In late October, 1920, Foxhall Keene initiated what remains possibly the most unique interpretation of jump racing ever seen in America, a team ‘chase across the hunt country starting and finishing on his Foxhall Farm in Monkton, Md.
Teams of three representing a dozen recognized hunt clubs took to the course – a shotgun start, sort of a cavalry charge to tackle a stiff 4 1/2-mile course crossing the Elkridge Hunt’s most challenging territory crisscrossed with stout line-fences and mature hedgerows. The first hunt to finish all three team members was declared the winner.
It was a sport imported from Great Britain and given an American twist. People loved it, competitors and spectators alike.
Radnor claimed the first Foxhall Farm Cup, the Pennsylvania club’s name etched on the huge silver trophy and earning the right to host the 1921 race. Though the event no longer “moves around” to the home territory of whatever team happens to finish first that year, according to race historian Maryanna Skowronski, it has become an integral part of the early season training regimen for some of steeplechasing’s most elite corps.
Reports called the inaugural event “invigorating” and “purely the nation’s top sporting ‘chase,” but by all accounts competitors were strung out across the countryside as they negotiated walls and ditches, rail jumps and natural hedges, stream crossings and miles of open pastureland.
Owner of Andor Farm – the most recent name of the former Foxhall property, Laura Pickett says: “there were a lot of fallers in that first race. They were taking the shutters off the house to use as stretchers for the injured riders.”
She’s sure it won’t be as crazy when the race returns to her Andor Farm this Sunday, March 20.
Historical Foxhall: Smithtown Hunt Club Captures Trophy. Breaking the two-year streak of the Radnor Hunt team, the Smithtown Hunt Club, of Long Island, captured the Foxhall Farms’ $5,000 challenge trophy at the spring meeting of the Radnor Hunt Club at Berwyn, Penn., May 14, 1932. Photo shows Earle Porter of the Smithtown team, taking a spill during the race. He remounted and won. The Foxhall Trophy, donated by Foxhall Keene, is for teams of three hunters from the same hunt club, all of them to finish in order to win.
Long gone is the shotgun start, today’s Foxhall Farm Cup an important and anticipated launch to the American steeplechase season – more specifically, mid-Atlantic timber racing and, even more narrow focus for horses aimed at Maryland’s big timber. The race is open to horses and riders “that have fairly hunted.” Some competitors are strictly foxhunters, of course, that aren’t moonlighting as steeplechasers, but more are steeplechasers that hunt for fitness.
Seventeen teams representing four hunts from Maryland, Pennsylvania and Virginia will race for the enormous Foxhall Farm Cup on Sunday including three early nominees to the Maryland Hunt Cup. Also entered are dozens of young and aspiring timber runners and a similar number of veteran timber horses using the event as an early-season workout.
“The winners really gallop the course, the entire course,” Pickett says, part of the unique nature of the format being that trainers can give orders to riders to “take it easy” with less experienced horses.
Last year’s winners, representing the hosting Elkridge Harford Hunt Club, won in 9:37.
The winning Foxhall Farm Cup team from Elkridge-Harford in 2021. Left to right, Sara Katz rode Diamond Drive; Willie White rode Night Sounds; Colin Smith rode Forever Bernardini.
Sara Katz Foley was on the winning team last year.
She loves the course and loves the event.
“It’s so much fun,” Foley says. “It’s a combination of hunting and racing,” and something you can do competing “with” your friends and rivals, rather than “against” them like on the racecourse. “The fences consist of a variety of jumps – it can be post and rails telephone poles coops and even hedges. You can jump single file or together.”
Top amateur-apprentice rider Skylar McKenna is listed to ride Schoodic, Monbeg Stream, Shootist and Withoutmoreado on Sunday. She says the race-‘chase is an excellent pre-season spin for everybody.
“The team chase is a great course to get the horses tuned up for the spring season,” McKenna says. “It’s similar to racing in the sense that you gallop over a course of fences but different because you don’t have to put your horse under pressure.
“Some of the teams made up of made timber horses will use it as a prep so they will open gallop most of the course. But if there is a team of maidens, they might steady up into the fences. Swapping leaders and jumping upsides does happen.”
Race co-chairman Rob Keller says he’s excited to compete with teammates Connor Hankin and Melissa Gartland.
“It’s more of a challenge chase than a flat-out race,” Keller says, though he expects the winning team will need to scoot to post the fastest time. “It rides really well,” he says of the course, which the committee designed to closely resemble the original route from Foxhall Keene’s 1920 inaugural event. “We hunt through here (Elkridge Harford Hunt Club), but the course was thoughtfully designed to be a safe, good prep where a lot of trainers will bring their nice horses for a an early season run.
“It’s a very consistent course, and you can let a horse really roll on.”
Keller says Andor Farm owner Laura Pickett has been a huge part of making the event a continued success, along with adjacent landowners Marshall Elkins and Josh Brumfield.
“That’s three farms we cross,” he says, “and they’re all a big part of why it works so well. They’re all very hunt community friendly, and we couldn’t do it without” their interest in conserving the history of the unique event.
Co-chair Gary Murray is married to Elizabeth Voss, daughter of the late Tom Voss. Voss, Keller says, played a big role in keeping the 102-year-old event a relevant part of the modern steeplechase and foxhunt calendar.
Andor Farm owner Laura Pickett grew up near the historic property. She remembers riding her ponies across the land as a child.
“I love this farm, I love the history of this farm,” she says, owner of the 130-acre farm more than 20 years. She and husband Taylor bought it from the estate of the late Michael Wettach, who had inherited the estate from his Guggenheim ancestors. “You know, I’m by far the most boring owner of this property, but it’s obviously an honor to be the keeper of this legacy, and I want to be a responsible steward of the history of the Foxhall Cup.”
She recalls one night after they bought the place, sitting around the table with steeplechase horsemen Turney McKnight and Tom Voss and saying how fun it would be to bring the Foxhall Farm Cup back to the former Foxhall Farm.
“I told them, if you guys (riders representing Elkridge Harford Hunt Club) win the Foxhall Farm Cup back, I’ll build – re-build, the original course and host the race.”
In 2005, an Elkridge Harford team of Blair Waterman (now Wyatt), Turney McKnight and Paddy Neilson rode like the wind to capture the cup. Friends, neighbors and supporters of the plan to replicate the 1920 course got to work. The hunt hosted the Foxhall Farm Cup Team Chase in 2006, possibly the first time it had been back at the original property, over what Pickett calls “pretty close to the same” as the original course.
Administrative director of the Manor Conservancy, Maryanna Skowronski is sort of an unofficial historian for the Foxhall Farm Cup. Like Andor owner Laura Pickett, she’s fascinated by the legacy of the family and of the race.
“The race was first run at Foxhall Farm in 1920,” she explains, now Andor Farm. “To the best of my knowledge, it was not run there again until 2006. Elkridge Harford won (the race) in 2005 and brought (the right to host it) back to Maryland.
“We decided to recreate the original course as closely as was possible. Fortunately, we had two people who recalled the basic layout of the old course. Of course, it’s not identical and some changes have been made since 2006, but it’s close.
“Elkridge did win in 1928 but whether they hosted on the original course the following year I don’t know. Elkridge Harford won it in 1952 taking it from Rolling Rock. They won it again 1953, but as before, I don’t know where it was contested.”
Elkridge Harford hosted in 2018 and 2019. There was no race in 2020. It was at Andor last year.
Team Chase – what is it?
Sunday’s Foxhall Farm Cup Team Chase takes a page from the traditional spring hunter pace format, with a couple differences. There’s just one division – fast-time, and three riders per team, not pairs.
Teams are sent out one at a time at three-minute intervals rather than the en masse start from earlier days of the 102-year-old event.
The course is mapped and flagged, carefully tended and safety-checked, race co-chair Rob Keller says, so that race trainers feel comfortable sending top horses to use Foxhall as an early-season prep race. Some jumps – there are 25 – are built into line fences around the pastures of the three farms the course crosses. Others are custom installed for the event, like the nearly 5-foot hedge that Keller says the race committee tends and trims to resemble a manicured steeplechase jump from a traditional English racecourse.
Team members can go in any order they like, changing leaders throughout the four miles and jumping some of the wider fences upsides.
A starter gives a countdown for each team, and timers on a judges’ stand record the finish time of the third team member to cross the finish line.
The winners really gallop, Keller adds, without the normal sort of “steadying” at the fences as in the hunt field. Other teams take more time to use the event as a schooling experience, checking back and setting up for each jump before moving on between fences.
A second division, an optimum time division that competes for the Full Cry trophy, runs on some years, but not this Sunday. Optimum time is the average of all the times throughout the day. Riders in the modern Foxhall ‘chase wear hunt attire; in the old days, they wore racing silks, three identical for each three-person team.
Entries can be found at Central Entry Office.