SI Vault
Alice Higgins
June 05, 1961
In the world of hunt meetings, the fashions are British, the participants distinguished, the riding rugged—but all blend together with a picnic mood to create a unique country sport
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June 05, 1961

Racing In Style

In the world of hunt meetings, the fashions are British, the participants distinguished, the riding rugged—but all blend together with a picnic mood to create a unique country sport

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On Saturday afternoons from mid-March until June, and then again through autumn's finest months, the small, time-honored world of hunt racing has its semiprivate but delightful seasons. It is a world of horses that run and jump in a green, rolling countryside, studied by members of a select coterie who are, more often than not, as elegant as the animals they follow. It is a world that drifts with the spring from the Carolinas to New York or Kentucky, then back again in the fall by weekly stages through Pennsylvania, Maryland and Virginia. In its ritual migrations and elaborate festivity, and with its dedicated retinue, hunt racing is not unlike King Henry VIII's sporting progresses through the English countryside.

Since the meetings generally are held on private estates or clubs, supported by their followers and local enthusiasm, hunt racing passes largely unnoticed by professional race-track fans. To the general public it was almost entirely unknown until Mrs. John Kennedy's presence at some of the spring events in Virginia attracted interest. But with or without the First Lady's endorsement or general public attention the solidity of the sport has been well tested by age—a fortnight ago, for example, The Rose Tree Fox Hunting Club of Media, Pa. held its 102nd annual spring race meeting, and last month, near Glyndon, the 65th race for the Maryland Hunt Cup took place. It was there that the Henry Koehler drawings appearing on these pages were made—and the sturdy British tweeds and the waterproof Ride Macs being worn by the hunt-meeting devotees are not mere affectations. Although the spring and the fall are both noted for days of serene beauty, these seasons also contribute their share of bleakness and rain, and the styles and fabrics of the clothing have been developed to withstand the rigors of a British climate.

A parochial sport, hunt racing often attracts its followers from the fox-hunting and horse-show worlds. There is a closer, more personal relationship with the animals, many feel, than is found in professional racing. Yet many of hunt racing's owners, trainers and riders eventually become involved with the better-known aspect of Thoroughbred sport.

Marion duPont Scott, for example, on whose Virginia estate, Montpelier, one of the last meetings of the fall is held, is also the master of the Montpelier Hunt. She is, and has been for years, the leading American breeder of steeplechase horses, and her Battleship once won England's famed Grand National. Mickey Walsh of Southern Pines, N.C., now the leading money-winning steeplechase trainer, once rode show-horse jumping champions. Amory Haskell, William duPont Jr., Paul Mellon, the Adams and Smithwick families are all to be found on the hunt-racing scene as well as on the tracks or as members or masters of recognized hunt clubs. For some, hunt racing is its own reward, for others, a proving ground for steeplechasers before they are taken to the major tracks. But whatever the motive, prestige or profit, the unique beauty and excitement of the races and the sociability of the hosts gives the sport its special cachet.

That blend of high drama and pleasant relaxation is probably found in its purest form in the Maryland Hunt Cup race. Originally designed for the "promotion of cross-country steeplechasing among Maryland gentlemen," it was later expanded when the race committee invited members of recognized hunt clubs in the U.S. and Canada to participate. Now considered the roughest jumping race in the U.S.—about four miles over 22 solid timber fences in the undulating Worthington Valley—it has been run, from its inception until today, for honor and a silver tankard.

The Maryland Hunt Cup is also the biggest event of the spring season, yet except for two small tents, the orange-and-green flag of the Maryland Hunt Cup, a row of yellow trash barrels, and temporary snow fencing marking off the paddock and home stretch, it leaves the estates of Gary Black and Daniel Brewster, over which the course is flagged, virtually undisturbed.

The race is not held until 4 o'clock, but by noon the cars of some 15,000 spectators have begun arriving, first one by one, then in a steady stream. Picnickers spread blankets and unpack shakers of home-mixed Martinis and hampers of fried chicken. By 3, most have closed their baskets and drifted toward their preferred places on the steep hill, picking violets and greeting acquaintances along the way. Some join the thickening crowd around the paddock, while others, lest they miss a spill, take stations by the often fatal third and 13th fence. There is no public-address system, and no music.

Then, from over the hill, from across the field, from up the road where Native Dancer lives, the horses are led to the paddock. Inside the snow fencing, owners and trainers in British-style tweeds and plaids chat with friends or riders and appraise the nervously walking horses. The ritual completed, the horses are led to the post and started on the race by the old-fashioned, line-up-and-go method, without benefit of a gate. Many do not finish. A few are buried by the fences where they died, and yearly this race, like England's Grand National, arouses some protests of cruelty to horses.

Not every hunt meeting is as understated as the Maryland Hunt Cup; some have cards with a mixed bag of flat races, timber races, brush events, ladies' races, farmers' races. Some are elaborate, with grandstands and even pari-mutuel betting. But all have the charm of the country and of seeing good racing in a natural setting. (Occasionally, of course, there are scratch-laden events or bad races. In North Carolina last year a horse romped home 80 lengths ahead of the field.)

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