The day is cold, windswept. The turf is green-brown, reminiscent of an Andrew Wyeth painting.
A crowd of more than 700 folks has turned up on the grounds of Mr. Stewart’s Cheshire Foxhounds eagerly awaiting the call to hounds for the annual Thanksgiving Day hunt. Roughly 130 riders and their field hunters are led by scarlet-coated huntsman Ivan Dowling who sits atop his snow white horse flanked by a pack of hounds, equally charged up for the chase to begin.
In the sport of foxhunting, everybody is chasing somebody.
In another life, With Anticipation was a five-time Grade 1 winner with earnings over $2.6 million. Trained by Jonathan Sheppard, in the 2002 Breeders’ Cup Turf race the gray gelding came flying at the finish, a close runner-up to English champion High Chaparral.
A fan favorite, he posted a 15-9-8 record in 38 career starts and raced until age nine. Now 14, With Anticipation was bred and raced by George Strawbridge's Augustin Stable near Cochranville, Pa.
Louis “Paddy” Neilson, veteran whipper-in for the Cheshire hounds, has marveled at With Anticipation over the past four seasons.
“He’s an especially good hunter, a dream,” said Neilson, who as a jockey won the prestigious Maryland Hunt Cup three times. “He’s very smart, a wonderful jumper, sound as a bell and quiet with the hounds. What makes him so special is his racing record. We don’t see horses of that caliber. He really understands his job and is a terrific partner for Ivan.”
Another gifted racehorse gallops over the Unionville, Pa. countryside during the hunt season that runs through March. For three-time Eclipse Award winning steeplechaser McDynamo, foxhunting was part of his winter fitness training. Owned by Unionville’s Michael Moran, McDynamo scored victories in 15 of his 25 career starts earning $1.3 million before being retired in November 2007.
“He hunted a bit the last couple of years he was racing,” said his trainer Sanna Hendriks of Cochranville. “He didn’t do fences, but he would gallop with the others, maybe five or six miles. His ears were pricked and he was having fun. He thrived on it.”
These days McDynamo’s steeplechase jockey rides him in the local foxhunt.
“From the first season I hunted him on the front end with everyone else doing their thing,” related Jody Petty. “You’re going to find a lot of tricky fences out in the country, so that can be challenging. In fox hunting you kind of cue up for the fences. He waits his turn, pops into place and goes over. That’s very rare. McDynamo’s manners are the best.”
Members of Philadelphia area hunts such as Radnor, Rose Tree, Brandywine and Cheshire staged wintertime foxhunts as way of keeping horses fit through the colder months. Skills used in steeplechase, timber and flat races in the spring and fall are forged at the local hunt. Mr. Stewart’s Cheshire Foxhounds dates back to 1912. Even older is the Radnor Hunt Club that originated in 1883, while the Brandywine Hunt was launched in 1897.
The Cheshire Hunt is named after the founder, Plunkett Stewart. After his death in 1948, Stewart’s stepdaughter Nancy Penn-Smith Hannum took over as Master of the Hunt. Five years ago Russell Jones, Bruce Miller and Nina Strawbridge were named joint masters. Each of the 150 subscribers (members) pay a fee that goes toward the salaries of full-time employees, upkeep of the grounds and foxhunting lands, and the care of the hounds and their kennel.
The bulk of Cheshire’s roughly 80 foxhounds are Penn-Marydels that were bred to hunt the farmland and woodlands of the region, hence the name. Similar to the French foxhound, Roy Jackson, Sr. (father of Roy Jackson who owned Kentucky Derby champion Barbaro) introduced the hounds to this region in 1929. Not quite as fast as the English foxhounds, Penn-Marydels are more methodical. Big pluses are their perseverance and superior scenting capabilities.
One of foxhunting’s proudest traditions is the protection and preservation of the surrounding countryside through conservation easements. Through the tireless efforts of the foxhunters and local conservation groups, thousands of acres surrounding Unionville remain undeveloped, and the water resources and air quality are protected.
Russell Jones has championed the land preservation for decades. He and his late brother Richie co-founded Walnut Green Bloodstock Agency and bought Walnut Green Farm outside West Grove, Pa. in 1979. The business was sold to Mark Reid three years ago where Jones has been a consultant.
A foxhunter since age six, Jones revels in the exhilarating sport. It’s a bit of a spectacle with its hounds, horn and the colorful hunt coats. American colonists carried the sport with them from England. The first organized hunt was staged in Virginia, followed by Pennsylvania and Maryland. Unlike the British Isles, here the emphasis has always been on the chase, rather than the killing of the fox. Once the fox evades the hounds and “goes to ground,” the hunt is over and judged to be a success.
“I feel sorry for the people that don’t understand it, that have never been out there,” Jones observed. “It is very rare that a healthy fox is killed. The hounds are totally serious about catching the fox, while I really think the fox considers it a game. What intrigues me is the interplay and trickery.”
You have to admire anyone who can extract pleasure while being whipped by winds, sleet and rain and splashed on from head to foot with endless winter mud. In the end, it comes down to this: the thrill of the chase.
The horses are known as field hunters. The best ones are strong jumpers with a keen mind that enables them to withstand all the ruckus of the sport. Seasoned horses revel in the sport as much as the riders- ears swiveling, nose twitching, following the hounds’ every move.
Converting a racehorse to a hunter requires patience and time, says Neilson, a former jockey, three-time champion of the prestigious Maryland Hunt Cup and life-long foxhunter.
“After the horse is relaxed and happy you start to school him,” Neilson explained. “Take him through the woods and jump some logs. In this natural setting he doesn’t think too much and just starts jumping. It builds the horse’s confidence and ensures he will go forward when he comes to a fence in the foxhunting atmosphere.”
Neilson has been schooling hunters at his Rockaway Farm in Unionville for 25 years. Typically he’ll start three horses in June and by early January they’re ready to roll in the local foxhunt. The hunters can easily travel 12 to 15 miles in four hours. A made-hunter can bring $15,000 to $20,000, and good ones are always in demand.
“It’s all about interval training,” Neilson explained. “Fox hunting is stop-and-go all the time versus go-go-go all the time at the track. When the horses learn to relax they start enjoying themselves. Even with a rider on their back they are able to adapt back to the herd mentality pretty quickly.”
As the hunters trail the pack of hounds in an easy trot, one of the hounds will suddenly speak-- a “baying” that signals she’s discovered a scent line of the fox.
“The baying is the cue to the horse, sort of like banging on a feed tub,” Neilson related. “His head pops and he’s now focused. When hounds go into full cry, you can feel the excitement in your hunter. It’s almost like him saying: ‘hey, this is what it’s all about.’”
As for McDynamo, he’s adjusting well to his new job. Except, that is, when his owner pilots him. He refused a couple of fences, pitching off Michael Moran.
“If the rider is a bit apprehensive the horse isn’t going to be totally confident and that’s a bad match at my age,” laughed Moran. “He’s over with Sanna and Jody and they do a nice job with him.”
“McDynamo understands it’s not a competitive event,” added jockey Petty. “He takes things naturally and fox hunting is very natural to a lot of horses. He just needs a little more experience. It’s just mileage rather than anything else.”