Stop somebody, anybody, on the streets of Baltimore and ask when the Oriole’s next home game is, and there’s a good chance you’ll get an accurate answer or at least a good guess. Pose a similar question about steeplechase racing and you’re likely to be met with a blank stare unless you’re doing the asking within a few select zip codes—21111 being your best bet for a precise response.
The strong, proud tradition of steeplechase racing in Maryland dates back to the nineteenth century. But it remains a fairly cloistered tradition, drawing primarily from two pools: folks with an intimate love of the sport who ride or have ridden at some point in their lives (along, most likely, with past generations of their family members), and those who go for social reasons, congregating on race days to, as they say, “see and be seen.”
But not to worry. if you aren’t part of the horsey set, you can still find out what the Maryland springtime steeplechase races are all about. We caught up with H. Turney McKnight, chairman of the renowned Maryland steeplechase race My Lady’s Manor and a veritable walking historian on the subject, whose knowledge of the sport extends to how the tradition got started; Jane Crow (not her real name) who, as an outsider who grew up in a row home in a neighboring city and married a Baltimore boy who’s been hobnobbing at the races for as long as he can remember, has an interesting perspective on the steeplechase scene; and Regina Welsh, a horse trainer and advocate for the sport whose efforts are helping to ensure the future of Maryland steeplechase racing.
McKnight sounded a bit reluctant when he took the call to discuss steeplechase racing, but his love of the sport soon took over, and he openly shared what he knew about the sport’s Maryland history, of which he undeniably is a big part. McKnight and his wife, Elizabeth Pearce McKnight, own the distinction of being the only married couple to have won the Hunt Cup; he in 1982 and she in 1986.
But he never once shared his own part of steeplechase’s history. Instead, he dove right into the broader picture, beginning in the nineteenth century. After the Civil War, in the late 1800s, explained McKnight, fox hunting was thriving in the rural parts of Northern Baltimore County. After the fox hunting season was over, the zeal for that type of competition wasn’t. “These young men naturally challenged each other to races over courses somewhat similar to foxhunting races,” he says.
Then, in the spring of 1894, it was made official. Nine horses lined up in Northern Baltimore County for the first Maryland Hunt Cup, ridden through lush countryside and over wooden fences. My Lady’s Manor, which now kicks off the Maryland steeplechase season in April, began its first sanctioned running shortly afterwards, in 1909. McKnight describes the increasing popularity of the races before the Second World War, which resumed shortly after the war ended.
“Thousands of people would come out on a train to a local station here. It was a major, major thing. Now it’s a major event for those who want to do it. But they can go to a baseball game in the spring, or a lacrosse game,” McKnight says.
Unlike flat races (run on tracks or turf, as in Pimlico Race Track), which attract a large percentage of patrons who like to gamble, steeplechase races don’t have a (legal) betting component. But that’s not to say there isn’t a purse, the cash prize collected by the winning horse’s owner. This year’s Hunt Cup boasts a $75,000 purse, derived solely from the sale of parking passes.
In addition to collecting from patrons, most of the races accrue purse money from sponsors, like local auto dealers and real estate companies. But not the Hunt Cup. “The Hunt Cup has no sponsors. They prefer to keep it that way,” McKnight says. What’s more, parking spaces, especially costly ‘premium ones’, aren’t easy to come by. To get on a list for premium parking, you have to wait for someone to die. And even then, you wait in line, says McKnight.
It’s no joke. Crow, who married into the spectator aspect of the sport, refers to the parking scenario as a caste system. For those who want access to premium parking, they must pay an annual subscriber’s fee, which funds the purse, lest they lose their spot and have nowhere to pull up their car on the countryside and tailgate which, according to Crow, is as big if not a bigger part of the scene than the horses that go whizzing by on the three-to-four-mile race.
“With the older crowd, it’s a tail gate competition,” Crow remarks. The younger crowd, in their twenties and teens, prepped out in coat-and-tie for the guys and sundresses for the girls.
Also mingling in the crowd are the true “horsey people,” as Crow calls them. “You know, they’re wearing wide-wale corduroy pants with dog hair all over them, the women don’t have on a stitch of makeup,” she says.
That’s not to say these different parts of the crowds remain separate. “Everybody is so inter-related. You’ve got the Elkridge part of the family and the Greenspring part of the family,” Crow says.
But without future generations of riders you have no crowds at steeplechase races, period. That’s why the efforts of people like Regina Welsh are so critical.
She recently founded U.S. Pony Racing, LLC as a resource for amateur and young jockeys to learn how to race. Headquartered in Butler, Maryland, it offers clinics and private lessons for kids interested in getting involved in the sport.
Whereas the number of kids in Maryland who were learning how to ride and race horses had dwindled down to almost nothing in recent years, according to Welsh, she says there are now about 60 kids, mostly girls, in the greater Baltimore area who have taken to the sport. She’s pleased with that number, but is not blind to her competition.
“Boys, when they turn about 8, say ‘See ya.’ I’m going to play soccer. They don’t want to look pretty and keep their heels down. They want their eyes to water when they’re on a horse. They want speed. I’m hoping to latch onto that crowd a little more,” Welsh says.
That would please old-timers, like McKnight, who want to see the sport continue to thrive. “As with any endeavor, you either grow or you wither away. I like to think the [Maryland steeplechase] races will attract more horses, higher purses, more spectators. I think we’re on an upward trajectory,” McKnight says.