy was always a remarkable horse, the like of which Maryland has seldom, if ever, seen."

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