Compared with the millions of fans who attend U.S. flat racing every year there are comparatively few who have the same fanatical interest in the jumpers. This is not because steeplechasing is dull, for indeed probably no sport in the world can match it as a spectacle of beautifully coordinated skill and nerve—whether it be at a major track or in the more natural setting among the sweeping slopes of the Pennsylvania, Maryland and Virginia hunting country. And yet there persists a feeling among the general race-going public (which often gets a diet of one jump race a day at many race courses) that it is simply too hazardous to back a horse that may not reach the finish line at all.
Such considerations are present but by no means foremost in the minds of a happy throng of sportsmen who give their support to the jumpers in the peaceful atmosphere of the hunting field. Theirs is a sporting heritage to be proud of, and the scene of a crowded Maryland hillside dotted with tweeds, shooting sticks and picnic hampers is an occasion to reflect that a day at the races has more to offer than a ponderous wait in a betting queue.
Steeplechasing, both afield and on the tracks, was on the rise in 1955. Much of the credit must go to an unselfish, nonprofit organization called the United Hunts Racing Association, which, in conjunction with the National Steeplechase and Hunt Association, stages meetings from Indiana to New York. The United Hunts recently proudly announced that its membership had grown from 400 to nearly 1,600 in less than a year. Purse distribution was increased in many major stakes—from $15,000 to $50,000 for the Temple Gwathmey in which Neji (opposite page) virtually clinched the year's steeplechase championship for his owner, Mrs. Ogden Phipps and her brother-trainer, G. H. (Pete) Bostwick. But Neji's superiority over the big course at Belmont was only one of the highlights of the season which opened last March at Southern Pines, N.C. and closed last Saturday at Montpelier Station, Va. The traditionally rugged Maryland Hunt Cup—four miles over 22 timber fences—was won by Mrs. William J. Strawbridge's Land's Corner. The winner had worked up to this race, considered by many to be the world's most difficult race to win, by capturing the three-mile My Lady's Manor Point-to-Point at Monkton, Md. The Virginia Gold Cup, another run of four miles, went to Cyrus Manierre's Uncle Pierre. Other prominent winners were Miss E. C. Bosley's Marchized, Mrs. M. G. Walsh's Repose and Rythminhim, Harry S. Nichols' Ginny Bug and Charles M. Cann's Galant Ship.
At the United Hunts' annual two-day fall meeting at Belmont both attendance and pari-mutuel betting were up over last year's figures, and the healthy state of steeplechasing is such that owners of the best foreign jumpers are cocking some anxious looks in the direction of America for possible large-scale invasions in the near future. The impression everywhere is that the golden era of steeplechasing in the U.S. could be here—right now.