From a far-off hillside, a race seems to move at slow motion, as peaceful as an English country print come to life. The horses, dark and powerful, gallop over the lush landscape with their jockeys swathed in bright silks. The outriders and race stewards in bright scarlet coats and black riding hats appear to canter easily.
But as the horses approach, the race takes on a wild, driving energy - the fierce pounding of hooves, the shouts of the riders, the warnings of the stewards to spectators dangerously close to the course, the crashing of a horse against a post-and-rail fence as the mount falters at a jump. Steeplechase racing - known also as timber or hunt racing - is a dangerous sport; horses have been killed and riders injured racing over open ground and jumping post-and-rail fences, some more than five feet high. It is unusual for a whole field of horses to complete a race, and often a mount that has lost its rider will run in among the other racers, creating havoc.
The English planters who settled in the Free State and elsewhere in the Tidewater region brought the sport with them, and the annual running of the Maryland timber races is not merely sport but a kind of ritual commemoration of the region's rich colonial past - its British and Irish country heritage.
It continues to thrive despite periods of disinterest and the more recent threat from development, as vast stretches of the countryside have become subdivisions.
A day at the races is a good chance to see the sort of horsy folk who seem to have escaped from the novels of Evelyn Waugh or P.G. Wodehouse via L.L. Bean: country squires or those who would be.
The racecourse has its quota of elderly red-faced men carrying walking sticks and wearing baggy tweed suits, rubber Wellington boots and caps or soft felt hats, accompanied by their wives dressed in not-dissimilar fashion. The world of horse folk in the Chesapeake region is a small one, and most of the regulars know one another and follow this racing closely. Timber racing is a kind of Kentucky Derby and Bachelors' Cotillion rolled into one: as much a social event as a sporting one, a place to see and be seen.
But the racing crowds are a fairly even mixture of old money, horsy types, yuppies out for fresh air and families enjoying a day in the country.
A DAY AT THE RACES
Many racegoers are barely able to follow the race, which is run over a
winding three- to four-mile wooded course, and a fair number, as one veteran trainer puts it, "don't know which end kicks." But that does not prevent them from enjoying the pleasures of a day of timber racing, settling down on a bright tablecloth with a picnic hamper full of Maryland fried chicken, crab cakes and a bottle of wine.
At all timber races, an effort is made to keep the commoners from becoming too familiar with their betters. The patrons, subscribers and longtime supporters of the steeplechase scene are separated from the riff and raff by wooden snow fences.
Nearby fields are staked off for the hoi polloi, who pay a small fee to see a bit of hunt-country life that is probably doomed, despite its defenders' best efforts.
However, the good news is that the best views of the races are from the dandelion-dotted hillsides overlooking the Grand National and Maryland Hunt Cup racecourses.
The Maryland races - which lead up to the Maryland Hunt Cup, always run on the last Saturday of April - are the most prestigious and demanding steeplechase races in the nation. The winner of the Maryland Hunt Cup is eligible to ride in the Grand National at Aintree, the celebrated English racecourse near Liverpool. And the Maryland Hunt Cup has produced the only two Americans to win that most challenging of horse races.
Steeplechase racing is an offshoot of "the ancient and honorable sport" of fox hunting, and the chasing of a fox by riders with a pack of hounds is also a British tradition that remains healthy in Maryland hunt country.
The narrow lanes and winding country roads that crisscross the countryside are banked with ivy-covered walls or arched with an overgrowth of trees. Despite the coming of the subdivisions, much of the area remains undisturbed, the lush green hillsides dotted with splendid 18th-century country houses. Elsewhere there are vast horse farms, their fields lined with miles of whitewashed wooden fences.
The area is generally referred to as "the Valley," but it is really a series of valleys - Green Spring Valley, Worthington Valley, Long Green Valley, Western Run and My Lady's Manor.
The timber racing season begins in earnest on My Lady's Manor, a 10,000- acre estate 20 miles from Baltimore. Charles Calvert, the third Lord Baltimore, gave the estate to his fourth wife. Nearly 300 years later, the land is still called My Lady's Manor. It is now part of the village of Monkton.
The My Lady's Manor Point-to-Point is the first of the three major timber races each season. This year it will be run on Saturday, April 16.
The race is generally the smallest of the three major timber races. It is followed by the Grand National in Butler a week later, on April 23, and the Maryland Hunt Cup in Glyndon on April 30. Several smaller timber races precede these stakes each year.
Run over three miles and 16 post-and-rail jumps, the My Lady's Manor race is held on the fields of the Elkridge-Harford Hunt Club. The race, this year in its 78th running, draws the smallest crowd but has an atmosphere that is most like country racing in England and Ireland, with racegoers serenaded by the skirls of a bagpipe band.
The Grand National at Butler - this year's will be the 86th competition - is a three-mile, 16-jump race over a course of open fields.
The Maryland Hunt Cup tops the season as it has since it was begun in 1894. This race is regarded as "the toughest timber race in the world."
"The Maryland Hunt Cup is pre-eminent. It is regarded very highly and it is distinguished by the fences - they are very formidable," says Charles Colgan, executive secretary of the National Steeplechase and Hunt Association in Elmont, N.Y. "It's not amateur hour," adds Colgan.
"It's a hell of a race and it's an unforgiving race," says Gillian Fenwick, a veteran horse trainer who helped to school Jay Trump and jockey Tommy Smith, the first American horse and rider to triumph at Aintree.
Gillian Fenwick's nephew, Charles Fenwick Jr., a highly regarded steeplechase jockey and only the second American to win the Grand National at Aintree when he rode Ben Nevis II in 1980, echoes his aunt's sentiments.
"It's by far the most difficult," says Fenwick of the Maryland Hunt Cup. ''The only other race it can be compared to is the English Grand National, and that's not an easy comparison."
English courses feature brush fences instead of post-and-rail fences and boast much larger fields, often with 30 or 40 horses in the running. A major Maryland timber race usually has a field of eight to 10 mounts.
The Maryland Hunt Cup, run over four miles and 22 jumps, is not only the most challenging of the timber races, but also is the most socially elaborate, drawing crowds of more than 20,000.
It is a much grander affair these days than it was when riders rode, in Gillian Fenwick's words, "just for glory and a single silver cup."
To some extent hunt racing is in the blood, and riders are born to the sport. And to a great extent, the same can be said of its followers. A roll call of steeplechase jockeys is replete with names such as Fenwick, Bosley, Smithwick, Janey, Colwill and Bonsal - gentlemen jockeys, most from old Maryland families, who have raced for generations. There have been some women, too, in recent years.
Perhaps a chief draw of timber racing is the element of danger, although spills by horses and riders tend to look worse to the layman than they really are.
Spectators with a taste for the ghoulish stake out the formidable 13th jump at the Maryland Hunt Cup, nicknamed "the Union Memorial" after the Baltimore hospital where unlucky riders may be taken.
Backers of timber racing say the main reason the old sport remains healthy is that organizers have adapted it somewhat to modern times. In recent years purses have been offered in addition to trophies.
"There's got to be some money in the game to make it more attractive," notes Gillian Fenwick, adding, "but it's still the same old meeting."
COMING RACES AND HOW TO GET THERE
The Maryland Timber Races are an easy trip from the Philadelphia area and
from Baltimore. Hunt country is north of Baltimore, reachable via Interstate 83 or Interstate 95 and Interstate 695 (the Baltimore Beltway).
The My Lady's Manor race will be run at 3:30 p.m. April 16 at the Elkridge- Harford Hunt Club. Take Exit 27 North at the Baltimore Beltway. Go north on state Route 146 to Jacksonville. The racecourse is about three miles north of Jacksonville on Jarrettsville Pike. Parking stickers will be available on race day for $10.
The Grand National at Butler will be run at 3:15 p.m. April 23 just off Butler Road. Take Exit 23 North off the Baltimore Beltway. Go north on Falls Road (state Route 25) to Butler, make a left in the village onto Butler Road and proceed to the racecourse. Parking stickers will be available on race day for $10.
The Maryland Hunt Cup will be run at 4 p.m. April 30 at Glyndon in the Worthington Valley. Take Exit 23 North of Baltimore Beltway. Go North on Falls Road (state Route 25) to Shawan Road, and turn left to the racecourse. Tickets may be purchased in advance at $30 each from any Hutzler's Department Store or
from the Maryland Hunt Cup, in care of Charles Fenwick Sr., Glyndon, Md. 21070.
In Baltimore, there are several hotels from which a guest can walk to many sites of interest.
The city's newest hotel in the Inner Harbor area is the just-opened
Stouffer Harborplace Hotel at 202 E. Pratt St., Baltimore, Md. 21202; phone 800-468-3571. Weekend rates for a double room start at $99.
In the heart of downtown Baltimore across from the city's revitalized Inner Harbor is the Hyatt Regency, 300 Light St., Baltimore, Md. 21202; phone 800-228-9000. Weekend rates for a double room start at $89.
The Admiral Fell Inn is located at 888 S. Broadway, Baltimore, Md. 21231; phone 800-292-4667. It is at the center of the waterfront district of Fells Point, the city's oldest section. Weekend rates range from $90 to $120.
On historic Mount Vernon Place is the Peabody Court, 612 Catherine St., Baltimore, Md. 21201; phone 800-732-5301. Weekend rates for a double start at $85.