|It takes lots of variety tossed into the mixing bowl to make the Roedown Races
photos by Christopher Heagy and Bill Lambrecht
The hills are quiet. The field is empty. The race course spreads across undulating hills, rolling under timber fences and green steeplechase jumps. A small pond sits just to the right of the center. Two geese are taking a morning stroll across the infield.
The country air is almost too fresh. The smell of the horses that live at this farm seems to have disappeared for this public occasion. The morning sky is gray as sunlight struggles to push its way through the heavy clouds. Roedown Farm, in Davidsonville, has the look of a thousand other meadows on an early spring day.
And then, slowly, the hillside awakens. Cars trickle in. Coolers are pushed across backseats, grills are pulled out of trucks. Early spectators drop blankets and stake out spots to watch the days promised races. Tables and chairs pop up all along the hillside.
Along the rail, men down the last sips of early morning coffee, replacing foam cups with aluminum beer cans.
On the backside of the hill in front of a giant red barn, trucks pull their trailers onto the farm. Gates open, and horses plod out of their traveling stables.
The morning quiet evaporates. An empty morning is turning into a crowded, noisy afternoon.
The wind ruffles across the microphone as a single trumpet blown by Annapolis Symphony Orchestra musician Amy Larsen plays A Call to the Post. The Marlborough Hunt Races at Roedown are ready to go.
Roedowns Mixing Bowl
The race course at Roedown looks like a pottery bowl you made in third grade. Its a large, flat oval, but your inexperience at the wheel created dips and bends. Your bowl is not symmetrical or circular. Its a kind of shape that only nature or a third grader could create.
But you still have that pottery bowl because it reminds you of a different time and place, when you were a different person. Every now and then you pull that bowl out of the cabinet and mix a salad together. You throw in everything because variety is what you like.
Roedown has that variety, too.
This day at the races was started 26 years ago by the Marlborough Hunt Club. That first year, 300 people assembled, mostly club members, their friends and family. But as the years passed, a variety of ingredients were thrown into the Roedown mixing bowl.
First in the bowl is Marylands old-school, horsy aristocracy, dominated by names like Clagett, Bunting and Chaney the names you read on the black-and-white historical plaques throughout Southern Maryland.
It has changed a great deal and in many respects for the better. So many more people can enjoy it now, and they bring so much with them, said Roedown owner Hal C. B. Clagett.
Horsemen and women also make their way to Roedown: The jockeys, the trainers, the stable keepers, the walkers and joggers. For them, breeding, training and racing is not a hobby but a way of life.
Over the years, a diverse group of spectators have made an annual day of the Roedown Races. Some know everything about horses. Some could care less about the races; they just want to enjoy an outdoor afternoon. Some drink champagne and lunch on caviar. Others have a hot dog in one hand and a Budweiser in another.
Everyone at the same place for different reasons talking, cheering, laughing, hoping, racing, riding, eating and drinking on a Sunday afternoon in early spring: All this diversity is mixed in the Roedown bowl.
At the Scales
Just below the judges stand at the finish line on the public side of the big bowl, the jockeys are weighing in. Men and women, the jockeys step on the scales with all their tack, saddle, pads everything they wear on the horse except chest protector and helmet.
Allowed weights vary with the age of the horses. For example, in the second race, the William H. Brooke Memorial, weights the horses carry range from 145 pounds for three-year-olds, to 155 pounds for four-year-olds and 160 pounds for older horses. Regardless of age, these horses are maidens, meaning theyve never won a race.
Clerk of Scales for the races is C. Bryant Boyer. After 10 years as an assistant clerk, he became top dog.
We weigh in the jockeys, said Boyer, and then after the race reweigh the first- through fourth-place jockeys to make sure they didnt throw off anything during the race. We want to keep things honest.
Boyer finds time to follow the races even though hes got plenty to do
Were in a good spot, he said. Weve got a great view of the finish.
In the Paddock
In the paddock, horses loosen up and walk off their pre-race jitters. They are sleek bays, blacks and grays, fillies and geldings. Before races, trainers lead their horses around the paddock in circles. Around and around they trot. After 10 or 15 skittish minutes on the hoof, the horses are saddled.
Owners, trainers and race officials hang around the paddock looking over the horses. In a tent in the one corner, jockeys suit up in silks. Brightly colored greens and pinks and blues and yellows cover the jockeys heads and chests and help owners, fans and officials identify racers. Theres one flap in the tent for men jockeys and another for women jockeys.
Riders up, crackles over a muffled address system. Jockeys hop on their horses, but once in a while, a horse will shy out from under its rider.
When all are mounted, the horses step across a dirt road and through a red iron gate, threading their way through a press of human spectators, onto the grass race course and across the open field.
A crowd of people follow the horses across the infield in hopes of a closer view of the race. The owners, trainers, families and photographers stop by a timber fence on the backstretch. Some stand on raised platform; others find a spot for just the view they want.
Along the split-rail fences that define the course, in trees and all the way up the sides of the bowl, spectators cluster and clamor.
On the Field
Outriders lead the racers horses to the start. Some horses run, some trot, some walk along the fence rail to the starting line.
The starting line of steeplechase racing is not the kind of start youll see at Pimlico. Theres no starting gate or bell to send the horses off; just a shaggy line, a call and the drop of a flag.
Slowly the horses circle back to the line.
Starter Clark Cassidy calls the jockeys in. The horses settle into something of a line.
We just try to get them in a single-file line, Cassidy said. Its all right if the horses are moving a little bit. But we have to call the horses back if a rider jumps the gun or has a big running start. Its tough to call horses back after they get going, but we have to make it fair.
Cassidy, a third-generation Maryland horseman, spends his days as a thoroughbred trainer, racing at Laurel and Pimlico. After 15 years of outriding at Roedown, Cassidy took over the starting duties last spring.
With the horses in line, Cassidy gives the word to break. The flag goes down. The horses take off. The race is on.
Horses run counter-clockwise around the mile-long grass oval. Some races are on the flat, while in others, horses must jump. In two races, the jumps are four-and-a-half-foot-high hurdles made of steel, topped with plastic brush. In two more races, the jumps are wooden fences, called timbers. Races range from one to three miles. Theres also a relay and a pony race.
On a Runaway Train
In the third race, the John D. Bowling Memorial, a two-mile maiden hurdle, a horse almost gets away.
At the start, Viking Reunion, No. 1, bolts out front. The gelding is running wildly, taking wide turns, missing jumps, straying from the course.
Fellow jockey Sean Clancy explained how Viking Reunions rider lost control:
When the horse took off, the saddle slipped up on the horses neck. The horse started to panic, got upset and just took off. With the saddle that far up, the jockey didnt have much balance. When a horse gets out of control like that there are two choices: Either stay on the horse and hope it slows down or jump off.
The real danger comes when Viking Reunion cuts across the infield and toward the pack of horses still racing.
After leading the racers to the start, the outriders remain in the infield to help jockeys if needed. This is a race with a jockey in need.
Outrider Jody Murphy heads Viking Reunion off in the middle of the infield, grabbing the bridle with one hand. Riding almost sideways with one hand on her bridle and one hand on the bridle of the runaway horse, Murphy leads the horse across the course, passing 20 feet in front of the oncoming pack. Finally, after a half-mile, the horse slows down.
Its pretty scary looking down a horse moving that fast, Murphy said. That horse was locked in and strong. It took a long time to get him stopped. When something like that happens, you dont even think about it. You just keep moving and let your instincts take over.
The End of a Working Day
Jockey Andy Wilson is done for the day. In his third race of the day, he rides Boca Paila to victory in the sixth race, winning The Trident Plate. The purse in the sixth race is $1,000, and Boca Paila takes home $700 for winning. At Roedown, purses range from $500 to $2,000. Winners take home 70 percent of the purse. Second and third place finishers take home 20 and 10 percent.
For Wilson, this is just another day at the races.
Wilson started his racing career at age 16 in England, his home country. He moved to the United States 12 years ago. Wilson rides for trainer Tom Voss in point-to-point races like Roedown, but more often he runs flat tracks like Laurel.
I ran three races today and four yesterday, Wilson said. I guess you could say its just another day of racing for me. The horses are the same. Its just this is a bit farther and a bit more wide open.
The End of a Life
Tiny cold rain drops fall from the grayish, late afternoon sky. The ninth race two miles on the turf has ended, and the horses are working back toward the finish line.
In front of the judges stand, Your Key Sir collapses.
Its shocking to see such a powerful animal on its side in such a weakened state. It just seems so unnatural for a horse to fall that way.
Roedown vets rush the horse ambulance to the fallen 10-year-old gelding. While the vets work, the horse is shielded by a hand-held brown curtain. They get the horse on the ambulance, but nothing can be done.
The diagnosis is a ruptured aorta, a massive heart attack. It struck while Your Key Sir was cooling down. Horse racing is a hard, dangerous sport. Maybe racing took its toll; maybe it was just nature taking its course.
Your Key Sir ran hard in his final race.
Races are the reason for Roedown, but sometimes its difficult to focus on the horses. Every year on the hillside, a small bustling village pops up. Its a whirlwind of activity, from children wrestling, laughing and climbing along the wooden fence in front of the rail to fans screaming for their horse to win
from footballs flying between railside cars to roast pigs on table top buffets
from young to old to family to friend, its all on the hillside at Roedown.
A Quick Bet
Three large men glare out from under a white tent. Theres a briefcase, a box and two blonde women with black aprons and pink tickets.
With a felt-tip pen, the largest man writes odds for each horse on a white board. What would a day at the races be without a friendly wager?
We do this once a year. Its difficult to make odds. We kind of base it on the trainers, but its just a guess whats going to happen, the largest man explained. No ones going to win much; no ones going to lose much money.
But that doesnt stop spectators from trying their luck. A $5 or $10 stake makes the race just a little more exciting, giving fans a little extra kick.
Were not here for money. Were just here to have a good time, the biggest man said.
Maybe it isnt for much money, but is there a better feeling than when the horses come down the stretch and your ticket has a chance to win?
Thats the most fun Ive ever had for $2, said a 30-something spectator on the rail after shed shouted her horse to victory.
A Western Swing
What is a tailgate? Its an outdoor party with friends, usually at a sporting event or concert.
Why do people tailgate at Roedown? Simple. Because they can.
The tailgate is as big a part of Roedown as the horses. The tailgates come in all shapes and sizes. From a blanket on the hillside to a van full of food; from a chair overlooking the homestretch to a corner that offers just a glimpse of the race, spectators pack the hillside, filling up on food, drink and good times.
Maybe you chose beer, wine, a strawberry-rimmed glass of champagne or an afternoon mimosa. Maybe its cheese and crackers, chicken wings, pulled pork or a sub. Its all there to be enjoyed with friends, family or passersby.
The Hunt Club sells parking spaces on the rail and the hilltop for spectators to drive in and set up shop.
On his hilltop lot, Row 2 Number 36, David Price built a Western bar.
Pull up to the business end of the bar and test it out, Price said. Weve got the horses saddled up out front.
Prices tailgate was the culmination of some years of effort.
I built the horses last year. Thinking about it this year, I decided I wanted to get away from the traditional hunt motif. Ive always liked the idea of the Wild West, so I decided to build myself a bar.
Price spent the two nights leading up to the races building.
I had to do some research at a few bars in Annapolis to make sure I got the foot rest just right, he said with a wink.
The effort took a toll on Price, but he was still enjoying the afternoon and with construction out of the way looking forward to next year.
I dont have enough space to build anything else, he said, so next year Im gonna try to get three or four dance hall girls to welcome the cowboys to the bar.
Champagne and Caviar
Tom and Jessica McCarthy chose the Roaring 20s and the Jay Gatsby look.
Im not sure where the idea came from, Tom McCarthy said. Last year I think a couple of guests suggested it, and my wife and I were really taken with the idea.
Looking a bit like Redford and Mia Farrow, in period costumes in front of their 1937 Rolls Royce, the McCarthys fed their guests deviled eggs topped with caviar, jumbo shrimp, tea sandwiches and poached salmon.
We would have a tea pot, but the wind keeps blowing the flame out, McCarthy said.
At Roedown there is no prohibition on stronger spirits.
This was the McCarthys 11th themed tailgate. Hes been coming to Roedown a lot longer, since high school, when his tailgates consisted of water and cheese and crackers.
Both he and his tailgates have grown over the years.
Pleasing by the Grace of God
By the ninth race, a cold rain had broken out of the overcast sky, driving many spectators home and sending others to cover. Despite the elements, the last two races went on.
We had a successful meet for the 26th running of the races, concluded Roedown owner Clagett. We can still use an old Clagett motto: Pleasing by the Grace of God.