It's 2:23 on the last Saturday of April in Maryland's Worthington Valley just north of Baltimore. In less than an hour, the 13 horses in the Maryland Hunt Cup will leave for the paddock. Let's walk the shedrow.
Any Key stands in the corner stall and watches the action while tied to the front of the stall. He sees everything - Foyle refusing to walk through the barn door, dogs darting in and out, old friends reuniting, a sandwich delivery and Gators dropping off jockeys and tack. The 13-year-old Polish Numbers gelding makes his Hunt Cup debut for trainer Billy Meister.
One stall up in the barn, which used to be in the stable area at the old Havre de Grace racetrack, And The Eagle Flys stands at the front of his stall tethered - loosely - by a lead rope and a loop of baling twine. The 14-year-old's ears are up and on alert. He misses nothing.
A dark horse in a dark stall, Guts For Garters carries a bit of mystery about him. His 13-year-old body is all but invisible, but his head hangs over a yoke screen as a few small children smooch on his nose. The 2014 winner would do that all day, or go run a race. Whichever you'd prefer.
Serene Harbor walks the grass barnyard, more busy than nervous. He enjoys the air, the scene.
Loose in his stall, Imperial Way makes a lap, stops to peer over the screen - high-headed and on guard. He paces a bit, circles again, stops once more. The nerves are showing, just a bit. His buddy The Looper stands guard out front.
Last year's winner by disqualification and a stakes winner seven days earlier, Raven's Choice stands outside on the grass while trainer Todd Wyatt brushes the horses tail and curries his flanks. Dapples sprout like new dandelions.
He's a Hunt Cup rookie, but Drift Society seems like he's been here before. Loose, the Irish-bred 8-year-old stands with his head over the yoke screen. He's waiting for something, listening to Jack Fisher's assistants Quinn Scala and Cacky Phipps. A dog in a Carolina collar stops to visit.
Big and nearly bursting with energy, Foyle is in his stall somewhere. Trainer Bruce Fenwick's assistant Dawn Williams works a towel over the dark bay 11-year-old, adding some shine to his polish. He led to the 16th two years ago.
Once a $950,000 yearling, Almarmooq is deep in the dark part of his stall - chilled like the foxhunter he is. Skylar McKenna, daughter of trainer Kathy Neilson, rubs him with a towel.
One stall over, Neilson's other entry Joshua G wears a compression hood and sports green fuzz in his ears - all part of a strategy to calm the 10-year-old. Another piece to puzzle, Fiona the pony, stands in the shedrow. Soon "Josh" will be a sweaty mess.
The long shedrow at Worthington Farm - actually several connected barns with a covered aisle facing in to a grass area - makes a left turn just past the tackroom. In the first stall on the other side of the doorway stands Derwins Prospector. The 8-year-old, standing behind a single stall runner, peeks around the corner to see what the fuss is about.
Stablemate Catch The Echo is in his stall, alone and peaceful. He's ready when his people are.
Part of the Joe Davies barn like Derwins Prospector and Catch The Echo, Senior Senator is outside on the grass. He really wants no part of his stall. He fusses and gets his ear pulled when an assistant tries to put padded boots on his hind legs. He wears a halter and chain shank fitted over a bridle headpiece and D-bit. Davies' wife Blythe shakes her head and says, "We can put the reins on at the races, not the bit. We've got to do that at home." Home is in Monkton, 15 miles away. Senior Senator will wear that bridle for four hours or so. He'll also win the race for owner Skip Crawford, trainer Davies and 20-year-old jockey Eric Poretz, denying Guts For Garters' challenge over the final two fences and through the stretch. Drift Society finished third, followed by Serene Harbor and Imperial Way. The others fell or lost their riders along the 4-mile, 22-fence course.