Chasing a Maryland ritual

Steeplechasing: If it's spring, the thoughts of a certain breed of horse owner turn to Maryland's fields and fences.

Horse Racing

April 14, 2001|By Mike Klingaman | Mike Klingaman,SUN STAFF

Joe Aitcheson, the winningest jockey in steeplechase history, remembers his first mount all too well.

"Fell off the horse," he says.

It happened 52 years ago tomorrow at the My Lady's Manor Races in Monkton. Middle of the big race, horse goes down. Horse gets up, jockey clambers back on. Horse loses by 40 lengths.

And Aitcheson? Spurred by the mystique of the sport, he would go on to win 440 races, jump countless hurdles, break countless bones. Now 72, he says he'd still be riding, given the chance.

"Occasionally, at night, I'll still dream about [steeplechasing]," says Aitcheson, of Laurel. In his sleep, it's not sheep that jump fences, but horse and rider. "It's the most thrilling thing you can do."

Let the post-and-rail parade begin.

Maryland's big three of steeplechasing - over hill, dale and champagne trail - starts today with the $20,000 Manor Race in northern Baltimore County. On April 21, it's the $30,000 Maryland Grand National, in Butler; on April 28, the $65,000 Maryland Hunt Cup, in Glyndon.

With 22 daunting obstacles, the 4-mile Hunt Cup is a big-league finale: the 20th fence sits opposite the driveway of Cal Ripken Jr.

All three races are steeped in tweedy tradition. Media coverage has long waffled between sport and society, as in The Sun's account of the 1934 races at My Lady's Manor:

"It was at the third fence that W.H. Decourcy lost his horse. Only a comparatively small knot of spectators was near the fence when he fell. Among them were Mr. And Mrs. George Dobbin Penniman, Jr.

"Mrs. Penniman wore a Harris tweed coat with French blue stripes, blue scarf and brown hat, with shoes and stockings to match . . ."

No cheap stogies, $2 windows or rolled-up Racing Forms here. Racegoers bring wicker baskets filled with Chardonnay and chicken salad; wagers are made at private parties beforehand.

Pipe dreams are the same racing-wide. In steeplechasing, every horseman hopes to find an equine Edwin Moses.

Will it be Swayo, winner of last year's Hunt Cup? At 10, Swayo is hitting his stride as a jumper.

"Give him a four-foot fence, and he'll try to go two feet higher," says Ann D. Stewart of Reisterstown, his trainer. "He just hates hitting fences. Sometimes he jumps so high, I'm afraid he'll come down and hurt his legs."

Or will it be Welter Weight, a rambunctious 13-year-old bay who won the Cup in 1999 and finished second three times?

"Sitting on [Welter Weight] is like sitting on a jet engine," says Patrick Smithwick of Parkton, his rider. "In the race, though, he's a real fluid mover; he dances over fences. Riding him is putting yourself atop [Mikhail] Baryshnikov's body."

Most steeplechase horses are hand-me-downs from flat tracks such as Pimlico and Laurel; their jockeys, amateurs of genteel stock. (The Maryland races are not part of the professional steeplechase circuit.)

Money doesn't drive those riding tomorrow at My Lady's Manor.

"These are bankers or stockbrokers who are risking their necks for nothing, basically, because that's what they want to do," says Tom Voss, a trainer from Monkton. "Their fathers rode. Their grandfathers rode. They love the sport; it's in their blood."

Smithwick, 50, has the genes of a jockey. His father, Paddy, is No. 2 nationally in career steeplechase victories (398); his uncle, Mikey, is a six-time winner of the Hunt Cup and a well-known trainer.

Now an administrator at Gilman School, Patrick Smithwick began riding as a student there. He would gallop horses at dawn, then stroll into class wearing Eau de Pimlico. He has long embraced his roots.

"There's a timelessness about steeplechasing," he says. "You're disconnected from the computer, the fax machine, the telephone. You're galloping along with the wind on your earflaps, the horse between your legs and the fence coming up.

"You're fit. You're focused. You're a part of nature."

The downside? Two years ago, Irv Naylor, 65, a veteran owner-rider from York, Pa., was permanently paralyzed after a fall in the Grand National.

"Danger is always lurking," says Charlie Fenwick Jr., a jockey-turned-trainer from Butler. "But [jumping] gives you a rush unlike almost anything in athletics. It's like a three-point shot at the buzzer or Doug Flutie's `Hail Mary' pass for Boston College. There's an addictive quality to it."

It's an equal opportunity high. See the twin silver goblets on Sanna Nelson's mantle? Hunt Cup trophies, both. Nelson, of Coatesville, Pa., won that race in 1991 and '93. She won My Lady's Manor in 1994-95.

Steeplechasing, she says, cuts across gender lines "because it's about more than just strength. It's about finesse, timing, pace and getting your horse to respond.

"I'm not super-strong, but you don't have to be. In a three or four-mile race, with jumps, there's a lot of strategy involved."

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