Since the days of George Washington, horses and hounds have chased foxes across the fields of Howard County.
On Saturday, the 59th Iron Bridge Race Meet will celebrate the county's fox-hunting traditions - and the opening of Maryland's tradition-laden, spring steeplechase season - with a day of timber races, flat races and children's pony races over tiny jumps.
At Meriwether Farm in Glenelg, the meet will feature six races over jumps, four on the flat turf, and the pony races, with small- , medium- and large-pony divisions. The event begins at noon. Admission is $20 a car. Proceeds will benefit the state Department of Natural Resources.
The Iron Bridge race prepares horses to compete in the prestigious Maryland Hunt Cup, the American version of England's famed Grand National. Winning the Hunt Cup - April 27 in Glyndon, Baltimore County - automatically qualifies a horse to enter the next year's Grand National, also in April.
Steeplechasing, also called point-to-point racing, grew out of a tradition that saw fox hunters race from one point to another - often defining a course by church steeples that could be seen far out in the countryside - and jump everything in their paths - fences, logs, ditches and chicken coops, three-sided jumps resembling squat buildings that house chickens.
At the Iron Bridge, racers clear 3-foot, 6-inch timber fences.
One horse entered Saturday is Swayo, 11, a Baltimore County gelding that won the Hunt Cup in 2000.
"He loves Howard County, and he loves the Hunt Cup," said Reisterstown trainer Ann D. Stewart, who will bring several other promising, younger horses to prep for the Hunt Cup. Last year, Swayo won in Howard County but was scratched from the Hunt Cup because of a foot abscess.
Iron Bridge day honors the county's rural traditions. The idea, said Edward V. Curry Jr., an avid fox hunter from Woodbine whose son Blake is a successful steeplechase jockey, is "to maintain that fun type of thing that represents farm country. We're trying to maintain the old stuff, the old traditions, just for fun."
For less competitive riders or traditional fox hunters, that means entering a race called the Founder's Cup, in which riders follow the master of hounds across a course as he jumps first. Once over the last jump, horses sprint for the finish line. Prizes go to thoroughbred and nonthoroughbred horses because fox hunters often favor a cross between a draft horse, such as a Clydesdale or Shire, and a thoroughbred.
Iron Bridge day will be spiced this year by a new race. It will carry not only a $5,000 purse but, as developer Donald R. Reuwer Jr. put it, a year's worth of bragging rights for the winner within Howard County's boundaries. The race - limited to Howard County horses - will be called the Waverly, the purse coming from Reuwer's Waverly Woods Development Corp.
Reuwer, whose farm is in Glenwood, hopes his 5-year-old gelding Battletown, ridden by Blake Curry, will earn him those rights.
Like most thoroughbreds, Battletown formerly raced at Laurel Park and Pimlico, where a 1 and 1/16th-mile run on the flat, oval tracks was considered a long distance. To train him for the rolling terrain of a 2-mile point-to-point race, he's been galloped 3 miles a day in the countryside.
Reuwer will ride Saturday, too, but in the tamer Founder's Cup event aboard his hunting buddy, Fritz, a Hanovarian and thoroughbred cross.
"He's a real big, good-looking horse," Reuwer said. "I own the horses with my wife [Debbie]. It's something we can do together. It's the greatest high. It's the equivalent of what North Carolina State felt when they beat Maryland" in the ACC men's basketball tournament semifinals.
William S. Reightler, a bloodstock agent, is the Iron Bridge's race secretary. He said that the Howard County Hunt, founded in 1930, has conducted these races since 1932.
Reightler said the hunts no longer end with the killing of a fox. Instead, the tradition and the riding camaraderie are honored by the race meet, which includes events such as a 3-mile relay in which three riders each race a mile, handing off a baton.
"It's a pretty neat day. We all have a lot of fun," Reightler said.