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.
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."