No single horse ran in the My Lady’s Manor, the Grand National and the Maryland Hunt Cup timber stakes this spring. It used to be a thing. The old-timers say, “Back in the day, horses were tougher, men were stronger, fences were higher and everybody ran in the Manor, the Grand National and the Hunt Cup.”
It’s just the way it was. Not anymore. No horse ran in all three classics in 2021, but one person did. This one. That’s right, I covered all 101⁄4 miles (approximately, more on that later) of the Manor, Grand National and Hunt Cup courses. For the record, I’m much slower than the horses. Combined, the winners needed 20 minutes and 34 seconds. I managed it in 1:36.21 (that’s an hour, 36 minutes, 21 seconds for the decimally challenged).
But I’ll take it. I enjoy running, especially during the lockdowns and uncertainty of the Covid-19 pandemic. I love the chance to be in a wide-open space, unmasked, doing something active, where nobody can call you, text you, email you, tweet at you or tag you in a photo. And you’d be hard-pressed to find three better places to run.
My Lady’s Manor. I tossed my running stuff in the car thinking I could change after the races and stop on the way home for some miles. Gunpowder Park and NCR Trail are great spots. I parked at the barn, walked to the course in my coat and tie, saw Mystic Strike and Schoodic fall on the flat, and watched Vintage Vinnie saunter off with the Manor. What price for the Hunt Cup? I mentioned running the course to race chair Ross Pearce, who laughed and said “Sure, I won’t be here to see it.” Back at my car after the races, I changed clothes and shoes, took a swig of water, said hello to Steve and Nancy Dance (who laughed) and headed out. I ran the first part backward – fences six, three, two and one to the start. The ground was pretty soft down there, there’s a creek in the woods and the sixth is not small.
From the start, I headed uphill and picked up the course between the eighth and ninth. I saw the spot of Mystic Strike’s wipeout, went through the chute past the tailgaters, around the right-handed turn and back across my path toward Jarrettsville Pike. Schoodic’s wipeout left a skid mark, as well. He was too fast for that turn. I was not. I scrambled over the fence in the stretch, crossed the finish line and kept going back to the car. Total distance: 3.05 miles in 25:41. Biggest impression: the climb. My watch said 209 feet, but it felt like more. You’re way down in a valley at the start and high on a ridge at the finish. If he wasn’t before, your horse will be fit after the Manor.
Grand National. Post time is 3 p.m., which pushes a post-race run closer to dinner. I covered three races, interviewed McLane Hendriks (who spoke of manifest destiny) about Le Chevalier and headed for the car. I ran from the parking lot across the meadow to where the Western Run Plate starts and followed the fences. Hoofprints are not fun to run on. This was the most peaceful run of the three – green grass, redbud trees, a pond, all the signs of spring. I crossed a driveway, went past the trailers, heard from a friend about getting light enough to ride (negative) and made the turn way off to the east. You’re a long way from the finish line at the 12th fence. Think the horses know? I climbed over the 16th, and made a right turn up the hill that overlooks the stretch, continued across another driveway and around the turn toward the fifth fence of the Grand National.
I ducked a low tree branch and finished where I started – sort of. In the interview, Hendriks told me he thought the Grand National – listed at 31⁄4 miles – felt short. I have no idea, and I didn’t take the official course, but I had to extend my trip to get to 3.12. The final time was 26:32.
Maryland Hunt Cup. You can’t run two of the Maryland timber courses and skip the most famous. My oldest son Ryan joined me and we did it right – warm-up jog to the start, turn and go – with the encouragement of a few tailgaters. The first fence (of 22) is uphill. It was also partially destroyed. Riding a horse who smashes the first in the Hunt Cup can’t be a good feeling. We made sure to climb or step (thanks to a few broken posts) over every fence. The third asks a question. The sixth makes a point. The 13th delivers a test. The 16th is a final exam, only the course has another quarter to go. I thought of Jay Trump, Mountain Dew, Landing Party, Trouble Maker and all the others.
The long jaunts along the woods sapped our energy. How many Hunt Cups were won and lost over the 16th, 17th, 18th and 19th? After the 20th, we waited for traffic to clear, crossed the road and chugged back to the finish. The 21st seems like a ridiculous thing – a minor board fence leaning out over a small brook – but also plays a role. It’s different, and difficult in its own way. Plenty of Hunt Cup hopes have been dashed here. We stepped to the top board, kicked over the brook and headed to the last. I thought of 20-year-old Dan Nevin, who’d traveled this route with Vintage Vinnie an hour earlier with the Hunt Cup all but won. Imagine.
We scaled the last fence, ran down the stretch and passed the finish line. Officially, it was 3.9 miles (the race is 4) but there are plenty of places to gain or lose ground. I needed 34:08 to complete the course. See you out there next year.