Horse Racing's Most Dangerous Race & Bougiest Tailgate
'Tis the season for America to head to the races. But don't count out the Maryland Hunt Cup--both in the race itself and the tailgate--it's a doozy.
To be honest, until this April I had never heard of the Maryland Hunt Cup. I got an invitation from some Maryland friends to join them on April 29th in Baltimore to take part in a tailgate and watch a (timber race) steeplechase. I'm more than familiar with horse racing in general, having attended the Breeder's Cup and smaller races in California, and having watched my fair share of Kentucky Derbies, Preaknesses and Belmont Stakes. And I grew up in Maryland. Yet nonetheless, I had never heard of the Maryland Hunt Cup.
But they had me at tailgate.
On April 23rd, 60 Minutes ran a story by Charlie Rose about the Maryland Hunt Cup entitled, "Horse Racing Not For the Faint-Hearted." Per Rose, the Maryland Hunt Cup is
[t]he biggest, most demanding event there is in the world of timber racing. It’s the American version of Steeplechase and the course is not for the faint-hearted. It stretches four miles over the Maryland countryside — over three times the length of the Kentucky Derby track. And there is a major, sometimes dangerous, challenge for both horse and rider: the timber – 22 wooden fences to jump, some of them five feet high.
I stood next to one of those timber fences before the race just to get a feel for how high they really are. I'm 5'10" and the fence came to just below my shoulder. And a human being riding atop a horse has to jump that. That seems slightly if not totally insane.
Insane or not, the sport of timber racing originated in Ireland and has been carried on for the last 250 years--121 at the Maryland Hunt Cup. The race elicits thousands of people from the Maryland area as well as high society in a day spent in the rolling hills of the Maryland countryside, enjoying mint juleps, rosé, crab cakes, fresh shrimp and other bougie tailgate fare and amenities before the race begins.
Turns out, there is a quite a bit of history surrounding this race. My friend who invited me, who knows I'm a big fan of history, sent me this article about a young, 22 year old Harvard senior John F. Kennedy attending the Maryland Hunt Cup (and its subsequent evening ball) in 1940. Here's a family home movie capturing the day:
It's amazing to watch this old footage and see that quite literally nothing has changed (save maybe for some of the clothing--though attendees are still quite dapper). People still spectate from the big hill, there's still quite a bit of horseplay and tailgating nom noms and drink abound.
Flash forward back to today--this year's race, which took place on Saturday, April 29th saw 10 horses and jockeys start. Only 2 finished. At one point there were riderless horses still keeping up with the pack, their jockeys lying somewhere in the grass near one of those towering timber fences. Indeed, one mile into the (4-mile) race, there remained only 4 horses and jockeys. But the course took its toll and Derwins Prospector, ridden by a French jockey, beat Irish-bred Drift Society in a literal neck and neck finish. Incidentally, this was the first time a French jockey has ever won this race.
I'm told by my friends, who've been attending this race for decades, that a 2-horse finish isn't normal. But with a race this dangerous, it's hard for me to believe. Between the sheer difficulty of the course and the sweltering Baltimore heat and humidity (horses don't like heat), I found myself surprised anyone survived.
And boy was it warm. It made me so grateful for the bounty of tailgating food and drink we had out there. (Yes, I know you're not supposed to drink alcohol in heat but glasses of cold rosé and bottles of ice cold beer really hit the spot).
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Here's what I learned about tailgating at the Maryland Hunt Cup: it's booooooooooougie. And awesome.
I did my rounds of the massive grassy parking lots and found a nice array of recipes from bundt cakes to homemade pastries, crab cakes to fried chicken, massive cupcakes grouped together and topped with icing to resemble a giant sunflower, fresh shrimp and cocktail sauce, popcorn crab (Maryland Maryland Maryland!), an abundance of deviled eggs (one of my favs and I ate my weight in them), and more.
And the drinks...oooooh the drinks. Plenty of beer, of course, (perfect for the heat that day), lots of rosé, the classic Mint Julep, and the famous (local favorite), the Southside.
Not to be missed--the old fancy cars that people arrive in. I saw a great array that included (my fav), the '56 Jaguar (the car from the film Cruel Intentions), an old Woody, and a '55 purple Cadillac (amazing).
Also of note: Maryland folks really have a thing for foxes. (Fox hunting I think?) I saw many a stuffed fox around the tailgate setups including this one (below):
Will I head back to that race? You bet. Probably not for the race itself, which I found harrowing to watch. But for that tailgate. Yup. You bet. Lookout Baltimore, I'm coming back for you again next spring!