A year without a Maryland Hunt Cup

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A few nights ago, Bruce Fenwick was riding his bike down Tufton Avenue – he does that in the evenings when the weather is nice – and saw a small group of people walking the Maryland Hunt Cup course. They were down by the sixth fence, walking along and no doubt talking race strategy and approach.

For a moment, all was normal for late April in the Worthington Valley. And the world. Then Fenwick remembered. There will be no Hunt Cup this year, even if people still want to get a feel for the race – scheduled as usual for a 4 o’clock Saturday afternoon.

“We’ve had some people out walking it, I think just to be normal,” said Fenwick, responsible for prepping the course for the historic timber race which won’t happen this year due to the coronavirus pandemic. “No flags on the fences, we’ve done no mowing. Normally I’m going crazy with all the things I’ve got to do at this time of year. It’s a strange feeling, the first time in my lifetime that there’s no Maryland Hunt Cup.”

Fenwick, born in 1949, isn’t alone. The Hunt Cup began in 1894, moved to its present home outside Baltimore in 1922 and missed three years (1943-45) for World War II – its only previous cancelations. It’s been a fixture for generations of horse people, held on the last Saturday in April for most of that time.

“In our family, the calendar started with the Maryland Hunt Cup,” said Jay Griswold, who remembers attending the 1952 race as a 10-year-old and rode in 16 Hunt Cups. “That was like the first of the year and it just worked backward or forward from there.”

“I was a teenager for my first one and I’m almost 90 now so it’s been a long time,” said Perry Bolton, whose horse Welter Weight won in 1999 and finished second four times. “I had a few years in California where I missed it. Other than that, I’m there. It’s a real void, a tremendous void, without it. April is such a big time for Maryland racing and the Maryland Hunt Cup is the epitome.”

“I remember the first one after the war, 1947, when Mr. (Stuart) Janney won with Winton, and I’ve seen every one since then,” said J.W.Y. “Duck” Martin, whose family has owned the Hunt Cup course land since the 1930s. “It’s really weird. Unbelievable. It’s always happened, always the same day forever, or what seems like forever. I thought about putting a flag in the third fence and having a school. If they wanted to do that, they could.”

“I was born on Maryland Hunt Cup Day, as a matter of fact,” said Margaret Worrall, former executive secretary of the race and author of a book on the race’s history. “I don’t think I got to go when I was real little. I was born in ’42, and it didn’t happen the next three years. I was horse nuts like a lot of girls, I just loved horses, everything about them. I loved the smell of them. I cannot remember missing a Hunt Cup.”

She and the others technically aren’t missing one this year, there just won’t be one – as the $100,000 timber stakes was canceled along with any number of public events sporting and otherwise. All professional sports leagues are on hold, the Kentucky Derby was moved to September, the Preakness and Belmont Stakes have yet to post new dates, the Summer Olympics were canceled as infections and deaths rose around the world. Adding to the impact, much of the world’s economy slowed as people stayed home to honor guidelines from health experts. Even the Hunt Cup’s small economic footprint will be felt.

“The lady that sells us the mulch, that didn’t happen,” said Fenwick of the traditional padding laid across Tufton Avenue to accommodate the course, and then kept going. “Reverend Glover gets paid to pick up the trash afterward, the Boy Scouts get paid to sell programs, Buddy Gill used to put up the snow fence and hire people. We wanted to put lime on the course and the quarry is closed. We’re just one race, but we’d spend money putting it on, and it’s all gone. You think about how much it affects everything down the line.”

The impact rippled to the horses – and their owners, trainers and jockeys prepping for the 2020 running – none more so than three-time winner Senior Senator. The 10-year-old was meant to be trying for an unprecedented fourth Hunt Cup win Saturday for owners Skip and Vicki Crawford, trainer Joe Davies and jockey Eric Poretz. After the cancelation announcement in March, Senior Senator spent a few weeks in light training and was eyeing his typical summer break when he died of colic last week. It may have happened regardless, but add another victim to the pandemic’s toll.

Davies wrote and narrated a “dream” scenario where the 2020 Hunt Cup pitted all nine three-time winners of a race somewhere in timber heaven. It sounds magical.

There are no plans to stop having the Hunt Cup, as organizers intend to resume the tradition in 2021 with the 124th running. People and horses will flock to it.

“It’s so unique,” said Martin. “For it not to ever happen again, that would be really weird. We’re responsible for having it. We’ve nurtured it for this long, my father bought the place in the 1930s, he won the race in 1936 (aboard Inshore), I was born in 1939, I won the race (aboard Early Earner in 1972). The course is part of the family. For so many people, it’s part of their life.”

Short term, all Hunt Cup enthusiasts will feel a pang Saturday – right around 4 p.m. probably.

Bolton, in Florida, will probably take a long look at the photo of Welter Weight in the den while also thinking of his great uncle George Brown (a winner aboard Tom Clark in 1900 and Burgeois in 1916). Fenwick might go for a hack aboard timber horse Daddy In The Dark. Griswold will no doubt raise a glass to Hello Hal, and his old mounts Beech Prince and Handsome Daddy. Worrall will celebrate her birthday and think about 1992, when her teenage son Patrick steered Von Csadek to victory. Martin will pause from grass-cutting duties, gaze out on the valley and give a nod to his broodmares turned out on the course.

See you next year everybody.