The Maryland Hunt Cup course is considered one of the two toughest in the world, rivaling the English Grand National for its sheer difficulty.
Attempting to traverse the four miles and 22 timber fences is a supreme challenge for horse and rider, one that nine such teams will attempt to navigate today in the 112th running of the venerable race at Glyndon.
No one knows this better than Charles Fenwick Jr., who won the race five times as a jockey - the last in 1987 aboard Sugar Bee - and continues to be a prominent figure on the scene as a trainer, today entering Make Your Own for owner Laurence F. Oster.
"The Hunt Cup is unlike anything else I ever did or any other race," Fenwick said. "There is so much hype and buildup surrounding it, and you have a whole day to think about it with the start at 4 p.m. on a Saturday afternoon. There are no other races to watch and a crescendo builds. You know you're going to be jumping bigger, stiffer fences than at any other place. It all weighs on your mind, the importance of it."
The 2008 edition carries a $75,000 purse and offers a variety of subplots.
Private Attack, who arose from obscurity last weekend to win the Grand National at Butler, is the only horse in the field who can earn a $30,000 bonus for doubling up in the Hunt Cup. His 58-year-old jockey, Billy Santoro, will be taking on the course for the first time, two years before National Steeplechase Association rules dictate that he can no longer ride.
Then, there is Bug River. At age 15, the Northwoods Stable gelding trained by Regina Welsh will attempt to become the ninth horse to win the race three times and the first to do so since Cancottage prevailed in 1983. Bug River, who has been no worse than second the past four years, would join such legends as Mountain Dew and Jay Trump on the Hunt Cup honor roll.
Also considered contenders are Askim, second at the Grand National last week, the highly regarded Coal Dust and Rosbrian, who has experience on the layout.
Their assignment is to master fences as high as 4 feet, 10 inches, two uphill obstacles, Nos. 6 and 16, avoid possible loose horses, and have the stamina to travel the grueling distance.
What advice would Fenwick give to Santoro and, for that matter, all the riders? "I would tell him to have fun and sincerely wish him all the luck in the world," Fenwick said. "I think it's important to know the course and understand it inside out. The best thing for you is riding a good horse because there is always something to worry about."
Fenwick said a first-time jockey will fully realize what he or she is up against when he arrives at the "formidable" third fence. "It's a real big one, and there are people all around both sides of the fence watching. And then, the 18th is another one to worry about. If the pace hasn't picked up by then, you're starting to think about it. And that's a very big one."
The whole experience is breathtaking, he added.
"You experience emotions that don't happen any other time. The Hunt Cup is the end-all."
$75,000, The Maryland Hunt Cup, 4 miles over timber.
Make Your Own 165
Bug River 165
Lear Charm 165
Coal Dust 165
Private Attack 165
Foiled Again 165
Mr Liberator 165