The Greeks would have loved it. The Irish "invented" it. The English elaborated, refined and came to dominate it. The Canadians imported it to America. Gentlemen farmers in Maryland, Virginia, Delaware, Pennsylvania and the Carolinas embraced it and imbued it with the full-blown mythology of southern sporting tradition. It is the steeplechase—a bone-shattering, horse-killing, no-money sport that flat racing's Eddie Arcaro once summed up by saying, "A man's got to be crazy."
The zenith of the equine running and jumping art in the U.S. is reached on April 29 this year when the 71st Maryland Hunt Cup Steeplechase is held at Glyndon in an atmosphere just eccentric enough to seem to bear out Arcaro's remark. The four-mile course over 22 solidly fixed timber fences is so rugged that entrants have sometimes numbered as few as five and there never have been more than 22. No professional may ride in it. There is no grandstand, no music, no public-address system, no admission fee, no fixed starting gate. Neither are there pari-mutuel machines for betting or any of the commercial clutter commonly associated with crowds (hot dog stands, program vendors, etc.). What's more, there is no prize money for the winning owner, trainer or jockey.
Depending on the Maryland spring weather, 20,000 to 30,000 people will endure a mammoth traffic jam on back country roads about 20 miles from Baltimore. Then they will stand in the meadows of the Black and Brewster estates in Worthington Valley at 4 p.m. to watch this brief eight-or nine-minute contest of strength, speed and skill. When it ends, it ends, for there will be no other events or races after it, and there will have been none before.
Why do they do it? Why, for the best of all possible reasons, simply pour le sport.
April 24, 1967
The social cachet attached to the event is tremendous. This is not to say that nonsocialites cannot and do not attend. They can and do. They come from the proliferating suburbs of Baltimore and from the slightly stagnant old city itself. They drive over the Appalachians and boat across Chesapeake Bay and train in from New York, Philadelphia and Washington, D.C. They pay their $2 parking fee (the committee is apologetic about charging, but somehow the mess left behind on the private grounds must be tidied up), and they rub shoulders with the elite of the horse-loving world.
But it is this elite—a hard core of old names, entrenched privilege and power, influential horse owners and followers—that dominates the Maryland Hunt. For these people, it is an annual old home week—a time to greet friends whose forebears knew their own, a time to draw into the charmed circle of reciprocal gentlemen's agreements between hunts, a time to enjoy the special intimate knowledge between friends of what living with and for horses is like. These are the descendants of people like John Randolph of Roanoke, who said, "I am an aristocrat. I love liberty. I hate equality." Or of Robert Toombs who pronounced, "We are a race of gentlemen."
Maryland is a sort of pistol-shaped state pointed at the nation's Appalachian ribcage, and just above the trigger, Baltimore, lies the village of Glyndon with Worthington Valley nearby. This is a never-never land of green rolling hills and valleys, miles of horse fences, wildly beautiful trees, neat frame farmhouses intermixed with impressive Georgian stone homes, tidy barns, healthy animals grazing in neat pastures, and, overhanging all, the aura of the good life, a combination of old money, manner and mores. The setting is everyone's dream of how America should look: a prebillboard heaven where the only printing ever to greet the eye is on someone's discreetly lettered mailbox, or possibly an explicit sign such as the one on the Alfred G. Vanderbilt property: SAGAMORE FARM, HOME OF NATIVE DANCER.
Just as they will pour into Louisville for the Kentucky Derby the following Saturday, people begin to stream into Baltimore for the weekend of the Maryland Hunt as if their lives depended on cramming enough fun, food, drink and horse talk into 48 hours to last a lifetime. The strain on hostesses is terrific, but Maryland ladies are equal to the task. The area has always had a fine reputation for hospitality and delicious things to eat and drink. After the rare regional cooking and the peculiar superiorities of Maryland's own rye whiskey and bourbon, fun and horse talk come naturally.
All Friday afternoon, the Pennsylvania Railroad will be disgorging horsey types, some of them carrying worn riding boots in straw baskets. Round about one hears the typical Maryland greeting, "Hey," which passes for "hello." Or someone may remark, "It's beautiful certain we'll have a great race tomorrow," or, "I have the plane schedule here for you since you belong to be back in Wilmington on Sunday night." Visitors cram into the Sheraton-Belevedere in downtown Baltimore or headquarter at the suburban Holiday Inn en route to Glyndon. The luckier ones travel on to private homes and estates near Worthington Valley. A typical hostess there is Mrs. Gary Black, upon whose land a part of the Hunt is actually run. Mrs. Black's impressive linen closets resemble those of a small hotel, and no wonder—she is not even sure how many rooms her house boasts.
"They say the back part of the house was built in 1645, but I don't believe it. It was an inn up here on the hill once upon a time, and I think everyone who ever lived in it added to it. It's too big, except for this weekend."
Mr. Black is the chairman of the board of the Baltimore Sunpapers, and he and his wife give a luncheon each year before the race. "We won't even know some of the guests," he says. Their invitation specifically reads: "Limit, 4 Guests, plus you both," but this is only a vain try at a holding action.
Friday night is the perfect kickoff for Hunt festivities with talk about past races and high hopes for tomorrow. This is the best time for newcomers to find someone still calm enough to recite the history of the Maryland Hunt—how it originated in 1894 as a rivalry between the neighboring Elkridge Fox Hunting Club and the Green Spring Valley Hunt. In the beginning the race remained local, reflecting the origin of steeplechases everywhere—friendly rivalries between neighbors jumping fences on the way home from fox hunting. "Race you to yon church steeple," so the origin of the word steeplechase goes. After 1903 the Maryland Hunt was opened to owners and riders who were members of other U.S. and Canadian hunts. From that day on, and especially after it was transferred to Worthington Valley in 1915, the race gained the horse world's attention. By now fans rate it second only to England's famed Grand National at Aintree—and some class it over Aintree.
But the comparison is truly odious, for there are very real differences between the two contests. At Aintree the race is a giant public event with both professional and amateur riders. At Maryland the field is never crowded, and the strictly noncommercial atmosphere is much more restrained. But the dangers are just as real. The fences are high, hard-post and rail, as stiff and unyielding as telephone poles. This means that the horse can't just brush over the top of a fence but must clear the obstacle. Several jumpers have been killed at the Hunt.
A very good place to get one kind of idea about the Maryland Hunt is the farm of the Janon Fishers Jr., where on the night before every Hunt a party is going full blast. Last year the tension produced by the rivalry between the Fishers' horse, Mountain Dew, and Jay Trump, owned by Mrs. Mary Stephenson of Ohio, was enough to cause a mandarin to start biting his nails. Each horse had won the Maryland Hunt twice; a third win would retire the cup. As it turned out, Jay Trump, ridden by the same Tommy Smith who had booted him to victory in the Grand National earlier, carried off the prize. But before that happened excitement was rampant on the Fisher farm, and it should be again this year, for the Fishers plan to run Mountain Dew for another try at retiring the cup. Mountain Dew is always ridden by Janon Fisher III, a young independent who rolls his own cigarettes.
The Fishers are not the chichi foxhunting "horsy set" depicted in old issues of Vanity Fair. They are friendly, informal, down-to-earth farm folk whose place in the steeplechase world has been won by their very unpretentiousness, their secure knowledge of who they are and the ownership of a rare and valued horse. "They are the sort who buy a good horse rather than a new car," says one of their admirers. "It means a lot, it means everything to them. The chic society ones may put money into the sport, but it's the real people like the Fishers who go at it as a sport, in a serious manner."
The Fisher farmhouse radiates an aura of elegant decay that can only come from total self-assurance. Mrs. Fisher, an apple-cheeked lady in ordinary, everyday farm clothes, never once looks down to chide anyone for the mud on his boots as they track across well-worn rugs toward one of several crackling fireplaces. Her house is a happy jumble of dogs, children, people and horsy articles. There are statues of horses, souvenirs of horses and pictures of horses on every wall. The tack room between dining room and kitchen is a tangle of bridles, saddles, old boots and faded racing silks in the blue-and-gray Fisher colors. In one of several kitchens stand enormous cheeses, bags of potato chips, home-baked cakes and a clutch of brown bottles of K and L Maryland Straight Rye Whiskey ("Every drop is 7 years old"). The sink is full of daffodils.
The bright-eyed Mrs. Fisher would never let any stranger feel strange for long under her roof. But she is apprehensive about publicity. "My father thought it was the worst thing in the world to have your name printed in the paper," she says. "He tried to buy the Baltimore Sun once because of something that appeared in the society pages about me. He got so mad he almost disowned me.
"No, I don't ride. I used to, but then I raised seven children and they all rode and hunted. My daughter, Kitty Jenkins, hunted on Mountain Dew all this past winter. I worry about it all. They put so much into it—the two Janons do, I mean. I worry—afraid Janon III will get hurt. Last year we decided we were never going to do it again, and here we are. I almost died last year, so someone gave me a tranquilizer, but I was afraid to take it. I'm just scared to death of tomorrow. I never get used to it."
Mrs. Charles O. Rogers, a friend up from Florida, laughed at this. "You wouldn't miss it for the world," she said. "I have only missed a few Maryland Hunts myself—not many. The best thing about coming here and about this house are the wonderful people who live in it."
She indicated the two silver tankards and cigarette boxes the Fishers have as winning owner and rider of two Maryland Hunts. The owner also receives a 15-inch sterling silver bowl, which may be retired by three victories. All the pieces bear the Maryland state seal. Mrs. Fisher looked at the tankards. "These things are hard to drink out of," she said. "If we get a bowl to keep tomorrow, we'll put a mint julep in it and drink out of that."
Someone mentioned the exclusive Maryland Hunt Cup Ball to be held on Saturday night in Baltimore. It is one of the hardest-to-get-invited-to social events in America, but Mrs. Fisher, upon learning that a guest planned to attend, merely murmured with unfeigned sympathy, "Oh, you poor thing."
"People here really hunt," said one guest. "You know, people like the Fishers. They don't just bring a horse in from somewhere to try to win the Maryland Hunt. They have their horses and use them. They will run from 7 in the morning until dark, often stopping only to change mounts. This is tough hunting country. If you are a young man on a good horse and you don't take everything in sight, they probably won't have much to do with you for long."
At the lower club (golf-course division) of the Green Spring Valley Hunt Club, the Black Sheep—Baltimore bachelors and a group of their friends—were generating body heat that made a welcome change from the crisp night air. Young America drank, danced and talked a mile a minute in an atmosphere of blue smoke. It could have been any Friday at any country club, and the electric guitars of The Lafayettes must have been causing kidney damage through vibrations alone. The enthusiastic 200-odd young businessmen attending were typical of the postcollege brokers, bankers, builders and lawyers who do not ride or even belong to the Hunt Club but who revere the Maryland Hunt as a tradition they want to share. They make up colorful and convivial tail-gate picnic groups that turn Worthington Valley into a festive place on Hunt Saturday each year.
The Black Sheep consider the Maryland Hunt such an important event that, when they were faced with eliminating either their steeplechase eve dance or the one at Thanksgiving, they unhesitatingly dropped the November date. Some of them seem to enjoy the pleasures of vicarious snobbery. When told that the Hunt Ball was still off limits to the press, one Black Sheep said, "Terrific—Baltimore is always very good at keeping outsiders out!"
The morning of race day finds the elliptical valley course outlined with small red and white flags and watched over by state police. Bright yellow portable toilets dot the green pasture, and down the hill from the Gary Blacks' house a snow fence has been arranged in a circle to form a paddock. Inside is the weighing-in tent for the jockeys. The judging platform at the finish line is a farm wagon. The incomparable vista from here takes in the acreage across the road at the foot of the hill, over which half of the race course runs. This property belongs to Maryland's handsome young Senator Daniel B. Brewster. The two spots on the asphalt highway where the horses must cross have been covered with tanbark, and a crew of men keeps busy raking it back into place after each passing car.
Riders, trainers and owners walk over the course, anticipating trouble spots, crushing the bright wild violets under the heels of their wet jodhpur boots and frowning at the solid-rock hardness and staggering height of four fences—Nos. 3, 6, 13 and 16. At the 17th they think of Trouble Maker, who broke his neck there after safely running the Grand National. He was buried on the spot. And at the 13th they think of War Gold, who also lies under the sod. The jockeys seem to feel the sixth and 16th fences are the toughest, because of an incline that makes each jump almost a foot higher. But the crowd usually gathers to see the spills at the 13th. It was here that the Duchess of Westminster, a fervent Grand National follower and horse owner, paused. "I had heard," she said, "that these fences were big and hard, but I had no idea they were this size. I can see now how Jay Trump negotiated the Grand National so easily after a background of these terrible fences."
The Green Spring Valley Hunt Club, not far from the course, is alive with activity, preparing to feed visitors from all over the U.S. There is a sound of hounds as one approaches the 150-year-old brick house with its old pine doors and facings, plaster walls and wide, walk-in fireplaces. The wooden floors are un-waxed, scarred by boots and spurs. Plaster sags from the beamed ceilings, and the photographs of hunt masters, hounds and horses are yellow with age. But a musty charm pervades as the platters of food fly past and the spicy smell of frying Maryland crab cakes fills the air. The bartenders stand behind a huge array of drinks. "We serve bourbon on the rocks 2 to 1 over everything else," one of them said. "Occasionally an old fool will order bourbon and orange juice. It makes me sick to make it."
"You can be sure they're drinking all over the countryside today," said Mrs. Frances Shield, on hand with her husband, Dr. J. Asa Shield. They are from the hunting country near Sabot, Va. "We had the best year ever. We had more timber horses," she said. Mrs. Shield wore a belted trench coat and khaki cleated rubber boots against the damp. The doctor, formerly Virginia's representative to the Masters of Foxhounds Association of America, had on a yellow vest, a green tie figured with running horses and a checked hacking jacket. "I brought Frances up here before we were married," he said. "We've been coming here now for 20 years."
Meantime a series of private luncheons were going on all over the Glyndon countryside. Senator Brewster was entertaining at his working Worthington Farms in an attractive white frame house where the guest list usually includes such regulars as Senators Howard Cannon, Vance Hartke, Stephen Young and Joseph Tydings; also Assistant Secretary of the Treasury and former Ambassador to Switzerland True Davis, former Postmaster General J. Edward Day and William R. Howard III and his wife, the film star Dorothy Lamour. (Mr. Howard is the descendant of an Englishman to whom an English king once deeded a large part of what is now Baltimore.)
The most elaborate entertaining in the valley is conducted by the Blacks in their vantage-point house on the daffodil-covered hill overlooking the course. This elegant red-brick house, with its trimmed boxwood hedges, is full of elegant people—the ladies in tweed suits and boots and the men in checked jackets and rough country shoes. (The tasseled moccasin, a dead fashion duck in most spots, is very much alive in hunt country.)
The Black house is awash with race talk as servants with silver trays pass hot canapés, olives and carrot sticks. Guests crowd all through the house and into a sunroom that looks out onto the green hills beyond the swimming pool. A kind of Town & Country atmosphere reigns, as if one had waked amid the pages of that magazine. One of the distinguishing features of such a home seems to be the display of personal photographs. Framed family likenesses simply do not appear in ordinary living rooms today, according to those who say they know. But in homes like the Blacks' they stand all about in silver Tiffany frames, often suitably engraved to commemorate an occasion or a private joke. They give a feeling of family solidarity. There are informal shots of people marlin-fishing, running on Caribbean beaches, skiing in Switzerland, standing on prep-school ball fields, holding golf trophies. Added to these are such sure touches as the beautiful but casual arrangements of flowers, fine needlepoint chairs, old English hunting paintings, horse figurines, jockey doorstops, a Frans Hals over the fireplace, rare china in old cupboards and the indiscriminate mixing of patterns on rugs, pillows, chairs and sofas.
Luncheon is shrimp and crab over rice, thin cuts of cold roast beef, crisp French bread, fresh asparagus, salad, delicate petits fours and Brie oozing invitation. On the hillside the crowds are eating everything from caviar canapés to hot dogs roasted over small portable fires, unpacking hampers of fried chicken, popping champagne corks, pouring martinis out of thermoses and balancing pitchers of Bloody Marys on car fenders. Gay, multicolored golf umbrellas are everywhere for shade or protection against a sudden shower, and a lady passes by in Newmarket boots so cracked around the ankles that her socks show through. She is wearing a man's felt hat decorated with lilies of the valley.
Senator Joseph Tydings appears in a gigantic Inverness cape, checked to match his hacking jacket. There are safari hats with real leopard bands, straw boaters, cowboy Stetsons, pith helmets, Army camouflage hats and a sprinkling of the derbies and checkered caps that make this the most English-looking of all U.S. sporting events. It was at the Maryland Hunt that the shooting stick made its U.S. bow, and it is still in evidence. People are surveying the course with field glasses, and children have climbed the few trees in the pasture for the best view of all.
While the nervous jockeys weigh in on an old feed scale they accept the good wishes of the milling crowd inside the paddock, and snatches of talk drift through the afternoon air:
"Did you have a lovely lunch?"
"As a matter of fact, it was perfect because five didn't come. The Washington group pooped out, and 12 made it just cozy."
Mrs. Nicholas G. Penniman III, the wife of an attorney, streaks by in a blue-and-red tweed suit. "I brought along my fishing pants and raincoat, just in case," she said. "I'll just slip my skirt off and get into them. I want to be able to run and jump up on a wagon and see something."
"Doesn't the Mason-Dixon line run about through here?"
"Listen, I don't know, but this isn't the South, just remember that. It isn't the North, either—it's Maryland, a separate entity all to itself."
"If it rains will they call it off?"
"Are you crazy? The whole place could be a sea of mud and they'd never call this race off. Snow, blinding snow might stop it—I'm not sure."
The riders parade, some in silks over sweaters, others in sweaters knit in the owner's colors. The race starts unexpectedly, and the crowd strains to see as the horses begin to go down at the first fences. One scrambles up riderless and continues on the course. Then they are turning, and all at once the last few to survive the fences come pounding in. It's over. Last year sandy-haired Tommy Smith, considered by some the best amateur steeplechase jockey in the world, brought Jay Trump in ahead and then said modestly, "It's like using an automatic pilot. You set the switch to drive and Jay Trump does the rest."
Blonde Mrs. Mary Stephenson accepts the silver bowl from the judges and says she will retire her gallant gelding: "It is the culmination of a great dream. I would have been disappointed today if he hadn't won. I admit it. I didn't expect it, but I would still have been disappointed."
After the race the crowd drifts out and back to cars and on to the next round of parties. Past St. John's, the stone church where they bless the hounds on Thanksgiving Day, a large group drives to Mrs. B. W. Nichols' at Piney Grove Farm. She has added tents to her two patios and satisfies postrace theorists with a high tea served in a sumptuous dining room under an unusual Sartorius painting of an enormous horse with an exaggeratedly small jockey up. Tennis enthusiast and socialite James Van Alen peers at it and sniffs, "Who perpetrated that?"
Over at the Walter Brewsters' a real wingding is in progress. A lively, exuberant group has piled hats and coats on the L-shaped frame porch and is whooping it up inside, where the decibels are climbing dangerously high, considering the Lowestoft china in the pale-blue Federal dining room. Here hams and turkeys are being destroyed, and the horse centerpiece already bears the winning number with his jockey in the right colors.
Mrs. Brewster, a sister-in-law to the Senator, indicates her beige rugs and says, "This color is so good for the mud in this country." Soon the cr√®me de la cr√®me will skim off and go to soak in hot tubs and lay out gear for the Hunt Ball in Baltimore's Sheraton-Belvedere that night.
The men, when they appear in their scarlet hunt tailcoats and white-tie trappings, their collars accented in yellow, blue or green velvet signifying their hunts, put the ladies to shame. Like gigantic cardinals in full feather plumage they steal the show, and as the doors close over this ultimate horsy exclusivity up on the hotel's 12th floor an onlooker turns to a friend:
"Well, what would I have to do to be important enough to get invited to the Hunt Ball?"
The friend smiles. "Ride a few horses first. That helps."