Monday, April 22, 2013

The Greatest Timber Race... The Maryland Hunt Cup

When last Saturday in April arrives in Baltimore, the focus of a large part of Baltimore turns to the same place it has since the days of their grandparents and even great grandparents, the Worthington Valley. It's time for the Maryland Hunt Cup, a true test of a horses and riders endurance.

This isn't your average horse race. The horses, averaging 10-13 years old race over 22 fences, 4 board and 18 rail, ranging in height from 2'11" at the water jump to 4'10" at the number 16 fence. And that is it, one race! It is an entire afternoon spent picnicking and tailgating in anticipation of that single race. The only vendors present are selling the race program and race caps and t-shirts. There is no other commercial activity and no commercial advertising present anywhere. How many other horse racing events are only based around one race? And how many major sporting events are still void of corporate sponsorships? I can't think of anywhere else I'd rather be on the last Saturday in April.

13th Fence at the 2012 Maryland Hunt Cup

The Maryland Hunt Cup began in 1894 when the members of the Elkridge Hunt challenged members of Green Spring Valley Hunt to a timber race on Dr. William Lee's property near Stevenson Station in the Green Spring Valley and heading east finishing near George Brown's race track at Brooklandwood, a distance of 4 miles. The first race was limited to members of those two clubs, but the next year the race was opened to members of any fox hunt in Maryland. In 1903, members from recognized hunts throughout the United States and Canada were invited to participate.

In 1895 the race began at Hampton Gate on Dulaney Valley Road, a mile north of Towson, and ran over a circular course of about 4 1/8 miles. The following year the race returned to the Green spring Valley, starting at Brooklandwood and running a distance of a little less than 5 miles. It remained in that area one last time in 1897, starting in a field directly north of Brooklandville Station on the east side of Falls Road.

In 1898 the race moved near Cockeysville, starting and ending at Gerar, the country home of E. Gittings Merryman and the following year to “Long Green,” the country seat of W.S.G. Williams. The house at Gerar was demolished by 1962 to make way for Marriott's Hunt Valley Inn, with the remainder of the property becoming part of the Hunt Valley Industrial Park. Long Green would become part of the Deford/Boordy Vineyard Estate.

The race returned to the Green Spring Valley in 1900 and 1901 before moving to R.M. Dennison’s farm, Salona in Timonium in 1902. Then in 1903, the race started 1/4 mile north of Towson, directly east of York Road, and finishing at Hampton. In 1904, the Hunt cup returned for one last run in the Green Spring Valley, site of its birth ten years earlier, where it remained through 1914, running over a number of owners properties.

In 1915, the Hunt Cup left the Green Spring Valley for good, never to return. That year it was run for the first time in the Worthington Valley, starting and finishing at Merberne Manor Farm, the home of G. Bernard Fenwick, where it remained through 1918. Since the Fenwick Farm was entirely fenced in wire, the race committee had to build panel fences in order to run the race.

With the Fenwick Farm being planted in corn in 1919, the race moved back to Hampton in Dulaney Valley for two years before moving to Five Farms, country home of Stuart Oliver, for the 1921 race, the last race to be run outside Worthington Valley.

Finish Line at the 2012 Maryland Hunt Cup

In 1922, the Hunt Cup returned to the Worthington Valley and Snow Hill, the home of Charles L.A. Heiser, and the present Hunt Cup course. Since that time, the course has remained fixed, with only the names of the property owners changing over the years.

The present course was originally laid out by G. Bernard Fenwick and Thomas Disney and has stood the test of time, still providing perhaps the most challenging and well known steeplechase course on either side of the Atlantic. It is this race, and this race alone which receives regular mention in British Steeplechase racing circuits and for good reason.

There are three different parking options for spectators and everyone has their favorite vantage point, from any of the 22 jumps, to the hillside overlooking the course or the final dash for the finish. If you plan things well, you can even see multiple jumps and the finish line up close. And while this race is clearly the dressiest of all the Maryland timber races, spectators for this races, like all the races, are well advised to first dress for the weather and then to dress for fashion.

So the last Saturday in April each year, I make the trek to Worthington Valley to join my friends and many strangers and watch one of the greatest spectacles in Steeplechase racing. I wouldn't have it any other way!

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Monday, April 15, 2013

Since 1898... It's time for the Grand National

When the second half of April arrives in Baltimore, there is a part of the city whose focus is not on the American pastime of baseball, but rather an earlier and much deeper and British connection to the turf and horse racing. 

I must say, the Grand National is one of my favorite races. For the money, a general admission pass will give you three great races viewed from a hillside, and don't forget your picnic basket and waterproof picnic blanket. This is a hard value to beat when it comes to racing and the view of the course.

2012 Grand National

The Grand National began in 1898 when several young men who wanted to compete in the Maryland Hunt Cup, but were too young to enter, established this race. All the riders were under 16 and rode ponies, except for one horse. The race was run over 2 1/2 miles near Chattolanee Hotel near the Golf Course of the present Green Spring Valley Club. As the riders became older, the age limit was raised so they could continue to participate. 

The race continued to be run over various courses in the Green Spring Valley through 1917, with the lengthening to 3 miles in 1906 and averaging 15 to 20 fences plus ditches and even streams. 

With a brief hiatus due to World War I, the race resumed in 1920 at Five Farms, the estate of Stuart Oliver, until the property was sold in Baltimore Country Club for their new golf course. 

In 1925 the Grand National moved to Brooklandwood, the estate of Captain Isaac Emerson, now the site of St. Paul's School at the corner of Falls Road and Green Spring Valley Road, where it remained through 1934. This 3 mile course consisted of 15 fences averaging 4'1" high and also had a water jump. It was in 1934 the for the first time a second race was added to the card for the Grand National, the Churchville Cup which was run from 1934 until1939.

2012 Grand National

Another move was in store for the race, this time to Hereford Farms, the William R. Wittingham estate at the corner of York road and Piney Hill Road, just south of Hereford, where the race was run from 1935 until 1942, when World War II again interrupted racing. The Hereford Farms course was 1 1/2 miles long run twice around and had 16 fences to be negotiated. It was also here that the first subscriber fee was introduced to watch the races. In 1940, the Foxhunter's Challenge Cup was added to the days card, as a replacement for the Churchville Cup, and was run by members of recognized hunts or United States Army officers over a five mile course.

With the war over, the Grand National was once again resumed in 1946, this time in its final and current location, Western Run Valley and the farms of the Griswold and Fenwick families. The 3 mile course consisted of 18 fences, 2 board and 16 rail, ranging from 3'9" to 4'2" high.

In 1949 the Western Run Plate was added to the card and then in 1965 the Benjamin H. Murray Memorial was added, giving the day the three races it retains to this day. As a side note, the current Western Run Plate is a revival of that original race begun in 1949.

While the Grand National is often compared to the Maryland Hunt Cup, there are distinct differences, the Grand National is a shorter race, resulting in faster racing. The Hunt Cup is the real test of a horses endurance.

So this Saturday, like every second to last Saturday in April, I make the trek to Western Run Valley to join my friends and many strangers to watch some amazing athletes, both horses and jockeys, compete in one of the most exciting sports, in some of the most beautiful settings. I wouldn't have it any other way!

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Monday, April 8, 2013

Return to Monkton... The My Lady's Manor Races

This Saturday is the first of the "Big Three" Maryland Races, the My Lady's Manor Races. Just down the road from the Elkridge-Harford Point-to-Point held last weekend, but with a greater amount of advertising, which attracts a much wider audience. You will find many people here who have never watched a race before, and quite a few who probably never even see the horses run while they are at the races.

The My Lady's Manor Race was first run in 1900 on the farm of Mrs. Estelle H. Pearce, and after a brief hiatus, was established as an annual event in 1909 over about 3 1/2 miles. In 1922, the John Rush Streett Memorial was added to the Manor Race card. And even in the lean years of the Great Depresssion, the Manor Races nevertheless flourished, with as many as four races on the card in the mid 1930s. The main race was run over about 3 miles with 16 timber fences, a combination of stacked, board and rail.

2012 My Lady's Manor Races

For 69 years  the race was run over a course on the Secor, Pearce, Riggs and Warfield properties in Monkton, Maryland near the intersection of Monkton and Markoe Roads. Then in 1978, facing the presure of development, the race moved to its current location adjacent to the Elkridge-Harford Hunt Club and Ladew Gardens. Even in this quiet part of the state, new houses have been built where famous race horses once battled it out for the finish line of the old course.

All three races on the card today at the Manor Races are run over timber on the 3 mile course of 16 timber fences. The fences on the course are set at about 3 foot 7 inches, which are the lowest fences of the big three races in Maryland.

This is something else which really sets Maryland racing apart from other places in America. Maryland is known for timber racing. They jump a combination of stacked, board and rail fences, all very hard and unforgiving. Those soft brush fences which are seen elsewhere are not found in Maryland and when a horse comes into contact with one, you hope for the best for both horse and rider.

2012 My Lady's Manor Races

At the Manor Races, you need to take your time to find the right spot from which to watch the races. There are quite a few different options and everyone seems to have their favorites.

The crowd here is as varied as the vantage points from which to watch the races. The tailgates/picnics and clothing are also found in a wide range of styles to suit each of the many spectators. The Manor Races probably represent the most socially diverse crowd of any of the the big three races, and passes are available next door to the course at Ladew Gardens on the day of the race for those who have not purchased theirs in advance.

And like all of the races, they are held rain or shine, so first dress for the weather and then for the occasion. While those bad days might not be for everyone, the loyal followers of the sport will always be found in Monkton the second weekend in April regardless of the weather. I know that's where I will always be!

Check out the Maryland Steeplechase Association website for more information:

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Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Off to Monkton... It's Time for the Elkridge-Harford Point-to-Point

So what is the difference between and Point-to-Point and a Steeplechase? Well in the UK, the Steeplechases are held over permanent courses using National Hunt rules and Point-to-Points are traditionally over ad hoc courses, though many are held on permanent courses now. But for the average spectator, there is no noticeable difference between the two types of racing, especially in the US, other than a difference in names used for them.

2012 Elkridge-Harford Point-to-Point

This weekend is the last of the local point-to-points before the "big three," the Elkridge-Harford Point-to-Point. It's held each year at Atlanta Hall Farm, in Monkton, Maryland. I've been to a number of races in Maryland and Virginia over the last 20 years and I still don't know what it is about this race which I like so much, but it's certainly a favorite. And that's saying a lot given how much I like the rest of the races in Maryland. As with last weekend at Green Spring, this is an early season race, so be prepared for cool, windy and/or wet. But also be prepared for warm sunny and slightly breezy days. Dressing in layers is hey and I always head to any of the races with my Barbour and wellies in my car in case the weather requires them.

This race is not heavily advertised. As a matter of fact, last year, even aware of where I was headed, I drove right past Pocock Road and had to turn around. Either there was no sign even mentioning the races were being held that day or I was lost in the beauty of the day and missed the sign.

But what this race lacks in advertising, it makes up for in style and racing. The course has 15 timber fences, a combination of stacked, board, rail and coop, over about 3 miles. There is not one place on the course where you can see everything, so you have to pick your spot on experience and the sort of racing day you wish to enjoy.

2012 Elkridge-Harford Point-to-Point

I should also note, that tailgating at both Green Spring and Elkridge-Harford are very casual informal affairs. That isn't to say they are pedestrian, just not over the top. Think classic, old fashioned tailgating.

And here at the Elkridge-Harford Point-to-Point, the vast majority of those in attendance, as at Green Spring, are either closely connecting with the hunt or racing, or they are fairly serious followers of the sport.

It might seem like, given the rather close distance between the Green Spring and Elkridge-Harford courses, that you'd see many of the same horses, but that is not the case. With so many races taking place this time of the year in Maryland, Pennsylvania and Virginia, very few in fact have come here directly from Green Spring. And for those who are looking to check out this years talent before they hit the "Big Three," this is another great chance to get a look before the really serious racing begins.

So pack a picnic, and bring your field glasses to Monkton this Saturday for some more amazing timber racing in Maryland!

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