By Meredith Matz
Baltimore Watchdog Staff Writer
When the horn blows at Cockeysville’s Shawan Downs on March 31, racehorses from across the region will sprint across the start line, marking the start of steeplechase season.
Steeplechase is a type of horse racing where there is a group of horses that run at a galloping pace and jump different obstacles.
“There’s two types of fences,” steeplechase trainer Jazz Napravnik said. “One are your hurdles, which would be modeled after hedges. The other is your timber racing, which is essentially posts and rails and board fences. Hurdle races are anywhere from two to three miles, and timber racing is anywhere from three to four miles.”
The Green Spring Valley Hounds Point to Point was started by the Green Spring Valley Hounds Hunt Club about 20 years ago. It is a way for the club to earn money and celebrate the start of the steeplechase season.
It takes a lot of effort and time to get a horse into shape for steeplechase. Each trainer favors a different method and each horse has a different workout schedule.
Trainer Joe G. Davies and his team begin training horses in the fall with two-and-a-half mile jogs, six days a week for two months. In mid-winter, trainers add a two-mile gallop twice a week and begin incorporating small jumps. Next, the horses will start breezing twice a week, meaning the horses will run close to—but not quite at—racing speed.
“Basically it gets their wind in place,” Davies said. “It’s like a motor doing wind sprints.”
Lia McGuirk, another steeplechase trainer, gets her horses ready in the spring by mostly galloping them. When the season is not too far away, she will breeze her horses once a week.
“That’s a big part of it. It gets their lungs full and ready to go,” McGuirk said.
Trainers are not the only people getting ready for the season. The Green Spring Valley Hunt Club has an extraordinarily long checklist to cover. Between five co-chairs and hunt club members, it takes a village to conquer.
“We start on January 1, and we have a big checklist,” said Mike Wharton, Maryland Steeplechase Association President and Green Spring Valley Hounds Point to Point Co Chair. “We divide up responsibilities, and we make sure that everything gets done by March 29.”
Green Spring Point to Point is a casual unsanctioned race, meaning that there is no prize money involved. Families like to have picnics here and enjoy the fact that the spring season is starting.
“It’s like a really big scrimmage before they get ready for the big races,” Wharton said. “It’s really about the owners, trainers, and riders. March weather can be dicey. It can be snowing or it can be beautiful, but if it’s a pretty day, it’s nice to sit up there on the hill with a blanket and have some food and watch the races.”
Green Spring offers a variety of races for all ages, including pony races for the little kids, junior races for those under the age of 16, and heavyweight timber races where riders carry 175 to 180 pounds. A minimum of 70 horses participate each year.
The first recorded steeplechase race was in the 1750s in Cork, Ireland, Joe Davies said.
“They had gotten into a little bit of an argument over who had the best horse,” Davies said, “so they set up a race from St. Ledger Steeple to Buttevant Castle and back.”
It came to Maryland during the colonial era.
“It’s old as the history of Maryland itself,” Wharton said.
Club officers say the races wouldn’t be possible today without the help of volunteers. The club has a special way of giving their gratitude.
“We have a lot of volunteers,” Wharton said. “We put up a big tent on the hill and we have a party afterwards and we show the race films and we get our volunteers in for free sort of as a ‘thanks’ to them for having done this.”