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Steeplechase races in Maryland wiped out by coronavirus

Senior Senator clears a fence during the 2019 running of the Maryland Hunt Cup. Senior Senator, which won the race for a third straight time, was euthanized after being stricken with colic in mid-April.
Senior Senator clears a fence during the 2019 running of the Maryland Hunt Cup. Senior Senator, which won the race for a third straight time, was euthanized after being stricken with colic in mid-April. (Courtesy Tammie J. Monaco)

For over a century, springtime in Maryland has signaled the start of the steeplechase racing season as racegoers travel from near and far to tailgate and watch the horses and riders compete. Only the World War II years of 1943-1945 saw almost universal cancellation of contests.

However, this spring the jockeys’ silks remain on hangers and the horses are in their stables, figuratively, if not literally.

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In early March with threat of the COVID-19 virus growing more apparent, serious discussions began to take place among the organizers of the 2020 races. Decisions to cancel Harford County’s Foxhall Farm Team Chase, (scheduled for March 22 and the earliest of the Maryland races), Elkridge-Harford Point-to-Point, the Howard County Races and Baltimore County’s Green Spring Valley Point-to-Point, were made by mid-March.

By March 23, the Grand National, Maryland Hunt Cup and the Potomac races had also been canceled. Cecil County’s Fair Hill Spring Races, scheduled to be run at Laurel Park this year due to construction of the new racecourse, also joined the ranks of those “scratched.” By April 4, all Maryland Steeplechase Association and National Steeplechase Association races had been canceled or postponed at least through mid-June.

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The Foxhall Farm Team chase, which alternates sites between various hunt clubs, was to have been hosted this year by the Elkridge-Harford Hunt Club for what would have been the race’s 100th anniversary and its return to the site of its founding. A single race run for one of the largest and most coveted trophies in the sport, it was originated by internationally renowned sportsman Foxhall P. Keene in 1920 and held at his Foxhall Farm (now Andor Farm) farm on the Baltimore/Harford County line in Monkton.

Foxhall Chairman Garrett Murray and his wife, trainer Elizabeth Voss Murray, had traveled to England for the Cheltenham Racing Festival before the severity of the virus threat had been fully recognized.

“Scrambling to get flights home,” he said, “when we got back it was evident that canceling was the right thing to do.”

Murray is also one of the committee members of the Elkridge-Harford Point-to-Point races held annually at the Voss family’s Atlanta Hall Farm. The farm is currently home to the fourth and fifth generations of Elizabeth Voss’ family.

As in every other canceled sport, while the fans lose entertainment, the greatest effect has been on those whose livelihoods are dependent on racing.

An official statement published on the National Steeplechase Association’s website said, in part, “Although minor in the grand scheme of this world crisis, the cancellation of all the spring meets nevertheless has a profound impact on the everyday lives of those in our community, from trainers, jockeys, exercise riders, veterinarians, farriers, barn workers, and countless others who work in this sport of steeplechasing.”

A large number of the race meets nationally are held to benefit a variety of charitable organizations. Past Maryland recipients of proceeds have included Greater Baltimore Medical Center, Ladew Gardens, TAPS (an organization benefiting survivors of deceased military personnel) and Cecil County’s Union Hospital.

Area businesses are also feeling the effect as many of the race meets include vendors villages where food, drink and apparel tents and booths ply wares.

Michael Finney, owner of local sporting art and country clothing shop Yoicks!, said, “Virtually all of the vendors at the various races are proprietors of small independent businesses. The new American retail landscape is challenging today. We’ve learned to take our wares on the road in order to gain the maximum audience for our product. The loss of a season’s racing exposure will have a serious effect on many of the vendors.”

Steeplechase owner Michael Wharton, president of the Maryland Steeplechase Association, said, “Each race meet is autonomous so we cannot speak to the economic impact of the loss of each race meet to its particular community and/or beneficiary. However, the MSA does help support the Equine Rescue Ambulance, Inc. which is a non-profit charitable organization. With no race meet income and no awards banquet income (the banquet is usually held in June and benefits the ERA), this is a difficult time for the charity-as it most certainly is for all charities.”

The sport was dealt an additional blow on April 15 when the well-known and popular three-time Maryland Hunt Cup winner, Senior Senator, was stricken with colic and taken to the University of Pennsylvania’s New Bolton veterinary center in Kennet Square where it was determined he had suffered an irreparable rupture.

The horse, whose story had been featured on “60 Minutes,” and which had been poised for an attempt at a fourth Hunt Cup win, was euthanized.

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Senior Senator, trained by Joe Davies, nephew of the late Senator Joseph D. Tydings, was only the ninth horse to win the race three times since its 1894 founding and the first three-time winner since 1983 when Mrs. Miles Valentine’s Cancottage captured his third victory.

A “virtual Hunt Cup of Champions” video created by trainer Davies, was broadcast online via Vimeo and may be viewed at vimeo.com/411211570/64f3c12f08.

At present, the NSA website is listing tentative racing dates beginning in mid-June. However, these are all dependent upon the nature of the virus situation moving forward.

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