The course of history

After 50 years, Foxhall Farm steeplechase comes home

March 05, 2006|By CASSANDRA A. FORTIN | CASSANDRA A. FORTIN,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

After an absence of more than 50 years, the Foxhall Farm Trophy Team Chase is back home in Harford County, and organizers of the modern version of the event are going back almost a century for inspiration.

They have their work cut out for them, as they plan for the steeplechase event next Sunday that was first held in 1920 by Foxhall P. Keene, a well-known equestrian.

In his autobiography, Full Tilt, Keene wrote of the inaugural race: "I thought it was about 1919, I bought a lovely old house at Monkton, Maryland, which I named Foxhall Farms. While living there I inaugurated a race which I thought would help foxhunting, instruct the riders, and improve the horses. ... This race created no end of interest and excitement. ... People in thousands came the day of the race. All the sporting countryside from Virginia to Long Island turned out. The little railway siding was crowded with private cars and seven hundred people were fed at my house alone. Though there was plenty to drink, I saw only one man who had too much. It was purely a sporting day."

As they have worked to put together this year's race, organizers have scoured old newspaper accounts and searched for people who attended the event who could give details. They found two, but their input was not very useful.

"Their memories conflicted," said Turney McKnight, a Harford resident and member of the team that brought the race back to Maryland by winning last year's event in Pennsylvania.

The event also includes a black-tie cocktail party Saturday evening, just like one that was thrown before the first race. Organizers are hoping the party matches the original - in all ways but one.

"That is, minus the house catching on fire, like his did the night before the race," said Laura Pickett, who owns Keene's former farm, now called Andor Farm, with her husband, C. Taylor Pickett Jr. The party will be at their house.

The winners of that first race - and most of the subsequent contests - were from Pennsylvania. The winners take home the cup and keep it until some one beats them on their home ground.

When he initiated the race, Keene commissioned a silver trophy for $2,500. The Foxhall Farm Cup is one of the largest in sports, holding 82 quarts and weighing about 50 pounds. Almost every inch of the cup has been engraved with the names of the winning teams.

Determined to bring the cup back to Maryland, McKnight hatched a plan with Laura Pickett.

"We have many highly qualified teams in Maryland, and we were discussing why they couldn't win the race," said McKnight. The conversation led to the formation of a team - McKnight, Paddy Neilson and Blair Waterman, members of the Elkridge-Harford Hunt Club - with the goal to win back the cup from Unionsville, Pa.

As part of the effort to give the race a throwback feeling, organizers have designed a replica of Keene's first course, described by newspaper accounts as 4 1/2 miles long with 32 fences, including one that was 4 feet, 6 inches high.

Keene also described the course in his book: "The race was run over a very stiff course. The fences were enormous, too high, I think now. In spite of this, nine teams, twenty-seven horses, started and no one was seriously hurt."

The group settled on a shorter course, with flags marking a route between 3 1/2 and 4 miles across rolling hills that continue over the adjoining property of Marshall Elkins.

"The terrain is difficult for this course," said McKnight, who helped design the course. "It crosses a creek twice and it's on rolling hills. It's a moderately to extremely difficult steeplechase. It's as close to the original as we can get, and five people fell at the first race."

Work on the course began in mid-December and has been continuous for the past month, said course builder Bill Fritz.

A course highlight is the English jump, which is covered with pine branches. After placing an ad in the hunt club newsletter asking for Christmas trees, they received enough to cover the fence in a couple of days.

In addition to variations in the course design, the race format has undergone changes. For example, the original race was run with a shotgun start, with all riders starting simultaneously. This year's three-horse teams will have a staggered start, with 12-minute intervals.

Each team's riders will race separately and all of them must complete the course, McKnight said.

"We'll have about 10 teams trying to win. Another 10 or so will enter for fast time, but they won't really be racing to win," McKnight said. "Then an additional 10 or 20 teams will be entered in the slow-time category, and they will just go at a slow easy pace for the fun of it."

Regardless how the Maryland teams perform, organizers say they believe a little piece of Keene and that first race will ride with them.

"That race became my final contribution to the sport I loved so well," Keene wrote.

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