For the Casanova Hunt (VA), established in 1909 during the waning days of Theodore Roosevelt’s term as president, June 30, 2020 marks the end of the era. It’s a real heartbreaker. And a personal one.
It was an easy hack from the kennels at Weston to the Boarding House covert, so named half a century ago by Capt. Ian Benson, MFH and huntsman, because that covert harbored everything. It was often a quick cast and hounds were away.
Casanova’s various fixtures included plenty of corn fields during cubbing for Benson’s successor, huntsman Tommy Lee Jones, to send in veteran hounds to show the youngsters how it’s done, because fox know every handy hidey-hole in their particular turf.
Casanova fox were known to toy with the hounds. We met one morning at the kennels on historic Weston where hounds got up a fox, literally in their backyard, in a big field where Casanova used to stage horse shows. One hound took particular exception to the nightly taunts of this intrepid fox, which darted into the last of the ancient cabins on the property. As everyone stood around watching, said fox came flying out of the upper story window, bounced off the little porch’s roof and leapt to the ground―I kid you not―whereupon it took off running.
Hercules, a hound that lived up to his namesake’s strength and courage, raced after Charles James (or Charlotte James… it’s hard to tell during a run). After running into the cabin, Hercules also appeared in the upper window and made his death-defying leap. Unfortunately, he completely ignored the porch roof, soared through the air, ears spread wide in the wind of his passage, and landed a belly-flop. Kicking into high gear, Hercules ran like blazes, giving tongue and leading the beautiful voices ringing in the early morning air…
If this sounds personal, it is. It couldn’t be anything but, even though these memories are more than several decades old. The heart and the mind do not forget the best experiences and toughest lessons in the magical world that was Casanova Hunt in the early years of Tommy Lee’s tenure as huntsman. This untimely and unfair demise is a heartbreaker. Casanova Hunt ended even though the people involved did everything they could, got it as right as they possibly could, and still ended up making the hardest choice of all.
The memories keep coming. There is always the risk of injury while hunting, but you try to load the dice in your favor out there. The late Gretchen B. Stephens, MFH, always told me that you want horses with a fifth-wheel instinct (stay on, grab mane, let them get you to the other side), endowed with enough sense to take care of themselves and their riders. Horses that know their job, but even then, that mad dash through winding trail or over hill and dale, hunting panels of timber or plank, sometimes tree trunks or telephone poles, more often a coop. At one fixture, there was a harmless-looking jump into a wooded area, which boasted a nifty drop landing that you don’t know is there until the bottom falls away. It’s quite a surprise to feel your horse still descending when you’re expecting terra firma.
Known as the “Oh My God” jump, it was great fun, especially whenever visitors capped for that meet. The rest of us had undergone initiation, sometimes several times, usually when bringing along a green field hunter. Surprises around every turn were part of the charm and allure of the chase… so many great memories…
Casanova Hunt was everything I dreamed about as a kid growing up horse-crazy on the outskirts of Philadelphia. Thanks to Gretchen and her wonderful Field Master hunters, China and Chuckie (both accustomed to leading the field), I learned to ride to hounds, pilot a horse running flat-out when hounds are in full cry, cope with drastic changes of terrain and, in first flight, jump whatever was in the way, amidst the excitement of the long column of enthusiastic equines and their riders.
The lessons apply equally to life in general, going beyond proficiency in the saddle and, in the barn, caring for horses. Young and old foxhunters learn lasting lessons in the field: etiquette that allows a society of independent thinkers to flourish safely, respect for authority and the land, the importance of friendly landowners. You come to embrace the increasing need to preserve open space not merely for one’s peace of mind and/or privacy, but also for country traditions such as riding, with or without hounds. Foxhunting was about conservation and preservation of natural habitats. It was the best of times, all things considered. Being a high-risk activity, you could count on the occasional injury and, being an enthusiast, champ at the bit to get back in the saddle, often sooner than doctor’s orders.
Good memories carry all of us through the ups and downs of daily living, but hearing that Casanova is disbanding after 110 years of history, great sport and camaraderie is heartbreaking—and it certainly wasn’t for lack of trying to keep the hunt going on for another hundred years. Losing this family hunt with many generations represented is a tragedy.
Jeanne Clark and Kathleen O’Keefe, joint-Masters of Foxhounds, were kids when they began riding and hunting. Kathleen, a fourth generation foxhunter, first rode to hounds with Casanova in 1992. When her husband Will O’Keefe retired as Executive Director of Morven Park in 2010, they returned to Pine Brook, his family farm and a favorite fixture in Casanova’s country. Kathleen added to Casanova’s glory with her successes in competitions for foxhunters. She won the Virginia Field Hunter Championship once and the Theodora Randolph North American Field Hunter Championships in 1996, 2006, and 2011, as well as Best Turned Out in the finals of the 2007 MFHA Centennial Field Hunter Championships.
Jeanne Clark grew up riding to hounds. Neé Fendley, her family is descended from Fauquier County farmers, and they moved to Casanova in the late 1970s. Her mother, Joyce Fendley, stepped up as Joint-MFH in 1983, and her father, Bill Fendley, who made it a family affair and whipped-in, followed suit in 2001.
Jeanne served as honorary whipper-in and, in 2006, joined her parents in the Mastership. Kathleen became Joint-MFH in 2017. Joyce and Bill retired in 2019, and with Kay Blassic, ex-MFH and longtime whipper-in, they pondered with Jeanne and Kathleen the best course of action for this venerable farmer’s pack with its unique history, very strong family and community ties, and loyal supporters.
Casanova’s foxhounds always helped to promote their sport. They love people and, like children, they live what they learn. Hounds were a hit every time with school groups who visited Weston, historic estate and wildlife refuge, where the Casanova kennels have been located since early last century.
“I have always loved the field trips from local elementary schools to Weston that include Tommy-talks and the hounds,” Kathleen said. “The awe and excitement from the children was contagious. It was a great opportunity to educate and entertain them…with Tommy’s unmatched whip-cracking skills. The hounds were the best ambassadors for the sport, all happily receiving hugs, pats and kisses from the children.”
Tommy Lee Jones is the leader of the pack—lead hound, so to speak. He has served as huntsman for fifty years, fifty-three when you add his first season just hunting and the next two when he whipped-in to Benson who, returning home to Ireland, left Tommy Lee to carry the horn under the Joint-Mastership of Col. Sam Richards and Gretchen Stephens. Outstanding with hounds, horses, and people, Tommy Lee’s golden anniversary would have been celebrated anew at the 2020 Virginia Hound Show at Morven Park when the Museum of Hounds and Hunting of North America planned to honor Tommy Lee and two others, Jake Carle, ex-MFH and huntsman at Keswick (VA), and David Wendler, ex-huntsman, Los Altos Hounds (CA) and the West Hills Hunt (CA), with induction into the Huntsmen’s Room at the Museum of Hounds and Hunting, their hall of fame.
If there were an Old-Fashioned Horsemanship Club, Tommy Lee would be a card-carrying member. He grew up in the saddle, thanks to his parents, Thomas E. (“Poppa” Tommy) and his mom Doris Jones. Their influence lives on in Tommy Lee’s work ethic, sense of fun, and passion for horses, hounds and hunting, racing, showing, and everything else country.
Tommy Lee recalled hunting hounds with sixteen different horses in the course of one rather stellar season: “We sold horses―whatever the season was, that’s what we had in the barn,” recalled Tommy Lee. “My dad went to sales and he’d buy a truckload of horses. The ones that jumped best, stayed. If it was summer, they were show horses; fall, they were hunters; winter, they ran in point-to-points. If they were still around in the summer, they showed again. That was back in the days when a horse was a horse, not like today when they’re all specialists.”
When Tommy Lee’s family moved from their farm in Arcola to New Hope Farm on the edge of Warrenton, not far from Casanova, Tommy Lee found a new passion in his first season of riding to hounds. After two years whipping-in to Capt. Benson, learning the ropes, so to speak, in 1970 he succeeded his mentor. But a secret to the longevity of his tenure comes down to the Masters of Casanova accepting that Tommy Lee would keep doing everything he had been involved in all along: training, riding, hunting hounds, selling horses, helping bloodstock agents at big Thoroughbred sales, and managing horse shows.
“We had a great working relationship here with the whole staff. Casanova was a warm and welcoming place and we tried to extend that to everybody and show them how much fun foxhunting was and I think we did, for a long time,” said Tommy Lee.
This year, events postponed all hound shows until 2021, so there will be plenty of reason for jubilation when the Virginia Hound Show returns on Memorial Day Weekend. It just won’t be the same without Casanova showing in the American and Crossbred rings, but some packs might enter hounds whose bloodlines hark to Casanova. Tommy Lee leaves a legacy of finely bred hunting hounds, and the pack has always boasted a few that could show almost as well as they hunted.
The demise of Casanova Hunt results from the loss of open country to development, increasingly dangerous heavy traffic on major and minor roads, and the escalating risk to life and limb of the hounds, horses and staff. The arrival of coyote upset the balance of nature because that more aggressive predator set to killing the once abundant and relatively carefree gray and red fox that are ideally suited to Casanova’s countryside.
Coyote and fox are as different as chalk and cheese. Hunts chasing coyote are situated ideally in more open countryside where roads are few and staff can keep up with hounds to make sure they’re safe at road crossings.
“It’s so dangerous for the hounds when they get up coyote [before we can stop them] and dangerous for the staff to protect the hounds due to development, and people drive so fast and they’re not really paying attention,” Jeanne said. “I have almost gotten killed several times, trying to get to hounds to keep them from being mowed down by 18-wheelers. Last year, I was literally three feet away from death and I got the hounds stopped and turned away from Route 28, but three 18-wheelers blew their horns when they passed by me and the hounds.”
The coyote invasion became really noticeable about ten years ago. “It changed everything,” Jeanne explained. “It’s no longer the art of fox hunting, it’s more like damage control because you’re running just to keep up to hounds and you’re praying, when you get to them, they’re going to be alive. That, to me, is the loss of the art of foxhunting. It’s been very hard on Tommy. He tries so hard to hunt red and gray fox only and not run coyote. We come across them, but we look for fox and they got really hard to find. Every time you go out, you have to worry about hounds.”
Riding is considered a high-risk activity. Foxhunting compounds the danger although it’s great “craic” as the Irish say, unbelievably fun and exhilarating. Nowadays, roads like Route 3, 17, and 28 in Casanova’s country are morphing into rural super highways, putting dire new meaning into “ride at your own risk.”
“I’ve been raising puppies for about fifteen years and every one of these hounds is personal. I know them and I worry about them,” Jeanne said. “I worry about myself, my horse and my sister who’s also whipping-in. The other factor is that you cannot foxhunt coyote in a subdivision. We have more subdivisions now than we’ve had before and that’s where the fox are hiding.”
Subdivisions also promise fox relative safety from coyote, which tend to avoid humans, but as Jeanne pointed out, you can’t run thirty or more people on horseback through a subdivision.
“With Tommy’s fiftieth year as huntsman, the hunt’s 110 years, we feel like we did a good job,” Jeanne said. “We had a great club, it was a blast, but it’s time to be done. We’re closing this on a positive note. Yes, it’s the end of an era. We’re taking great care with placing our hounds. They’ve been getting spa treatments. We look long and hard where they’re going. We had four hounds go to Piedmont, four of our best show-breed quality hounds, and four hounds to Rappahannock. We plan to send some hounds to Potomac and spread Tommy Lee’s legacy around a little bit.”
Still, it’s tragically sad, a sign that times, really, are changing.
“I’ve enjoyed every bit of it,” said Tommy Lee. “I have no regrets. I’ve done this for a long time and if there were still enough foxes in the country to guarantee a fox every day, I’d still be doing it.”
Good night, Casanova Hunt. Thank you for everything: great runs, awesome hospitality, family and community spirit, shared passion for countryside and its wildlife, along with our special thanks for so many wonderful memories.
Posted July 19, 2020
A related article, “Horse-Crazy: Fondest Farewell to Casanova Hunt,” was published in this author’s column in the Middleburg Eccentric, June 2020.