The spring of 1940 broke cold and wet over the Maryland countryside of Baltimore County as a son of Man o’ War prepared to launch a campaign that would be his season of glory.
Blockade’s run for glory had begun in April 1938, six months before Seabiscuit and War Admiral, a grandson and son of Man o’ War, would run the greatest match race of all time on the flat track at the Pimlico Racetrack (Md.). An 11-year-old, chestnut gelding, Blockade had won one of the world’s most grueling steeplechase races two years running at the Maryland Hunt Cup, a four-mile race over open country, with 22 timber fences as high as 5 feet.
Blockade won in 1938 and ’39. But no horse had ever won the race in three consecutive runnings to claim permanent possession of the cup for its owner.
Blockade was positioned to do that and even more. He could also sweep the Maryland triple crown of steeplechasing by winning the My Lady’s Manor Point-to-Point and Grand National races in the two weeks leading up to the Hunt Cup.
No horse had ever won all three races in the same season. In 1938, Blockade won the Hunt Cup, and in 1939 he took the Grand National and the Hunt Cup. Even if he won only the My Lady’s Manor race on the second Saturday of April, he would hold all three cups, at least for one week. A spring sweep would be an unparalleled feat.
Meet Monty R
Forty miles away, a pigtailed 12-year-old girl, the youngest of a large family, was training the “family pet,” a favorite half-bred from the family stable. Her father rode him to hounds in the weekly winter foxhunts of the Howard County Hunt Club (Md.).
Small even for a girl of 12, Joanie Randall saddled Monty R, a 9-year-old, dark chestnut gelding, every day he wasn’t hunting. To gain her seat she grabbed a leather strap tied to her saddle, walked up her mount’s foreleg and swung onto her perch.
She galloped Monty R over the fields of her family’s farm, Montrose, near Clarkesville, Md., and trained him over five-foot jumps set in the pastures.
Monty R was a local hero among the Howard County horse set. He had won the last three Howard County Hunt Cup races, gaining permanent possession of the cup for his owner, Louis Randall, Joanie’s father. Mrs. E. Read Beard of Baltimore had presented the cup to the Howard County Hunt Club in 1934 as a memorial to her husband and to encourage the recently founded club.
In an ironic twist, Mrs. Beard owned Blockade. Monty R had finished second to him in the 1939 Grand National.
By 1940, the “working hunter,” a horse that actually rode to hounds in local foxhunts, was already an anachronism in the winner’s circle of the big three steeplechase races, where “jumping race horses”–Thoroughbreds trained exclusively for the big timber races–now dominated.
Old-timers grumbled that the day of the owner-rider who actually hunted was past. But Louis Randall was an old-time owner-rider, a founding member of the Howard County Hunt Club, with 11 children, who still farmed his 170 acres using big, gray workhorses. His uncle was James Ryder Randall, author of the state song, “Maryland, My Maryland.” Louis Randall and his wife, Martha, also operated a summer boarding camp at Montrose for the children of prominent families from Baltimore and Washington, D.C.
Hooray For The Underdog
Saturday, April 13–race day at My Lady’s Manor–was more like winter than spring. It was windy and cold. An inch of snow covered the hilly ground and fence rails of the two farms over which the 3-mile, 17-jump course was run. A crowd of 4,000 spectators, fewer than usual due to the weather, wore heavy winter coats and overshoes.
Hollywood crews were there to film Technicolor sequences at the big three races that spring for a 1940 Fox movie, Maryland, about steeplechasing, which starred Walter Brennan and John Payne.
The horses were brought to the paddock in heavy blankets to be warmed up. Only four were left on the card after scratches: Blockade, Monty R, Estadin and Reconsidered. Stuart S. Janney Jr. scratched his horse, Vaunt, and sat out the race. Janney had previous wins at the Manor and Hunt Cup and would go on to win three consecutive Hunt Cups on Winton in 1942, ’46 and ’47.
The four circled to a starting line. J. Fred Colwill, now an old hand at 27, was astride Blockade, having piloted him to his previous victories. Richard Hamilton, a future Hunt Cup winner, rode Reconsidered, with Louis Merryman Jr. on Espadin.
Up on Monty R was John B. Merryman, just 17, of an old Maryland riding family, in his first sanctioned senior timber race. Picked by Louis Randall, Johnny Merryman was an untested jockey in his first race under flags and on a half-bred mount, in a race against Thorough-breds under more experienced riders.
Blockade broke from the start to take the lead and set the pace, as was his habit. Espadin fell back after a few jumps with Reconsidered still in the race and Monty R just a few lengths off the pace set by Blockade. Monty R caught Blockade at the 15th fence, and when they crested the last hill heading for the final jumps at the 16th and 17th fences, they came back into view of the main body of spectators. Merryman had lost his cap but had gained a slight lead.
Blockade and Monty R were running neck and neck. Espadin had moved up into third, and Reconsidered brought up the rear. The shouting crowd pressed against the restraining snow fence at the 17th jump, which Monty R cleared 2 lengths ahead of Blockade, with snow flying off the top rail.
Somehow, Louis Randall got inside the snow fence on the final stretch, leaping and waving his hat as he cheered Monty R and Johnny Merryman to the finish and a 2-length victory over the great Blockade, who would win his third Hunt Cup two weeks later.
The Chronicle reported that in the My Lady’s Manor race, “Monty R completed the 3 miles over natural country in the excellent time of 6:20, regarded as a new record for the course. The son of Mayne, out of a registered Standardbred mare, finely fitted by J. Fred Adams Jr., fenced consistently well.”
The next afternoon Joanie Randall saddled her pet, Monty R, rode him across the Randall fields and over a few fences to the farm of a neighbor, Alan Clarke, to see his new colts. Joanie dismounted and–without tying the horse–climbed over the fence into the pasture to make her inspection. Monty R stood and waited. He was in no hurry that day.
Not To Be
A week later, Monty R sat out the Grand National, where Blockade pulled up since the course was heavy with mud. And in the Chronicle, a preview of the Maryland Hunt Cup entries said, “When Monty R goes forth in the Maryland Saturday, carrying the colors of L.A. Randall, he will have the rousing support of every Old Line farmer-foxhunter. John Merryman, who scored with him when he defeated the noted Blockade in My Lady’s Manor, will be up, and is as determined a rider as ever used his head in a race.
“Should it be possible for Monty R to stay the distance at the speed in which the present day race is run, the good jumper is likely to turn back the field to triumph, which in turn would be the best thing for timber-racing and Maryland since its inception.”
Such an ending wasn’t meant to be, however, as Monty R finished fourth in the Maryland Hunt Cup and Blockade cruised to a historic victory, retiring the trophy.
The Chronicle reported that, “Going to the 19th, Monty R was moving up to Cornwall II and Blockade. [On the downhill run] to the 20th, the plank fence, saw Monty R eased to the inside, the advantageous position for the run across the road to the 21st.
“Both Monty R and Blockade, jumping head-and-head, put in tremendous leaps (spanning over 22”) and were really running across the road, where Monty R showed on top and yet veered wide as Blockade slipped inside going to the 21st, where he jumped on even terms.
“Monty R showed on top again on landing, for the last time, as Mr. Merryman turned to his stick and went to the bat, driving up the hill to the last, as Blockade gained to take a 3-length advantage.”