Keepers of the Cup

In horse country, the Maryland Hunt Club is more than a race. It's a date with tradition

April 30, 2005|By Rob Hiaasen | Rob Hiaasen,SUN STAFF

It all feels familiar. The land and course haven't changed. Granted, there are McMansions now, and a Rolls-Royce might drive by the old course. But the dandelions and weather-bent trees may have been here since the 1920s, when as many as 20,000 people came out to this valley to witness a rather eccentric sporting event.

There aren't bookie boards anymore, but the red and white flags are again atop the timber fences on the 4-mile course, still bisected by Tufton Avenue and owned by a man with four initials who is nicknamed, simply, Duck.

There's that earth smell of ground and cover. And today, the returning scent of a subset of racehorses too mature and slow for flat surfaces but strong and gutsy enough to endure the 4-foot-plus hurdles positioned around J.W.Y. "Duck" Martin Jr.'s 605-acre Worthington Farms in the county of Baltimore.

This fabled steeplechase race, the Maryland Hunt Cup, will run at 4 p.m. today - as it has the last Saturday of April almost every year since 1894. Just one race, one dangerous race, and not over English hedges but high over American timber. You've got to be crazy to race steeplechase, a famous jockey once said. Famous jockeys know these things.

The Maryland Hunt Cup started as a contest among fox hunters to see who had the best horse; a cross-country horse race, if you will. In 1922, the race made its permanent home at Worthington Farms near Glyndon. There were no steeples, just plenty of open country.

And without advertising, food concessions, pari-mutuel betting or live broadcasts, the Maryland Hunt Cup has kept running ever since.

The amateur race was canceled for three years during World War II, and, in the 1980s, rowdy tailgaters (clearly not horse people) nearly put a stake through the heart of this Maryland spring tradition. The Maryland Hunt Cup is many things, but it's not a mini-Woodstock, or Preakness. The keepers of the Cup now and then - with surnames such as Griswold, Fenwick, Smithwick, Brewster and Bosley - willed the tradition to survive. Ending same-day passes and increasing the parking fees proved to thin and manage the crowd.

Today, rain or shine, nine horses - a field led by last year's winner, Bug River - will set off, with half or more of the horses finishing the 22 jumps between eight and nine minutes later. This year's purse is $65,000. Weather permitting - and really, shouldn't it? - about 3,500 people will attend. Many will be return visitors.

Henry Wright, a 58-year-old wholesale liquor distributor from Lutherville, will again set up his tailgate party, which will feature Maryland straight rye whiskey.

About five years ago, Wright says, he took his 94-year-old mother to the race. She'd been before, in the days when many people arrived by horse or carriage.

"She said there was one thing that hasn't changed since she used to come out," Wright says. "She said they still drink like they always did."

They still might not be the people you would run into during the course of your life. It's the "Mink and Manure Set," as they are sometimes described. Very English. Very country. Break out the tweed; bring in the deviled eggs, Maryland crab cakes and fried chicken. Who brought the candelabra? There will be wine and talk of blood lines, and Bloody Marys and a local country club drink called a Southside, a secretive, lemony-minty mix headlined by rum.

At the finish line at the paddock, the winning owner will receive the Maryland Hunt Cup, a $7,000 silver tankard made in England. A coveted loving cup.

A host of parties will follow.

"If you can hold up all day," says William Turner of Monkton. "There are always parties before and after."

This will not be his first Maryland Hunt Cup.

"I hate to mention it, but I go back to 1930, maybe a few years before," he says. He remembers Model T's pulling up to the course. He remembers the bookies and the great horses. He returns every year because he's grown old along with the race.

"I like to think about the younger days," he says.

Although Turner will not be attending post-race parties, he will run his betting pool during the race - maybe $5 a share for his group of 25 friends. There's nothing wrong with a little off-track betting. He will again arrive at the course by 11 a.m. and, if no one beats him to it, park at a fence around a tree near the top of the hill. Anything more descriptive would give away his favored spot. His Orioles have a game at 4:25 p.m., but the race will be over by then.

Another longtime race loyalist, 78-year-old Gordon Kirwan of Howard County (an old fox hunter himself) will bring one of his antique cars. Kirwan owns a Model T, but will probably choose his 1910, French vanilla-colored Peerless touring car to escort him to the 109th running of the Maryland Hunt Cup.

"The Hunt Cup is a spring festival. You wear your best clothes and have the best tailgate preparations," Kirwan says. "And if you have a nice automobile, you bring that, too."

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