An old horsewoman who came here from Ireland on the cusp of World War II told me once that she remembered riding a horse from Monkton to what is now the traffic circle in Towson. Imagine doing that today. That’s an easy 20 miles—and you’d have to ride back, too—and some of it was hard going. I tell you this chiefly to remind that someone still remembers a world before the Beltway or Interstate when it was possible to ride a horse over a landscape little changed from Colonial times.
Once upon a time everyone rode a horse even if they did not ride very well. No question about it, the horse knows the way; our history tells us this. Over the hills and through the woods to grandmother’s house or across the Great Divide. Some of our noblest national heroes are four-footed—Seabiscuit, Man o’ War, Dancer’s Image, Kelso, Citation. Paul Revere was in the saddle (even if Henry Wadsworth Longfellow made up a lot of his ride.) Lewis and Clark would have never crossed the country, a journey of some 8,000 miles (they were occasionally lost), without horses. The Pony Express (they were not riding ponies) moved mail across America in 10 days or less at a time when it took a letter six months to travel from Boston to San Francisco by ship. Teddy Roosevelt and his Rough Riders. And let us not forget cowboys. The image of the rider on the horse is a powerful one (hooray for Hollywood).
The image of the horse in the national imagination remains powerful even if most Americans are no longer sure which end kicks. And so it is spring and steeplechase season in the Tidewater.
The Grand National is the second of three major timber races, sandwiched between My Lady’s Manor and the Maryland Hunt Cup. But it is my favorite because old friends host a luncheon at their farm on the race course (and I am too old to sit in a field with drunken prep school students).
The road to the races is a bit melancholy for the lush green countryside containing what remains of the hunt country is fast-vanishing despite efforts to preserve it. Once a traveler gets past what H.L. Mencken called America’s “libido for the ugly”—strip malls and clusters of Targets and Taco Bells, Bedding Barns and Bob’s Big Boy and the warrens of townhouses—the road snakes across a landscape largely rural and mostly agricultural. It just seems to take a little longer each year on the way to the race course to finally reach open countryside.
Soon suburbia slips away and there are open fields rolling off into the distance, lush and soft spring green, dotted with flowering dogwoods and cherry and apple trees. The roadsides are a riot of forsythia and a tangle of bright yellow daffodils. But there are fields of McMansions now, too, in what was not long ago farmland; badly sited and poorly landscaped, like pieces from a child’s board game. Revenge of the Parker Brothers.
But it is still possible to glimpse a rapidly vanishing world that may be gone in another generation and gone for good despite efforts to preserve it. Soon, many of these fine fields could be dotted with developments—Tally Ho Estates, Fox Trot Garth, Huntsman’s Glen. Developers like the words garth and glen. Nice, cruel touch, that.
Steeplechases are mostly just a good excuse for a lawn party, or a picnic, and they are not nearly as exclusive as they once were, but what harm is in it? Many of the race-goers never bother to even walk up to the course to see the horses run. But the turnout for the steeplechases is greater each year and if the weather is good, so much the better.