ROEDOWN CELEBRATES 36TH ANNIVERSARY
By Rodney Calver
The Marlborough Hunt Races at Roedown celebrates its 36th anniversary on April 11, 2010. The rolling meadows of the historic Davidsonville farm provide a spectacular backdrop for point-to-point racing and the colorful festivities that traditionally herald the start of spring.
The 36th running of the steeplechase races promises to be a day to remember for owners, riders and the more than 5,000 faithful who flock to Roedown come rain or shine. This year, the event will commemorate Maryland’s thoroughbred industry that makes such a significant contribution to the state’s economy and reputation for breeding, training and racing.
The weather may be unpredictable but it’s a sure bet that both the on-track and tailgate contests will be as competitive as ever. The ten-race card is expected to attract around 120 entries. Up on the hill, judges will have a hard time separating the wheat from the chaff as tailgaters vie for top honors in five separate categories. There is also a ladies’ hat contest.
A new feature was added to the 2008 program. As part of the Annapolis 300th anniversary celebrations, Roedown revived the Annapolis Subscription Plate, the first recorded formal horse race in Maryland. It was run initially in 1743.
Steeple-chasing began more than 300 years ago when two Irishmen set up a race between two church steeples – hence the name. The Maryland Hunt Cup steeplechase was founded in the 1830s. In Southern Maryland, a group of equine enthusiasts got together in the early 1970s to organize the Marlborough Hunt Races.
“The scene has changed very little over the past 34 years, a testament to the group of equine enthusiasts who had the organizational vision to set up the races,” said Marlborough Hunt Races Co-chair Christine Clagett.
John Cory was in the vanguard of the movement that put Roedown on the map. In the 1970s, he began racing family horses on the steeplechase circuit from North Carolina to Maryland. But there were no local training opportunities in Southern Maryland. In 1973 and 1974, he persuaded some fellow hunt club members to build a hunter chase course at Dodon Farm, Davidsonville, the home of Steuart and Bobby Pitman.
This event inspired Cory to look for a true steeplechase course in the southern part of the state. Talk of a larger course caught the ear of Jeanne (van den Bosch) Begg, who suggested Cory should speak to her husband, John Murray Begg about Roedown Farm. “John’s enthusiasm was infectious,” recalls Cory, “and soon, he and I were joined by a few other stalwarts on the highest hill between Washington, D.C. and Annapolis. We were gazing for the first time on the Marlborough Hunt Race Course.”
Begg enthusiastically endorsed the idea and 31 local people, many of them members of the hunt club, became founders, thereby easing the issue of finances.
For the first two years, the timber race was conducted over a course that crossed the farm roadway twice and ran through the spectators’ hill. Keeping the course clear during the race was not easy and the timber course was modified for the third running. Now everything is contained in a large field, spectators watching the races from the hill behind.
For the first three years, racing was conducted on the first Saturday in March. However, weather played havoc and in 1978 the race date was changed to April. There have been just two postponements. “We have had glorious 70-degree days and on other days it snowed,” said Clagett. “But the crowd is committed to coming no matter what.”
Those connected with the races over the decades quote some interesting tales. Some got into the newspapers, others did not.
In 1979, Washington art gallery owner William Chewning rode his father’s Kelly’s Hero to victory in the Roedown Cup, which then sported a $500 purse. Six years later, the prize had doubled to $1,000 as Charles Fenwick Jr. rode Anvil to victory. That same year, a six-year-old bay mare dropped dead in the paddock.
In 1993, the event was washed out by heavy rains, forcing the first postponement in its history. The races were held later that year in September. In 1998, a then-record crown enjoyed temperatures in the 80s. Jack Fisher won the big race astride Ivorgorian and a prize for the “unique tailgate” went to an entry named Loedown, a tilt at high-brow contestants who bring the crystal and silver. “At Loedown, you bring blue jeans and a cowboy hat,” explained David Kolb of Harwood.
In 1979, Randy Wilson wrote in the Baltimore Sun: “The scene looked like a clothing advertisement for the New Yorker. Men spectators wore dark green blazers and tweed vests and caps. The women wore tan and proper boots. Cars that Detroit calls personal luxury automobiles were parked in the brown grass. A Great Dane loped among the onlookers.”
“It wouldn’t be Roedown without the Rolls,” observed Gabrielle deGroot, writing in The Capital in April 1992.
In the 1980s, the event got the better of one spectator. His fashion statement was to strip off and “streak” the enclosure at the conclusion of racing, adding perhaps another twist to the line “losing your shirt” at the races.
Roedown Farm has a colorful history. It was originally part of a grant of more than 2,000 acres made by Lord Baltimore. At the beginning of the 19th century, Jerome Bonaparte reputedly spent part of his honeymoon at Roedown after his marriage to Betsy Patterson, of Baltimore. A marble bust of Jerome, given to the present owners by a member of the Bonaparte family, stands in the garden of the striking Georgian brick house. George Washington is reported to have stayed at the house in 1760. Mr. and Mrs. John M. Begg purchased the 150-acre farm in 1945.
When Begg died in 1985, his widow insisted the Roedown event be continued. In 1994, she married Hal C. B. Clagett, another founder as well as a breeder of thoroughbred racehorses. Jeanne Begg died in November, 2007 but her 92-year-old husband agreed that the tradition continue.
December 3, 2008