Call Me Ishmael
There are twenty-two fences in the four-mile Maryland Hunt Cup, the toughest timber race in the world, held the last weekend of April. The first fence is a black four-foot, four-board fence. There are a dozen panels. You jump it after starting at the bottom of a hill. It sets up nicely. Often, a group of horses jumps it together. Sometimes riders do not pay enough attention to the first. They let the horses get in too close and the horses unnecessarily hit the top board, which is thick and of oak and will not break.
“In the air,” says Uncle Mikey, seated on the top rail three days before the running of the race, “You need to be looking at the next fence.” He holds up his right hand – mottled, sun-seared, palm permanently blue-black from being caught in a loop-tightening shank as he was dragged across a field by a colt – points at the second fence, “maybe even pulling a little on the left rein, Sonny-Boy, so that the second you land you take the straightest and shortest route.”
We climb down and walk through the thick grass. He is hunched over and we are poking along but if a pretty girl were to show up, our pace would quicken and his posture would stiffen. He stops, looks up. “Don’t wander off this way like some amateur bug boy and lose three lengths,” he asserts, catching his breath and waving his cane toward the big hill from where in his heyday tens of thousands of mint-julep sipping spectators -- the men in three-piece suits topped off with fedoras, the woman in long dresses and floppy straw hats -- used to cheer him on as year after year he put on a show winning six out of the twelve Hunt Cups in which he rode. From under the sharply tilted visor of his Irish wool cap, from under his thick gray eyebrows, his dark brown eyes squint in a way that reminds me of my father, his brother, and he says, “You might need those three lengths at the wire.”
An Old-Timey Gimmick
At four foot ten, the third fence is one of the biggest on the course. Each panel consists of not just three rails, as are most post-and-rail fences, not just four rails, as are a few high post-and-rail fences, but of five thick black rails. We’re thinking about this fence as we walk from the second, up a slight incline, to a steel gate. We climb up on the gate. Mikey takes a deep breath, and sits on top of the gate, maintaining perfect balance -- his butt on the top pole, his feet on the pole below -- as a lithe teenager would. He looks across Tufton Avenue, toward the third.
We step down off the gate, walk across the asphalt road where you gallop over the blanket of mulch, pick up speed going down into a dip which flattens out and then if everything is going all right you feel like you’re in a chute and you’re being drawn in straight and fast as if by a magnet to the one panel you’ve picked out, perhaps the one on the far right beside the flag. This is it, all or nothing. The horses are fresh. They are pulling. You let your horse roll on into that fence, spectators lining both sides of it. You sweep in a wave of horses and riders into the fence and then you are in the air – breathtakingly high – for an impossibly long time.
There are a few more legs that bang against the top rail than at most fences and the riders sit farther back and the spectators hold their breath longer than at any other fence. If no one falls, the crowd heaves a collective sigh. In the old days, the third fence was nicknamed “the Union Memorial,” after the renowned Baltimore hospital where riders who “hit the deck,” as Uncle Mikey calls it, were taken for X rays and treatment. When I was seventeen, I hit the deck there on a filly called Moonlore and most witnesses thought that my time was up.
“You and Florida ought to jump this one well,” Mikey says, one arm stretched out straight from his shoulder, hand gripping the top rail. “He’s used to crowds and all the commotion here won’t bother either of you. Still,” he looks me in the eye, takes his hand off the top rail, puts his fists close together as if he is holding a pair of reins, “he’s a spooky horse; you’ve got to keep him on the bit, watch out for the other horses. They might stop, run out, fall – anything can happen here. You pick your panel, go straight for it, and stay out of trouble.”
The second fence of the Hunt Cup would be a good-sized fence in any other race but in this one, and especially with the third coming up, the riders barely give it a look. You have to remember not to do that. It is a post-and-rail with plenty of panels and for years, until a tornado took them down, it was framed by trees on either side and was a favorite of photographers. At this point in the race throughout the thirties, forties, fifties and sixties the horses had not formed a line, one behind the other, or fallen into a pattern of a two-some in front jumping head-and-head, and a pack of three behind, and a few lengths back, other horses jostling for position. Instead, the horses were fanned out horizontally as they approached the fence, the riders leaning back, trying to settle them, and they jumped it together, a wave of horses and riders flying four feet off the ground. You jump it on an angle and head straight for the crossing over Tufton Avenue, on the other side of which is the third fence.
“This is the one that’s in the old photos,” Uncle Mikey says, climbing over. He stops, glares into my eyes. “Have you ever seen those photos? You see where they’re jumping this fence?” He points in disgust to the outside panels. “Look where we are right now, look at the third – you want to be right here, one of these three panels, in line to cross Tufton and jump the third.”
He climbs down, picks up his cane, looks up towards the crossing, and we march towards the big gate leading to where the mulch will be spread across the road.
In a Delirium of Competition and Pain and Joy
Walking across a flat stretch towards the fourth, Mikey stops halfway. He takes a breath, exhales. “Now you go in a straight line for the inside panel. See it Young-Blood?” He takes another breath and restarts our march. “You don’t wander, you don’t drift off to the right like a Green Spring Valley boy we all know used to do because his grandfather told him that when he was a kid there was a ground hog hole in the middle of the field.”
Your horse is settled. You gallop straight, headed with confidence for the inside panel. It is four feet high with thick rails. You time it so your horse jumps it in stride without slowing and in the air you pull slightly on the left rein, setting up for the fifth.