Race day is really jumping

Horses: A springtime steeplechase in Harford County has grown from a cozy affair to a major event.

April 11, 2004|By Dan Fesperman | Dan Fesperman,SUN STAFF

Baseball has Opening Day. Steeplechasing has My Lady's Manor, and yesterday the annual rite of spring again brought elaborate picnics and thundering horses to the rolling green hills of Harford County.

The first of these races was held in 1902, and not so many years ago it was a small affair. A few hundred people would show up in tweeds and waxed cotton jackets to watch horses hurdle timbered fences across a three-mile course. They might make a few gentlemanly wagers between sips of bourbon or bites of chicken, but no one worried about beating the traffic out of the parking lot.

The Hunt Cup, held later in the spring, "was always the big cocktail party" of Maryland steeplechasing, said Pedie Killebrew, who has attended the My Lady's Manor races for more than 30 years with friends and family.

But the word has gotten around, and yesterday about 7,500 people turned out. Now there is plenty of denim and microfleece among the tweed, plus even a few burly, party-hearty types who would look more comfortable astride Harley-Davidsons than horses.

The attraction isn't hard to figure out. When the skies are blue and the breezes are warm, the pastures of My Lady's Manor offer picture-perfect tailgating, with enough room along the sloping, meandering course for everyone to have a rail-side seat once the races are under way.

"I just love horses, and it's a wonderful day in the country," Killebrew said.

Her friend Holly Bricken agreed, voicing approval of "anything that brings people out here to see Ladew." Ladew Topiary Gardens is the 22-acre spread next door to the race course along Jarrettsville Pike, and the beneficiary of the day's ticket sales.

But the extra crowds have brought other additions. This was the first year for the giant video screen that stood at the home stretch, added so spectators could more easily track the progress of the leading horses across the sprawling grounds.

Strung along one side of the home stretch were 18 white corporate tents, blue flags fluttering on pointed tops, as if part of a medieval fair. And between races the air filled with barbecue smoke and the sounds of a bluegrass band that sat on the judging stand.

Field lesson in betting

And even though some picnickers might still wager among themselves, to get in on the real betting one must now trek on foot in search of a gravel-voiced man with silver hair. He stood near the finish line next to a small tote board, where the names of the horses and their odds of winning had been scribbled in chalk. The board was mounted on an easel, as if he were about to offer a field lesson in odds-making.

The man, who didn't seem particularly interested in publicity, stood on the turf amid a dozen or so bettors at a time, holding a thick wad of greenbacks that fluttered in the breeze as he handed out orange chits, scribbled with numbers. Bettors called out their choices as they approached. Nothing fancy. They could only pick to win.

"Fifteen on the 10," one man shouted as the bookie's pen scribbled it onto an orange square. "Five on the 8," said the next customer.

But for others, such as Killebrew, the interest in the races went beyond the wagering, or even the socializing. She and Bricken are co-owners of Sham Aciss, which was the No. 6 horse in the day's second race, the John Rush Streett Memorial.

The day's aesthetics

And for all the splendor of the picnics, the buffet tables and the promenades of people strolling with their kids and dogs, the races are still the day's aesthetic highlights, even though they last only about six minutes apiece, taking up less than 20 minutes of the five or so hours most people spend on the grounds.

From the hilltop vantage point near the finish line, one can barely see the horses charging into action. Yet it is a splendid sight. They are a half-mile downhill, against a backdrop of pastures and fences as they vault the first timbered barriers then sprint out of sight behind the trees. Gradually they work their way closer, meandering up the hillside in wide turns, cresting the hill then disappearing again down the other side with the thudding sound of hooves on turf. Finally they come back into view, having leaped 16 fences before bursting into the home stretch.

Across the finish line

It was at that point during the second race that Killebrew and Bricken got their nicest surprise of the day: Their horse was in the lead, and the lead was a big one. Sham Aciss sprinted easily to victory. Hugs and kisses abounded, and old friends offered their congratulations.

"If you stay around," Killebrew told one, "I'm sure that soon there will be some champagne."

Some things stay the same, no matter how big the crowds grow.

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