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One Man's Passion Revives the Fox Hunt in Virginia

Sport: Appalled by the snobbery and decline of the pastime, he set out to change things. He's done a world-class job.


The hounds dive into the hole. They've got their snouts down in the dirt, and they're digging, scratching, squirming, trying to squeeze into a groundhog tunnel that's way too small.

The fox is down there. They can smell him. It's a rich, pungent scent, somewhere between skunk and moldy cellar. They've followed that scent for a couple of miles, yapping and barking all the way.

The fox led them across Goose Creek and into a cow pasture on the Mellon estate near Middleburg, Va., then darted into this tunnel. Now these wet, panting, eager hounds are digging down, desperate to get at him.

Randy Waterman, the huntsman, stands over the hole in his red riding coat, black cap and white breeches. He puts a golden horn to his lips and bends over so he's right down there among all those soggy hound rumps, and he blows a long blast on the horn.

He stands up. A half-dozen hounds rub up against his knee-high boots and nuzzle his belly, eager for affection. Which he gives them, rubbing their heads, scratching their necks. "Good boy!" he says. "Good boy!"

Despite all the hubbub, the fox is safe down there. This isn't England, after all. In England, the hunters would force the fox out of the hole and let the hounds kill it. Here, the fox is merely chased into a hole. Then the hounds and their master hover harmlessly over it for a while, howling and blowing the horn, proclaiming their triumph.

"This is their celebration," Waterman says, standing amid 41 happy hounds. "It's a celebration of the fox, who ran two miles and crossed a river twice, and it's a celebration of the hounds. They're happy. They know they won."

Waterman won, too, of course. He's the master of the Piedmont Fox Hounds and it's the opening day of the season and his hounds already have chased three foxes to ground. Some Virginia hunts don't put three foxes to ground in a week. But the 50 horsemen who have galloped after Waterman all morning aren't surprised. They know he's not out here to sip sherry and rub elbows with the aristocracy. He is a serious fox hunter, obsessed, driven.

"He's a very intense huntsman, probably the most dedicated huntsman in America," says Dennis Foster, executive director of the Masters of Foxhounds Assn., the sport's governing body.

When he came to Virginia 20 years ago, Waterman thought the fox hunting here was a joke--a lot of pompous poseurs more interested in ceremonies and socializing than in hunting. He was going to quit the sport until a self-described "Georgia redneck" named Ben Hardaway convinced him that he could teach those Virginia stuffed shirts how to put the fun back into fox hunting.

And Waterman did it, too. All it took was a ton of money and his every waking hour.

"My grandfather was a master of hounds, my father was a master of hounds," Waterman says. "My mother wasn't a master of hounds, but she was the most devoted fox hunter I've ever met. The woman was demented. She hunted seven days a week in Ireland." Waterman is sitting in the living room of his funky little log cabin near Upperville, Va., drinking a beer and telling the story of his fox-hunting life. He was born 48 years ago in Greenwich, Conn. His parents divorced when he was young and his mother remarried and took her son to Ireland. He rode in his first fox hunt there when he was about 10.

By the time he was 12, "I knew it was the only thing I ever wanted to do."

Fox hunting isn't an elite sport in rural Ireland. Waterman would go out with his mother and some local farmers and they'd follow the hounds across the lush green fields. The grass is almost always wet, which makes it easier for the hounds to follow the scent, so the hunting is fast and they'd bound over dikes and hedges and ancient stone walls. And when the day's hunt was over, they'd repair to the pub.

"Everybody, including my mother, goes in the pub, and you have hot whiskeys, and the farmers start talking," Waterman recalled. " 'Oh, Jaysus, did ya see Johnny fall into the dike!' Did you see this? Did you see that? And the stories start getting better and better."

It was a wonderful life, but it was interrupted by the Vietnam War. In 1969, Waterman was drafted into the Army and sent to Germany. When he got out, he took over the family sand-and-gravel business in New York. He married, fathered three daughters and moved to northern Virginia. He'd fly to New York for a couple of days to run the business, then fly down to ride in steeplechase races. By the late '70s, he was the best amateur steeplechase jockey in America.

But when Waterman sampled the fox hunting in northern Virginia, he was stunned.

"It was a joke," he says. "It was more social than it was a sport. There was so much more pomp and ceremony surrounding it than there was a passion for horses or galloping or seeing good hounds run. In Ireland, whoever has the fastest horse goes first. Well, in America, so-and-so goes first and then so-and-so's wife and then the next person in terms of financial and social prominence."

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