Horse racing fans from Harford County and beyond couldn't have asked for a better day as they gathered at Atlanta Hall Farm on Saturday afternoon for the 82nd edition of the Elkridge-Harford Point-to-Point, the first of two steeplechase events held on back-to-back-weekends in the Monkton countryside.
Under a nearly cloudless sky, the crowd was treated to a series of down-to-the-wire finishes over the three-mile course featuring 15 jumps.
The day's featured event, the Edward S. Voss Memorial, an open timber race that had a starting field of seven horses, was tightly contested through the last jump and eventually won by Hold Your Fire, ridden by Atlanta Hill Farm employee Gustav Dahl.
The second race of the afternoon, The George C. Clement Memorial, a novice timber event, had an even tighter finish, with Don't Tell Sailor, a seven-year-old Irish horse ridden by David Byrne, taking the lead at the last jump and opening a gap on the final uphill portion of the course to take first.
Don't Tell Sailor's trainer, Louis "Paddy" Neilson III, was beaming at the race's finish line, where he placed a call to the horse's owners to convey the good news.
"He took that race like a thief in the night," Neilson said as Byrne was stepping up to accept the silver cup awarded to race winners. "He was running well the whole race, kept right up front with the leaders all the way through. That lead horse [Courella, the number-two finisher] got caught at the last jump, and Sailor just took off. He won it by six or eight lengths. He ran a great race today."
The Elkridge-Harford Point-to-Point, begun in 1932 as the Harford Hunt Races, is a tune-up before the Maryland Steeplechase season goes into its Triple Crown series, which begins Saturday, April 12, with the My Lady's Manor races at Ladew Topiary Gardens, just down the road from Atlanta Hall Farm, and is followed by the Grand National and Maryland Hunt Cup races.
Between the second and third races Saturday, a Harford County equestrian enthusiast and her family were taking a break from watching near the finish line. Forest Hill resident Katie Dyer, flanked by her children, Rebecca and Andrew, said she attended both the Elkridge-Harford Point-to-Point and My Lady's Manor events last year, and made a point to get back to at least one of them this year.
"We all take riding lessons, so it's a lot of fun to come see people ride at this level," Dyer said. "We moved to Harford County about seven years ago, and we wanted to get into something that was local. Horse racing is one of those things that make Maryland unique. You won't find [events] like this many other places in the country. We really enjoy coming to these races."
The day's third race, the Ann L. McIntosh Memorial, a heavyweight timber event, featured one of the most exciting conclusions of the afternoon, as jockey Forrest P. Kelly went to the whip after the final jump to push Monstaleur past Snow Blizzard for a one-length victory.
As Kelly was honored for his finish, Nick Carter, who rode the seven-year old Irish gelding Snow Blizzard to second place, talked about the course he had just run.
"It had some pretty challenging jumps," he said. "There was one on the backstretch that has a little dip in front of it, and I don't think [Snow Blizzard] had seen anything quite like that before, so he pulled up a little bit. But, he ran very well today."
The tightest finish of the afternoon came in the fourth race, the Babe Saportas contest for lady amateur riders, which saw a local rider sprint ahead at the finish for the first win of her racing career.
Riding six-year-old gelding Wildcatter, White Hall native and Atlanta Hall Racing Stables employee Bethany Baumgardner ate up a three-length deficit after the final jump to beat Fort Henry by a neck. The race was whittled down to just the two horses in short order, as four of the seven entrants were scratched, and Wingo Star was pulled off the course by jockey Amelia McGuirk before the first jump.
As it was Wildcatter's first ever race start, the small field made pacing hard.
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"When you have a bigger field, it's easier to figure out the pace, to see if you're going to fast or too slow," Baumgardner said. "With just two horses, that was tough to gauge, but [Wildcatter] did just fine. As a first-time starter, he couldn't have run a better race for me."
On both laps of the course, Wildcatter went diagonally over the final jump, then righted his course. Baumgardner explained that the horse, which lives and trains at Atlanta Hall Farm, might have been confused.
"He lives here at this farm, so I think when we came to that last jump, he thought we were going back to the barn, because it's right over there in the other direction," she said. "He made it over both times though. I'm really happy with how he ran."
Baumgardner, who also took third place in the Edward S. Voss Memorialoin Imperial Way at the start of the day's events, was doused with a bucket of water by co-worker Dahl shortly after she finished the race, as a congratulations for the first win over her career.
"Yeah, Gustav got me good there," she said. "I didn't see that coming."
Saturday's course proved that it should not be taken lightly, as the first two races saw riders go down hard on the final jump.
In the opening event, Spencer Road jockey Eric Poretz, in the hunt for a top-three finish at the time, fell off and landed in a heap at the bottom of the last obstacle. McGuirk, riding Fiercely Loyal in the second race, suffered a similar fall. Both jockeys, however, made their way back to the barn unassisted and went on to ride in other races.