The last five races Bug River ran for Richard W. "Dickie" Small, the veteran trainer at Pimlico Race, were forgettable. Bug River finished no better than seventh. That was back in 1996 and 1997.
Four years later, Bug River found a second career as a steeplechaser. His 10 races over jumps have been memorable. He has performed in the extreme, either not finishing the race (five times) or finishing first or second (five times).
Today, at Shawan Downs in Hunt Valley, 11-year-old Bug River provides a focus for the expected crowd of 12,000 race-goers and partygoers. Situated on a hillside across from Oregon Ridge, Shawan Downs offers a harmonious combination of sport, spectacle and clinking wine glasses.
Area landowners banded together in the late 1990s to buy the nearly 300-acre Shawan Farms, ensuring that it would remain open space. About 160 people contributed at least $10,000 each to raise the more than $4 million to purchase the land and transform it into a horse center.
This is the fourth year of the one-day festival that features non-betting races over jumps on the 1 1/8 -mile turf course. The Legacy Chase highlighted the card the first three years, but this year the horses who would have run in that race will compete tomorrow at Monmouth Park. The New Jersey track wanted an important jump race on closing day.
The Legacy Chase at Shawan Downs will instead showcase the sport's up-and-comers. The more significant race of the day is the Ski Roundtop Trophy Stakes at 3 3/4 miles over timbers, and that features Bug River.
"This horse is so special," said Regina Welsh, his trainer from Butler, "but he takes a special touch."
When he hasn't finished races, Welsh said, he's gotten so nervous he's "basically had an anxiety attack and can't breathe. He loses interest and stops himself."
Only the Virginia rider Blair Waterman has been able to soothe him, and she will be astride today. Waterman has ridden him in four races - two wins and two seconds. Both wins came this year - in the Grand National and the prestigious Maryland Hunt Cup.
Mike Hankin, CEO of Brown Advisory, an investment firm, bought Bug River for $20,000 after Small, the Pimlico trainer, turned him out on a farm after 17 races, including three wins, on the flat. Riding him in fox hunts, Hankin discovered how well Bug River could jump.
"He's just a real neat athlete," said Hankin, who calls him Bugs. "And he's a neat horse. My 10-year-old son stands in his stall, and they rub up against one another."
NOTES: Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. became the first governor to make a television commercial for the Maryland Million when he spent an hour and a half Thursday at Pimlico. The commercials will begin Monday and show Ehrlich mucking stalls, feeding a horse, parking cars, punching mutuel tickets, selling programs, working the food counter and trying on jockey silks.
"A sense of humor is important in life," Ehrlich said. "In many cases, particularly in politics, a sense of humor can help you deliver a particular message. The message is obviously come to the Maryland Million and have fun."
The 11-race series for Maryland-sired horses will take place Oct. 9 at Pimlico due to construction at Laurel Park.
At a glance
What: Six steeplechase races and one without jumps, equine fair, children's activities
Where: Shawan Downs, Hunt Valley
When: Today, gates open 10 a.m., first race 1 p.m.
Featured races: $32,000 Legacy Chase, $32,000 Ski Roundtop Trophy Stakes
Tickets: $30 per car at gate
Directions from Baltimore: Take I-83 north to Falls Road north. Go six miles to Shawan Road and turn right. Course is on left.
Beneficiary: Greater Baltimore Medical Center