Tradition rules at Md. race

Way Back When

Steeplechase: Since 1894, the springtime running of the Maryland Hunt Cup has evoked a bygone time of tough horses, stylish swells and trendy onlookers.

April 29, 2000|By Frederick N. Rasmussen | Frederick N. Rasmussen,SUN STAFF

At 4 p.m. today, a well-dressed crowd of race-goers dressed in tweeds, khakis, blue blazers, sun dresses and jaunty straw hats, hoping for warm, spring weather, will renew an old tradition.

Surrounded by blooming pink and white dogwoods and the heavy, sweet scent of lilacs, they will climb up to the top of a Worth-ington Valley hill in front of the old brick mansion onced owned by J.W.Y. Martin.

There they will watch a race that generally takes less than 10 minutes to complete.

However, it is one of the most grueling 10 minutes in racing, taking place over a four-mile course and 22 timber fences set at a height of 5 feet.

Run over some of the most verdant and expensive real estate in Maryland, the ensuing drama looks as though it were lifted from a "Masterpiece Theatre" presentation or an 18th century hunting print.

Spectators will begin jamming Falls Road, Tufton Avenue and Shawan Road early in the morning in an armada of Land Rovers, Explorers, BMWs and even some Rolls-Royces and Bentleys, looking something like a motorized Light Brigade before the charge at Balaclava.

They will tote picnic hampers of fried chicken, crab cakes and chicken salad sandwiches.

Chilled potables of choice will no doubt include Dom Perignon, chardonnay, Chablis and micro-brewed beers.

There may even be a Martini or two shared over a canvas camp stool.

Buffet lunches will be spread over the hoods of motorcars -- these simply aren't cars or other plebeian conveyances.

Station wagon tailgates will be lifted to reveal culinary delights ranging from deviled eggs to Smithfield ham spread.

They have come to watch, be watched and participate in what amounts to one of Maryland's most fashionable and trendy field parties.

The race dates to 1894, with time out for several years during World War II.

For an event that has gone down in the books as the oldest steeplechase race in the nation and one of the toughest timber races in the world, it had a rather inauspicious beginning.

In early April of 1894, Messers. Jacob A. Ulman, Ross W. Whistler, Frank J. Baldwin, Henry J. Farber and Gerard T. Hopkins, members of the Elkridge Fox Hunting Club, met at the Pimlico kennels.

They proposed a timber race that would pit their jumpers against those of the Green Spring Valley Hunt.

Meeting a week later in Whistler's North Calvert Street townhouse, the founding members sent a letter to their challengers.

"The undersigned wish to organize a cross-country race, to be known as the `Maryland Hunt Cup,' " and established that it should be run over a four-mile course flagged at intervals with natural jumps.

The event was only open to members of the two clubs, and racing colors were to be worn by riders.

The winning rider was presented a silver tankard fashioned by Samuel Kirk & Sons, the noted Baltimore silversmith.

The inaugural race had to be postponed twice because of heavy rains that washed out railroad lines and caused wide-spread flooding.

It was finally run May 26, 1894.

A large crowd had gathered on a hill near the Stevenson Station to witness the race.

"That day was a beautiful May day and there was the heady tang of late spring in the air. Nine horses, only hampered by heavy footing, were ready for the race," said an Evening Sun in a 1941 story.

"The course is four miles from Dr. Wm. Lee's place, straight down the valley to Mr. Ogden's thence in a northerly direction and finishing near Mr. George Brown's race track at Brooklandwood," reported The Sun in 1894.

"The Maryland Hunt Cup was won by Johnny Miller, owned and ridden by Mr. John McHenry.

"Tim Burr, owned and ridden by Mr. R.C. Stewart, was second and Mr. Samuel E. George's Sixty, third.

"Tim Burr set the pace and was closely followed by Johnny Miller. The latter made his run in the last furlong and won by three lengths. Kildare fell at a high fence and did not go to the course," reported the newspaper.

"There," at the finish line, reported the Union, a newspaper, "the excitement ran high when Mr. McHenry received no end of congratulations and the cup was passed around for inspection. The perfect afternoon and beautiful Green Spring Valley attracted a large number of persons, not to mention widespread interest in the race."

The Maryland Hunt Cup was run in May until 1910, when its date was changed to April. It has been held at its present course since 1915.

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