State's spring racing is a perennial pleasure

Colonial tradition: Prominent timber and track races continue to excite horse lovers in this season.

April 17, 2001

HORSE RACES and Maryland go hand in hand. George Washington wagered on the ponies in Annapolis. So did other colonials.

Be it on a flat track or a point-to-point race over timber fences and rolling farmland, springtime horse racing is steeped in Maryland tradition.

The season is in full swing. Pimlico's two-month program of live racing peaks with the $750,000 Pimlico Special on May 12 and the 126th running of the $1 million Preakness Stakes, for the best three-year-old thoroughbreds, on May 19.

FOR THE RECORD - A caption on yesterday's editorial page should have said that Welter Weight, shown jumping a post-and-rail fence, won the 1999 Maryland Hunt Cup.

Meanwhile, the steeplechase season has been underway since late March.

Amateur riders have been competing in the Maryland Governor's Cup series and more experienced riders and trainers have been gearing up for the National Steeplechase Association's Triple Crown of Maryland timber races.

The first of these, the $20,000 My Lady's Manor, attracted a big crowd on Saturday to the Jarrettsville Pike in Monkton, for the 91st running of this 3-mile race.

This coming Saturday, the action moves to a farm in Butler, where the 99th running of the $30,000 Maryland Grand National will be held.

Then comes the granddaddy of them all, the $65,000 Maryland Hunt Cup, run in Glyndon's Worthington Valley since 1894.

The Hunt Cup is the big one in more ways than one. It's a long race, covering four miles. Horse must jump 22 fences, some of which are five feet tall. It's an incredible test of endurance, speed and athletic ability by both the horses and their riders.

Many timber-race aficionados say it's a tougher test than England's famed Grand National steeplechase, which drew a worldwide TV audience last year of 500 million people.

Maryland's timber contests are more serene and tradition-bound. Bring a picnic hamper and blanket, if you like. Come casual or dressed in tweeds or blue blazers. Mix with blue-bloods or blue-collar equine lovers.

And above all, savor the green, open spaces that are still there to enjoy, on the edge of a thriving urban metropolis.

Preserving farmland and these timber races is a worthy cause that has been taken up by steeplechase devotees. Last year, they bought the 291-acre Shawan Farms near Oregon Ridge, down the road from the site of the Maryland Hunt Cup.

No houses will rise on that farm. It will become a steeplechase course and an equestrian center. The Downs at Shawan symbolizes the commitment of horsemen and horsewomen to their sport and to a way of life they cherish.

Every spring, it's worth an trip to Butler or Glyndon or Pimlico. Marylanders have been doing it for years. There's nothing more thrilling than the grace and beauty of thoroughbreds in tight competition over hill and dale or over a track.

It's something we share with generations of horse lovers over the centuries.

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