The Maryland Hunt Cup, this country's premier timber race, is the closest thing to a time warp that does not involve controlled substances or electrodes taped to the skull. Held each year on the last Saturday in April at 4:00 P.M., the hunt cup is the raison d'etre of the Worthington Valley, where the horse is king, the automated teller machines dispense old money, and to heir is human.
The land has scarcely changed in these parts for 300 years, since Lord Baltimore was selling 100-acre parcels for 200 pounds of tobacco. The jump-race tradition has scarcely changed since the first hunt cup was run in 1894. And in the subscriber parking area, where passes become avalable only when they are not renewed by their owners, styles in hair and clothing have scarcely changed since the zenith of high prep in the 1950s.
To appreciate the Maryland Hunt Cup and the devotion to all things past and heritable that surrounds it, one must understand two facts: the import of the race and the mind set of the true conservative. The import of the race is simple: it is the most rigorous accounting of horse and rider to be had in the United States. Riders must propel their horses over 22 hardhearted fences along a four-mile course. Most of the fences, which range from 3'9" to 4'10" high, are post-and-rail; a few are plank board; all will hurt your feelings and do you bodily harm quicker than a set of brass knuckles. Horse people say there is only one tougher race in the world, the Grand National in England; but one expatriate British steeplechase trainer insists, "Anybody who rides in the Maryland Hunt Cup has to be mad. Compared to it the Grand National's a piece of cake."
Equally formidable is the mind set of the true conservative, who does not like anything to happen that has not happened before. It is the mind set that prefers old schools, old ties, old dogs, old houses, and old solutions. It is the mind set that is inspired by the aspect of the last century rather than the prospect of the next. It is the mind set that informs the eight-member Maryland Hunt Cup committee. Other races might have corporate sponsors, preliminary races that precede the main event, entertainment, concessions, a press tent, a big-money purse, and tailgate-picnic competitions judged by local restaurateurs, but not the Maryland Hunt Cup. Indeed, the notion that people might actually enter their food in competition "is rather nouveau," sniffs one longtime hunt cup enthusiast. "The older families wouldn't do it.
"The valley crowd are purists," she continues. "The emphasis is on the race, not on what goes with it. The hunt cup is not as pretentious or stuffy as some of the showier races are, and that's what [hunt cup people] pride themselves on. The race didn't even offer a purse for years." Until 1972 to be precise. The hunt cup may not be so studiously toffy as are other steeplechase affairs, but it should not be mistaken for Saturday night at Gunnings, either. The truth be told, the two parking areas at the hunt cup are like two countries divided by a common horse race. Citizens of the first country unfurl their picnics in the general-parking area, located in a field along Shawan Road, about half a mile from the dandelion-studded hillside that overlooks the course where the hunt cup is run. It is impossible to see the race or anyone of significance from general parking. A pass to general-parking can be had for $30 at half a dozen locations in the Baltimore area (see box) by just about anybody who is not visibly stoned or intoxicated or excessively tattooed.
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