Weather doesn't dampen races

About 4,000 people gather for tailgating, steeplechase events

April 02, 2001|By Scott Calvert | Scott Calvert,SUN STAFF

Worlds converged yesterday, as they do every year, at Roedown Farm in southern Anne Arundel County. At least three Rolls-Royces motored over the soggy grass, but so did muscular pickups. Folks in cashmere sipped champagne, while those in jeans hoisted cups of cheap beer.

The diverse crowd mingled easily at the Marlborough Hunt Races, a 27-year-old spring tradition where tailgating ranks with the steeplechase competition, in which thoroughbreds leap over fences.

"It's an interesting mix of people," said Jeff Smith, as he sat on a blanket with a box of pretzels, a scone's throw from platter after platter of catered delicacies.

Although the chilly, overcast weather did little to diminish the crowd's enthusiasm, it did depress turnout. After expecting more than 5,000 spectators, organizers estimated 4,000 visitors. "It was an amazing day considering the weather," said Ginna Gould, spokeswoman for the races.

Those who showed up seemed unfazed by air cool enough to see your breath by and ground so soggy that even four-wheel drive vehicles had to be pulled out by tractors. "It's the rite of spring," said Terry Kuethe of Annapolis. "Sometimes you just have to wear gloves."

The range in admission prices reflected the variety of spectators. General admission was $5, but a prime tailgating spot on the hill overlooking the course cost $250. The money supports the Marlborough Hunt Club, whose members engage in the old -- and sometimes controversial -- practice of fox hunting, complete with riders wearing scarlet coats (called Pinks) and hounds.

But Gould said she didn't think the club's members had caught a fox "in 20 years." The real purpose of the races, she said, is to drive home the value of open space. The club moved its stomping grounds to Anne Arundel in the 1970s to escape crowded Prince George's County.

To appreciate the vanishing countryside, one had to look only to the far side of Roedown where two houses now stand, so new that their yards are still dirt.

"Same ... thing is happening here that happened in Prince George's County, and it's going to drive me out one of these days," said Hal Clagett, the 84-year-old co-founder of the hunt club, whose wife, Jeanne F. Begg Clagett, owns the 150-acre farm.

Development pressures did not seem foremost in many people's minds, though. Children clambered onto tree branches for a better view. Other kids played football on a muddy patch, creating a mini-mud bowl.

By noon, when the first of 10 horse races began, the parking area had largely filled up. A handful of bookies took spectators' bets, mostly in the $2 range.

As usual, the Stitzels claimed a spot on the rail, an area below the hilltop but closer to the course. "Great sport. You not only get horse races but a tractor pull, too," said August Stitzel, who had watched a tractor yank a Volkswagen out of the pasture.

The Stitzels unloaded an array of homemade goods from their station wagon: beef tenderloin and watercress topped with fluted mushrooms, antipasto and blue cheese-stuffed shrimp. They had champagne to wash it down.

The scene was a tad more chichi atop the hill. There the Middletons took a silver champagne bucket from the trunk of their chestnut-red Rolls-Royce Silver Spur. Still, said Doug Middleton -- in a cashmere blazer and patchwork corduroy pants -- race day at Roedown is far more laid-back than in Virginia.

Others agreed. "It's a lot less hoity-toity than in Virginia," said Chris Doherty, whose family lives in Harwood.

It was even more casual on the far side of the hill. Several 20-somethings cranked up the stereo and drank Milwaukee's Best beer, affectionately nicknamed the Beast. They could barely see the course.

"Horses? What horses?" joked 23-year-old Paul Rinehart.

Actually, the main event was tailgating, and some opted for kitsch. At one display, the centerpiece was a Ford pickup-cum-beach, complete with sand sculpture, beach chairs and a tub of margaritas. Jimmy Buffett tunes drowned out the whinnying of a horse in the nearby paddock. The display won "best overall" in the tailgating competition.

Although dating to ancient Greece, steeplechase gets its name from the races by fox hunters in 18th-century Ireland using church steeples as course landmarks.

Organizers of the Marlborough Hunt Races have never sought to have the races sanctioned by the National Steeplechase Association and as a result they remain more of an amateur spectacle. The event is the second leg of the Maryland Governor's Cup series.

The races began in the mid-1970s with perhaps 50 spectators, mostly family and friends. Then, as the story goes, the friends brought their friends, and the growth continued. By the late 1990s, Roedown attracted as many as 6,000.

"Here, people are very, very friendly," said Vladimir Samarkin, a Russian scientist who works at the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center in Edgewater. "Like a family."

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