Story by Nancy Hoffmann
Foxhunt Photos by Phil Hoffmann
Smarter isnt good at waiting, says Janice Binckley-Cole of her 12-year-old thoroughbred, Older But Smarter. So theyll run the first leg of the relay.
Hes a front runner, she explains. Hell blast off at the start and hold it. Traveling over the mile-long oval course and up and down hills, horse and rider will reach speeds of 25 to 30 mph.
If I have him fit enough, hell last the whole mile, says the horsewoman.
Binckley-Coles husband, Jason Cole, wholl be riding the third leg, is blunter. Its Smarters job to get us a big lead, he says.
Then all that he and Christy Clagett, wholl ride the second leg, have to do is hold onto that lead.
Just as in a human relay race, the riders must pass a baton. Thats what worries Clagett. We have to practice the hand off, she says. If we blow that, well blow the whole race.
The race Clagett fears blowing is the 10th race of the 28th annual running of the Marlborough Hunt Races at Roedown Farm. Its the last event on the card for that Sunday, April 7, concluding an afternoon of races across flat fields and over hurdles by both grown-up and junior jockeys.
The old English tradition of hunting is alive and well in Maryland, and every spring the various hunt clubs put on a series of races across farm fields and hedges. These local races prepare trainers, horses and jockeys for National Steeplechase Association events. As little prize money is awarded at these races, theyre known as the pots-and-pans circuit for the engraved cup or plate winners bring home along with experience. Roedown, the race sponsored by the Marlborough Hunt Club, is different: $12,000 in purse money will be awarded this Sunday.
Hunting is behind the races at Roedown, but race day is not just for hunters. The Roedown Races have become a southern Maryland tradition, bringing out some 5,000 spectators. At this first party of spring, over 300 tailgaters set a quick stage, often geared to a horsy or Western theme, for elaborate feasts. Families picnic on Spectator Hill, which overlooks the entire course, while along the rail, race fans break from partying long enough to cheer the horses as they speed past.
It is, by the way, a real rail, for Roedown is run in the country, on the Davidsonville farm of Jeanne and Hal C.B. Clagett.
Roedown tastes run from beer to Sauvignon Blanc, hot dogs to caviar, cowboy boots to jodhpurs, pick-up trucks to BMWs. Theres a place for everyone, and all are welcome. You dont even have to know anything about horses.
A fun day in the country, thats our goal, says Clagett, who chairs the event.
While the spectators are enjoying the sun and country air, she, Binckley-Cole and Cole will be riding to defend their title for the Marlborough Hunt Club. They won this race last year, and they plan to win it again.
Its fun to win on your home turf, says Binckley-Cole.
Foxhunters Among Us
The tastes of Clagett, Cole and Binckley-Cole run to foxes. Therell be no fox setting the pace for the horses in the 10th race at Roedown, but all those horses will be fairly hunted. In other words, they must have hunted foxes at least six times in the previous hunt season, which ran from October through March.
With April, Roedown begins the hunters summer season of relay races that keep horse and rider in shape for cool-weather hunting. Some of the races run on the flat, like the 10th race at Roedown. Others run over hurdles, and still others take place in the show jumping ring.
Roedowns 10th race is one of seven competitions making up the Foxhunters Relay Race Challenge. Like their horses, all the riders in this race must be hunters. They wear formal hunting attire, and the best-turned-out horse takes home a Groom Award. As the series progresses, hunt clubs acquire points, with the winner claiming the Governors Cup in May.
Its friendly, but very competitive, says Cole. At the end of the season, youre very proud to say that you won the series.
Racing for the Governors Cup is, for the three Marlborough Hunt Club riders, the logical progression of years spent on horseback.
When I was 15 my parents finally figured out I wouldnt give in, and they bought me my first horse, Cole recounts. He now works starting young horses who have not yet been under saddle and training Thoroughbreds to run on the flat and over hurdles.
It didnt take Coles wife so long to wear down her parents. My parents gave me riding lessons for my seventh birthday, she says. They thought I would get it out of my system. It didnt. She graduated at the highest level from the Annapolis Pony Club, a youth equestrian organization, and is now a riding instructor.
Husband met wife when he came to her for riding lessons. By the time she became pregnant with their son, now two years old, she was competing internationally in eventing, a three-day competition in dressage, endurance and show jumping all run on the same horse.
Clagett didnt have to convince anyone to let her ride. Her father raises and trains thoroughbreds, as do her aunt and uncle, who own Roedown Farm.
She has competed on the flat and in steeplechase for 15 years, representing the United States as an amateur racer. In 1995, she was named top North American flat jockey. Shes now retired from competitive racing to her Larking Hill Farm in Harwood, where she carries on the family tradition, working with thoroughbreds.
At the Hunt
This pre-Roedown hunt is scheduled for 10am, a very civilized hour, and with 15 or 20 minutes to spare, the trucks and horse trailers are coming up the drive. They circle and park on the grassy hill. Riders hop out of their trucks and tend to their horses.
Thoroughbreds, quarter horses, a pony of unknown breeding and even a Friesian back off the trailers. They are black, bay, dappled gray and chestnut, tall, short, thick and lanky.
On their necks, backs and bellies, the horses are clipped, but on their legs the winter coats grow long and thick. Theres a method to their cut. Foxhunters might run for a long while, sweating hard when the hounds are in pursuit of a fox, but then slowing to a walk or trot when the scent is lost. Without heavy winter coats, the horses would stay wet longer and chill more easily.
Baying hounds announce the arrival of the huntsman long before his truck appears. He is a professional hired by the club to control the hounds during the hunt. When he opens the door to his trailer, close to 30 hounds jump out. The hill is engulfed in a sea of floppy ears and overactive tails. The hounds roll in the grass, sniff at the ground and the air, howl for all they are worth. They approach the people with interest, but they wont let you pet them.
These are Penn-Marydel foxhounds, a regional variety bred for the rolling hills of Pennsylvania, Maryland and Delaware. The first record of hounds being brought to America has them arriving in Maryland in 1650 with Robert Brooke and his family. Thus it seems fitting that a breed of hound should bear the states name.
Most riders, including the Coles, are dressed in tan britches, knee-high black leather boots, white shirt, stock tie fastened with a gold pin, canary yellow vest, black jacket and black velvet helmet. When the riders mount, they become indistinguishable. Its the horses, with their varying colors and sizes, one examines to find a rider.
When Clagett rides over from her neighboring farm, shes easy to spot. Shes in pink, wearing the scarlet coat and white britches of a master of foxhounds. As she canters Run John Run over the gentle hills, horse and rider move as one. Clagett is made for the saddle, and Run John is made to carry her.
Run John Run is an eight-year-old thoroughbred. A $170,000 stakes winner at the racetrack, he came to Clagett only a year ago. Shes turned him into a hunter, a common career change for thoroughbreds once their racing days are over.
|Astride Run John Run, Christy Clagett is easy to spot in the scarlet coat and white britches of a master of foxhounds.
As master of foxhounds a position she shares with two others at the hunt club Clagett is in charge of the hunt. She needs a horse willing to ride out front. She has found one in Run John.
Hes a bold jumper, says Clagett. He leads the field, and hes a brave horse to be the first one over the fence. Any horse will follow another over the fence.
On this bright, clear day, the wind is howling. Whats more, its been a dry year. Itll be difficult for the hounds to find the foxs scent. The riders dont seem to care. This fixture or the time and place of the hunt is a group of private farms covering about 1,900 acres with open fields to gallop across, fences to jump and some wooded trails to vary the terrain. Few could pass on this hunt. Its a good turnout, with about 30 in the field riding to the hounds.
For Clagett, The fun is watching the hounds work, picking up the scent, following the line, running with the horses, keeping up the pace, jumping the fences.
Binckley-Cole likes seeing a lot of country and historic, old homes that you wouldnt ordinarily see from the road. Its a privilege to ride on land not open to the average trail rider, she says.
Shes been hunting for 10 years, drawn by its sense of tradition. Its an old-fashioned sport, she says. Were following the same manner of dress used for 200 years. Indeed, the modern-day hunt season mirrors that established ages ago when the hunts began after the harvest and concluded with the first spring plantings.
Its also more than a trail ride. Its not you deciding what trail to take, she explains. You go at a different pace every time, and the fox dictates where you go.
Hey, What About the Fox?
Its fox chasing, Clagett insists. We do not kill the fox. We follow its scent, and it plays and toys with us. A healthy fox can easily outmaneuver the hounds.
The Masters of Foxhounds Association of America, an organizing body for hunt clubs, explains on its website that in North America the emphasis is on the chase rather than the kill when hunting fox.
A successful hunt ends when the fox is accounted for by entering a hole in the ground, called an earth. Once there, the hounds are rewarded with praise from their huntsman. The fox is chased another day. When hounds do not account for a fox by chasing him to an earth, the vast majority of times hounds lose the scent of the fox and that ends the hunt.
Fox are killed at times, but normally only a sick animal can be caught by the hounds. Hunters take the view that the fox population remains healthier when diseased animals are removed.
Only the gray fox is native to Maryland. Canada and the upper states were originally the home turf of the red fox. Some red foxes eventually migrated south, but many were imported from England, as was the sport of fox hunting.
In England, where there is no rabies to cull the population, foxes seem as plentiful as rabbits. Due to their attacks on poultry and lamb, they are considered pests and are hunted for the kill. When the English fox enters an earth, terriers dig out the animal. But even in England, fox hunting is under attack. Legislation banning the hunt is pending in Parliament.
The coyote is also hunted in the United States. Coyotes can easily outrun the hounds, but there is greater pressure to hunt them for the kill since they are more destructive to livestock than foxes.
Some hunts do not chase an animal but a scent laid down for the hounds to track. In certain areas, clubs are forced into this approach by the lack of a fox. But in Marylands Foxhunters Relay Race Challenge, the fox is real.
Thoroughbreds Love to Run
|Janice Binckley-Cole will ride her 12-year-old thoroughbred Older But Smarter in the first leg of the Foxhunters Relay Race. Her husband, Jason Cole, will ride Serene Scene, or Sammy, in the third leg.
After a season of hunts running twice a week, lasting several hours and covering varying terrain at varying speeds, the Marlborough Hunt Club horses will be fit for the Roedowns 10th race. Of course, it doesnt hurt that all three are thoroughbreds off the racetrack.
Its no wonder Binckley-Coles horse, Older But Smarter, is expected to get a big lead on the first leg of the relay. He was a $300,000 stakes winner on the track.
Four years ago, Binckley-Cole got Smarter for free. He had bowed tendons in both his front legs, tendinitis with swelling so severe the lower leg appears to have a large bulge or to be bowed. Binckley-Cole brought him back to soundness. I gave him one year off, she says, and hes been fine ever since. Smarter knows his job.
Run John Run, Clagetts horse, has kept his competitive edge riding in the front of the hunt. He has no bottom, Clagett says. He just keeps going and going.
Running the third leg of the relay will be Serene Scene, another of Clagetts horses. Sammy, as hes called in the barn, will be ridden by Cole. Sammy is not a stakes winner, but hes not a horse to be discounted. Cole likes to tell how Sammy ran a close second to a champion timber horse last year.
Somehow these thoroughbreds will know its race day and that they will have a chance to run as they once did around an oval course, showing their heels to the other horses in the field.
They can feel the electricity, the excitement in the air, says Cole. Theyll see you getting the tack box packed up. Sammy gets antsy, jigging around. Hes ready to go do it.
The routine changes, says Clagett. Run John wont get turned out from his stall and hell get keen.
Thoroughbreds love to run, she explains.
Thoroughbreds originated in England around the turn of the 17th century, when native horses were bred with three Arabian stallions imported from the Mediterranean Middle East. Breeders sought to create a faster race horse for the amusement of the British aristocracy.
Organized racing between pedigreed horses, in the English style, was introduced to the new world in 1745 by Maryland Governor Samuel Ogle.
For Clagett, there is no other horse. Thoroughbreds are just sensitive, strong, powerful, beautiful to look at, so refined, she says. They are the most elegant of horses, the most versatile, and so fast.
Dont Drop the Baton
When Roedowns 10th race comes around, Well have to be really precise with the hand-offs, warns Cole.
As the horse finishing its leg of the relay comes galloping home, the horse waiting to ride the next leg will want to take off. But the riders have only a 100-foot passing zone to hand off the baton. Its a hunting crop, a short stick with a crooked handle used for opening and closing gates in the field.
Horses from the five relay teams will be running at the same time, all rushing for the passing zone.
In the second leg, it can get pretty crowded, says Clagett.
Binckley-Cole knows that she and Smarter have to get a bit of a lead.
That way, says Cole, we wont have anyone galloping down our necks, well have room to breathe.
The horse waiting to ride the next leg will feel challenged by the approaching hooves and will want to explode down the course, but they cant leave without the baton.
The horses get anxious and want to go, says Clagett. You must hold the horse and time it.
But the horse shouldnt be standing still. Well want the lead horse cantering before the hand off, Cole explains.
This is the third year these horses have run the relay together, but Clagett still worries that one will shy away when the lead rider reaches for the baton.
Its difficult to recover from a dropped baton, Binckley-Cole knows.
The rider who drops the baton will have to dismount, pick up the baton and hand it off while the horse, upset by the change in plans, dances and whirls around the rider all with the other teams galloping down on them.
Once the baton is exchanged, the receiving horse will break into a gallop. With all the excitement in the passing zone, the horse will be wired and want to run too hard too early in the race. Leaning into the bit, hell pull against the riders shoulders and arms.
You have to pace yourself, says Clagett. You have to gauge it because the course has downhills and uphills.
You want the horse to relax so you have something left at the end of the race, Cole adds.
To help the horses, the riders will shorten their stirrups, stay out of the saddle and keep their weight off the horses backs.
Near the end of the mile lap, the riders will ask for more. Smarter will respond to a little bit of drive, explains Binckley-Cole. Ill push him with my legs and hands, moving them with him as he gallops.
She has an additional trick. Shell smooch to Smarter, and hell shift it into overdrive.
|Roedown is a day of fun for the whole family: one of last years tailgates offered hobby horse rides, a crowd-pleaser for the kids.
Bay Weekly file photo
But youve got to be able to control the speed and make the turns, she warns. And in the passing zone, you have to be able to steer and not run into people.The Thrill of the Race
Not everyone is willing to gallop a horse who knows how to win and wants to win. Another member of the hunt club had tried out for the relay team. Her horse, also off the racetrack, ran away with her. There she was on a galloping horse, unable to turn or stop him.
In the last race at Roedown, Binckley-Cole will be mounting a horse she knows is not perfectly behaved.
She calls him her hunt hooligan. But, she explains, because hes so fast and so much fun, I let him get away with it. Others ask me why I put up with it, but I dont care. I do my lap at the relay race and come in with a lead. Hes good at his job, so I cut him some slack.
Its a thrill they all feel.
Theres nothing more exciting, says Cole, than to see your horse come under the wire first.
Roedown Race Card
k Noon The Raymond R. Ruppert Memorial: Junior riders 15 and under riding ponies one-half mile on the flat
k 12:30 The William H. Brooke Memorial Maiden Flat: one mile for three-year-olds and up (Maidens are horses who have never won a race.)
k 1:00 The John D. Bowling Memorial Maiden Hurdle: Two miles for three-year-olds
k 1:30 The Benjamin H.C. Bowie Memorial Novice Timber (four-foot wooden fences): Three miles for four-year-olds and up (Novices are horses beginning their steeplechase careers.)
k 2:00 The Raborg Maiden hurdle: Two miles for three-year-olds and up
k 2:30 Trident Plate Open Flat: One mile three-year-olds and up
k 3:00 Lansdale G. Sasscer Memorial: Junior riders 15 to 18 racing one mile on the flat
k 3:30 John Murray Begg Memorial Open Timber: Three miles for four-year-olds and up
k 4:00 The Mattaponi Open Flat: Two miles for three-year-olds and up
k Interlude The Houndrace: one mile for the Marlborough Hunt Club foxhounds a first
k 4:30 Foxhunters Relay Race on the Flat: Three miles
Picnic Sunday April 7 on the rolling meadows of Roedown while cheering a steeplechase at the 28th running of the Marlborough Hunt Races. Action centers on 10 horse races with purses up to $3,000, but theres heavy distraction from dozens of thematic tailgate parties (alas, private except for the gawking) overlooking the course, all competing to be the best little gala on the hill.
The races, part of the Maryland Governors Cup steeplechase race series, include pony races for juniors; non-jumping races on the flat; 2-mile hurdle races over brush jumps; and 3-mile timber races over 4-foot solid wood. Each year, 5,000-plus spectators come out to frolic. Rain or shine. Bring a picnic. No pets. Gates open 10am; First race noon at Roedown Farm (follow Route 2 to Harwood Road to the farm), Davidsonville. $5 admission; $10 parking: 410/956-1975.