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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."