The loosely defined Maryland-Delaware circuit has mistakenly been referred to as the East's second-string circuit. But the racing in this area, which started at Bowie back on February 7 and which will run off and on at Laurel and Pimlico and Delaware Park (not to mention the fair meetings at Timonium, Cumberland, Hagerstown, Marlboro and Bel Air) until the uninviting cold of Pimlico next December 15, is actually first class if only for the reason that the people who run it, support it or are supported by it probably have more fun and inject more enthusiasm into their racing lives than their contemporaries anywhere else in America.
The states of Maryland, Delaware, Virginia and Pennsylvania (although the latter two still have no legalized pari-mutuel wagering) gave birth to many of our first and most cherished sporting traditions, and today this is a part of the country, as much as the Bluegrass of Kentucky and the cattle range land of the West, where people are born with a love and appreciation of horses. Even state legislatures have not been foolish enough to prohibit little tots from taking their fresh air within earshot of the rumble of mutuel machines.
Here, in fact, may be found the last traces of the influences of English country living: spacious manor houses, beautifully kept farms and stables and full family participation in fox hunting with the best packs to be found on this side of the Atlantic. Although the wealthiest members of this fraternity may now make more annual appearances at Belmont Park and Saratoga than at Laurel and Pimlico, this month and next their neatly cut tweeds and shooting sticks will dot the hillsides of timber courses at Middleburg and Warrenton, Va., Monkton, Butler and Glyndon, Md., and Malvern and Media, Pa., where they will watch—and participate in—such rigorous timber classics as My Lady's Manor Point to Point and the Maryland Hunt Cup. There those interested in family as well as equine bloodlines will notice a remarkable recurrence of familiar names among owners, trainers and particularly among the latest generation of earthy young amateur jump riders. This typical father-to-son horsemanship heritage is a source of pride among Marylanders. There are many examples, of course, particularly in England, of sporting talents being passed from one generation to another, and riding may be foremost among them. Well, the Maryland Hunt Cup, more than four miles over tall, ungiving, stiff timber fences, must certainly rank among the very top American sporting spectacles. Its roster of winning horses and riders represents our very best, and on more than one occasion the result was justification enough for a real family celebration. For instance, back in 1927 a skillful young amateur named Frank A. Bonsal Jr. won the first of his two Maryland Hunt Cups on Bon Master. In the years to come "Downey" Bonsal developed into one of the state's leading horsemen, owner of his own farm at Glyndon and trainer for some of the sport's most respected patrons, among them Mrs. Marion du Pont Scott's Montpelier Stable. Almost 30 years after he first won aboard Bon Master, Downey Bonsal stood with his friends on the same beautiful countryside to watch his son Frank win the Maryland Hunt Cup aboard Lancrel. This sort of heritage is not unusual in surroundings where children are likely to hurry home from school, not to catch a TV program but to learn the fundamentals of animal husbandry by mucking out stalls and walking hots for their fathers.
Although some of the biggest and most prominent names in American racing—Widener, Whitney, Vanderbilt, Jeffords, Sloane, du Pont and Mellon—have made lucrative forays into the Maryland-Delaware turf belt, the circuit today is more characterized by the steady appearance of familiar trainers and jockeys who return year in and year out to Bowie, Laurel, Pimlico and Delaware Park not only because this is a friendly circuit but also because racing there is fun as well as sport.
Racing in this part of the world (some of whose population spills over generously into New Jersey during the summer) presents some of the nation's oldest stakes races: Dixie Handicap, 1870; Monmouth Oaks, 1871; the Preakness, 1873; and the Sapling, 1883. The Maryland Jockey Club dates from 1743, and in 1762 a fellow named Colonel George Washington used to attend the races regularly at Annapolis—and bet on them, too. Andrew Jackson was an active member of the Maryland Jockey Club, and General U.S. Grant once was a box owner at Monmouth. Pimlico today is second only to Saratoga as the nation's oldest track in continuous operation.
It would be difficult to move very far in the Delaware countryside without bumping into at least one covey of du Ponts, and for racing fans this is a good thing indeed. Were it not for the sporting instincts of William du Pont Jr., the state might have nothing suitable to offer racegoers. Back in the late '30s Mr. du Pont, a quiet man who is now 63 but still a tireless worker, tackled this considerable problem, and the result is Delaware Park, a beautiful 700-acre layout in Stanton, just seven miles from Wilmington. The track is nonprofit and its board of directors, many of whom, like du Pont, are members of The Jockey Club and patrons of fox hunting, include such names as J. Simpson Dean, Allison F. Fleitas, Walter M. Jeffords, Harry W. Lunger, Donald P. Ross and Bayard Sharp, owner of the Kentucky Derby contender Troilus. A summer afternoon at Delaware Park might not exactly duplicate a session at Saratoga, but it comes close to it, and when a horsemen's clan comprised of men like Bernie and Bowes Bond, the Christmas brothers, Downey Bonsal, Arthur White, Jack Skinner, Jim Ryan, Syl Veitch, Sid Watters, Burley Cocks, Ray Woolfe, Morris Dixon Sr. and Jr. and Billy Dixon, John Lee, the Smithwicks, the Bosleys, the Weymouths, the Stuart Janneys, the Ogden Phippses, the Mickey Walshes, C. Mahlon Kline, Jouett Shouse and Mrs. Marion du Pont Scott gather in the shade of the enormous beech in the paddock they probably represent as knowledgeable a crew of racing folk as there is to be found anywhere in the land.
Speaking of du Ponts, there are others besides Mr. William in this game, and doing well, too. His own stable, Foxcatcher Farms, is of course as well known as any. Mrs. John R. H. Thouron, the former Esther du Pont, won stakes with Royal Vale, Royal Governor and, more recently, with Ben Lomond and is a familiar figure at Florida and New York tracks. Mrs. H. W. Lunger, the former Jane du Pont, is now co-owner with her husband of the Christiana Stables, whose most recent star was Thinking Cap. George T. Weymouth, a most genial all-round sportsman, is married to the former Deo du Pont and has his son Gene (the 1957 winner of the Maryland Hunt Cup) train for him. And Bayard Sharp, whose best horse before Troilus was Hannibal (as a 77-to-1 shot he finished eighth in the 16-horse 1952 Kentucky Derby won by Calumet's Hill Gail), is related to the du Ponts through his mother, who was a sister of Pierre du Pont. Sharp, a slow-talking folksy former naval aviator now in his 40s, has adjusted to the Troilus-inspired publicity with ease and taste.
The process of modernization isn't likely to spoil the flavor of Maryland and Delaware racing even though the major tracks in both states have, in the interests of survival against severe competition in New York and in New Jersey, had to publicize themselves more in terms of purse opportunities than other racing virtues. With races like the Preakness (increased, incidentally, this year to a value of $150,000 added), the Pimlico Futurity, the Washington, D.C. International, the Campbell Memorial and Delaware Park Distaff Big Three for fillies and mares, this fertile belt stands solidly on its own. The fact that Alfred Gwynne Vanderbilt no longer runs Pimlico was no surefire sign that the old Baltimore landmark wouldn't operate under proper management. The present top brass at Pimlico—Herman and Ben Cohen and Lou Pondfield—may not own a place like Vanderbilt's nearby Sagamore Farm but they are doing a superior job of promoting racing in Baltimore, nonetheless. The same must certainly be said for Laurel's John Schapiro and Joe Cascarella, who between them have built the International, despite its shortcomings, into a first-class world attraction. And at Bowie, which closed out a highly successful meeting the other day, the upsurge in popularity may largely be credited to President Donald C. Lillis, a former New York investment banker who, according to one of his friends, "was unwillingly projected into the presidency of a race track and was forced to overcome not only his own inexperience but also the bad will which his predecessor, Larry MacPhail, had engendered." Lillis' imaginative and daring aggression have made him, in less than five years at his new job, one of the most dominant and best-liked figures in Maryland racing.
The Maryland-Delaware circuit, far from being second string, is well equipped now to carry on its old and pleasing traditions.