On April 30, 1955, the eyes of the sporting world were on Worthington Farms in Glyndon, Maryland, as 20,000 spectators crowded the hillsides to see if veteran rider Sidney Watters Jr. could lead a horse named Marchized to its second straight victory in the 59th running of the Maryland Hunt Cup, the grandest tradition of local steeplechase racing.
Sports Illustrated, when it ran a feature on the steeplechase racing craze later that year, called the Hunt Cup "the world's most difficult race to win," and for good reason: The Hunt Cup's four-mile distance is the longest in the nation, and its 22 fences—some measuring nearly 5 feet—are the tallest. The thirteenth post-and-rail has long been dubbed "Union Memorial," after the hospital that has often treated riders whose horses fail to clear it. Finishing the decades-old course is victory enough for many.
Eight horses started the race on that day more than half a century ago. Gold Tar led before losing a shoe at the thirteenth jump. The eighteenth fence foiled the two favorites—Marchized over-jumped and hit the ground rolling, while Highest Award, ridden by the nation's "leading timber rider," according to The Washington Post, hit the fence and fell. In the end, despite clipping two fences, unheralded Land's Corner won. News accounts of the time called him a "crazy-mixed-up" horse whose "psychiatric" problems left many doubting whether he could endure.
The Hunt Cup has been run every year since the memorable 1955 race—the 113th running takes place April 25—but Sports Illustrated has long since stopped paying attention. And they aren't the only ones: In 2008, a considerably smaller crowd of 7,500 turned out for the Cup—the first in a generation in which all of the starters actually crossed the finish line. In fact, the only major news outlet to cover last year's Hunt Cup was The Baltimore Sun, which buried a 474-word story on page four of the Sports section.
The same names continue to dominate the Cup: In 2008, Charles Fenwick III, the youngest in a storied line of Cup victors, won on Askim, a horse trained by his mother, Ann Stewart. The Stewarts have been involved in the race for 100 years. One of Fenwick's rivals, Make Your Own, was trained by his father, Charles Fenwick Jr., a five-time Hunt Cup winner, and owned by Danielle Brewster, a member of one of at least ten families who have fielded three generations of Cup riders.
"The [Hunt Cup] contest continues to be very nearly what it was in the beginning: a race between local fox hunters and one dominated . . . by the same families who founded it," Margaret Worrall writes in 100 Runnings of the Maryland Hunt Cup, one of many books written about the race.
If not for the dedication to the Cup by a core of committed families, the tradition-streaked race—open to amateurs for whom riding is an avocation, not a profession—would not have endured 115 years. But, given the expense, time, and danger involved in the competition, many of the younger generation are choosing not to race.
"For the sport, it's a tough time," says Jason Griswold, descendant of Alex. Brown & Sons' founder and a third-generation competitor in the race. He said it's up to the amateur riders to go through the effort of practicing, losing weight, and showing up to keep the sport thriving. "We keep it alive by showing up. But it gets tougher and tougher. Lives get more complicated."
Charles Fenwick Sr., grandfather of the 2008 Cup winner and whose father raced in the 1909 Cup, worries whether it will be around in 20 years. He has been on the Hunt Cup committee for three decades and says real-estate demands will be the biggest pressure on the Hunt Cup families. As large plots of rural land continue to be subdivided and sold off, suburbia is creeping ever north from Baltimore and south from the Pennsylvania line, making it difficult for families to keep, train, and race horses.
"When I was young, you could buy a farm with a house on it for $100,000," he says. "Now you're talking about millions. I'm afraid it won't last."
That is why, Fenwick says, that all of the Hunt Cup participants and families are grateful to J.W.Y. Martin, owner of Worthington Farms, which became host in 1922. His father bought the farm in 1935, and he has no intention of selling it. "Ever since I have been alive, the race has been a part of my life," says Martin, 69, who won the race in 1972. "It's just something that gets in your blood. It's such a difficult race to run."
The Cup's home is safe for now but, as with the entire Cup enterprise, much depends on the dedication of future generations. "I don't see it changing until my children or my grandchildren own the place," says Martin. "I don't know what they're going to do."
In these tough economic times, there is another factor in the Cup's favor: no corporate sponsors. It might be the Daytona 500 of steeplechasing events, but don't expect to see horses and riders emblazoned with corporate emblems. The race, with its $75,000 purse, generates its revenues from advance sale of tickets and parking passes, says Shockey Gillet, an official with the Maryland Hunt Cup Association.
The race largely owes its financial fulcrum to its core of wealthy, recession-proof devotees, in particular, its nearly 600 "subscribers." Getting a subscription—sort of like football's Permanent Seat Licenses (PSL) and quite the hot commodity in racing circles—isn't easy: It usually takes a death to open a spot. Fenwick stayed on the waiting list for 10 years. The number is not limited by any exclusive parameters (they cost less than $200), but by the physical limits of the subscribers' parking area. Fail to pay your subscription and it is given to the next person on the waiting list.
Then there is the matter of having enough riders to run the race.
"There were years when we were worried about entries," Gillet says. "I think there is always a concern that there's a good quantity of riders of that caliber who can go over that course."
Once again, it comes down to the passion of the core families, Gillet says, to ensure the future of the Cup.
That passion is clearly evident in the story of the Griswolds. Ben Griswold III rode in five Hunt Cups starting in 1936 but never won. His son, Jack "Jay" S. Griswold rode in more than a dozen Hunt Cups between 1960 and 1985, finishing second four times but never winning. In 1982 he lost to H. Turney McKnight in a thrilling photo finish and was devastated. His older brother, Ben IV, tried six times to no avail. Jay Griswold never won as a rider, but in 1996, a horse he owned, Hello Hal, finally took home the cup.
Now his son, Jason Griswold, 34, has taken up the cause. He finished fourth two years ago and fell a year before that. He plans to compete in the Hunt Cup for the third time this year. To do so, the younger Griswold has been working on shedding 30 pounds. On Jan. 1, he weighed 195. By early February he was down to 180. He skimps on lunch at work to run five miles. But to keep his horse skills honed, the married father of three commutes from Boston to Baltimore. It helps that he is a pilot who flies down and owns an aircraft leasing company in Boston.
"You do some really weird things for the passion of the sport. It's probably tied back to history," Griswold says. "People keep asking me, 'Why go through the pain and suffering and being in a terrible mood because you haven't eaten anything?' I think there is a family legacy and pride that goes into that love."
Predicting a victory is impossible, given that the challenging fences can undo even the best horse. "These are riders who don't do this for a living but have to get fit enough and skilled enough to do it," says Joe Clancy, a spokesman for the National Steeplechase Association in Elkton. "Fitness and stamina are both important, and the ability to ride at those big fences and jump them. If you don't feel confident your horse is going to know it."
As Griswold says: "It's not the best horse or the best rider. It's whoever survives. One bad footing, one bad incident, and there it goes."
McKnight, who beat Jay Griswold in 1982, says he and his wife, Elizabeth Pearce McKnight, never pushed their daughter, Anna, into the tradition. But now that the 24-year-old is determined to win the Cup, the couple has rekindled their love of the sport, buying two horses in recent years to help her prepare for a chance to compete and win.
McKnight and his wife are the only married couple to have won the race. Pearce won in 1986 on a horse named Tong, four years after her husband. At age 27, with two children, she became the second woman to win the Hunt Cup. But she was the first in the Pearce family of Monkton to take home the trophy after numerous attempts dating to the 1920s.
Anna McKnight wants to continue the family tradition. In 2008, she raced in the Grand National, but fell. She lives and works in Manhattan, but takes the train down to Baltimore to "bust her tail," her mother says, riding horses nearly every weekend throughout the spring.
"My wife and I would say we did not push it upon her—in fact, we like to say jokingly that we spent thousands of dollars [on college] to distract her from any thought of racing," McKnight says. "I like to say it's the worst thing to happen to a kid. They quit school, don't go to college. And that's it. It's tremendously thrilling and exciting."
It's also frustrating to train a horse for several years only to have the simplest of injuries foil everything.
"People try to buy a Hunt Cup horse," Elizabeth McKnight says. "But it takes years to get one and then some silly thing happens and they hurt their knee and the thing you worked on for five years is gone."
It's because of people like Anna McKnight that Charles Fenwick Jr. is certain the race will continue.
"I don't think we'll get to a point where nobody shows up," he says. "There's a tremendous desire to win the race." Still, he added, if his grandchildren do not take an interest in the sport, "it's not the end of the world."
"I don't think the fact that it's something my father did is why I did it," he says.
But wouldn't he be thrilled to one day see his grandson or granddaughter cross the same finish line as him and his son?
"No question about it," Fenwick says, "that would be terrific."