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Wednesday, April 17, 2024

It was 8 a.m. when the bagpiper began trotting down the hill. The first sound of tradition.

A priest in a floor-length white robe stopped talking about the Vanderbilt game. Women in jackets and boots stopped shuffling around a table crowded with cups of port.

As the bagpiper approached, his tune of "Scotland the Brave" mixed with the sound of barking hounds, neighing horses and the staccato click-click of cameras.

The show was about to begin.

About 20 fox hounds, including Whiskey, Clover, Badger and Bubbles, were the stars of the Misty Morning Hounds' Opening Meet at Snooty Fox Farm in Alachua on Saturday morning.

After 14 seasons of fox-hunting, not much has changed.

That's how they like it. Tradition is one of the main reasons spectators gathered early this weekend morning and why the fox-hunting rituals have survived hundreds of years and several bans on fox hunting.

This is the fourth year Father Harold Ritchie, of St. Anne's Episcopal Church in Keystone Heights, led the "Blessing of the Hounds." The scroll he read from was decorated with paw prints.

"What's different?" Ritchie asked. "It's raining."

Tradition isn't cheap, he added.

The invitation-only event was $55 for spectators and $105 for riders. Membership to the Hounds, which costs $650 per season, begins with training young dogs in September and continues into the cooler Saturday mornings of November.

The money goes toward the upkeep of the hounds. Feeding the full group of about 40 hounds costs $1,000 per month. Hygiene costs add up as well.

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"There's not even a flea on them," said joint master of foxhounds Walter "Mac" Macaulay.

As necklaces with charms of St. Hubert were passed out, Ritchie told the story of the saint who would protect the hounds, riders and spectators.

St. Hubert was in an open field on Good Friday while everyone else was at church when he saw a stag with a cross wrapped in its antlers. The stag said, "Hubert, get thee to the Lord or go to Hell."

Riders and spectators laughed and sipped port - their first drinks of the day. It wasn't yet 9 a.m.

Tradition.

Kim Muñoz, former kennelman for the Misty Morning Hounds, received the scroll from this year's blessing. Her mouth dropped when Ritchie announced it was hers.

Muñoz, who as kennelman trained the hounds for five years, said she would make room for the scroll on her wall of hound- and fox-hunting memorabilia.

"It takes you to a different time, the whole ambience," Muñoz said. "I know each hound by name. They're like my children."

Riders atop horses with short braided manes wore full traditional uniforms of tan breeches, rich-colored coats and stock ties. They were accompanied by a bagpiper as they chanted: "We'll all go hunting today, we'll all go hunting today."

Spectators piled into four pickup trucks known as tally-ho wagons. They headed to the site of the kill, where they would meet the riders and hounds.

The hounds are trained to hunt the scent on a battery-operated blue and orange ball with a raccoon tail bouncing around in a cage. The ball is soaked with anisette liquor.

Honorary hunt secretary Diane Cotter said that, a few years ago, a red fox ran across the field in the middle of a drag hunt.

"It was funny to watch. They never picked up on it," Cotter said. "They just hunt the scent."

A minute after the audience arrived at the site of the kill, they were greeted by the familiar sound of bagpipes.

Soon after, the hounds came racing down the field to seize the prize - a bag filled with "soup bones."

"Boy are the hounds barking today," Macaulay said. A horn was blown. Pop. A cork flew.

Macaulay opened the first bottle of champagne to celebrate the first kill. The back of the pickup truck was now a bar.

The bubbly liquor, mixed with orange juice, was poured as mimosas into paper cups and served to riders still atop their horses. The stop at the truck-turned-bar was at least twice as long as the time for each drag hunt.

"In case you haven't noticed, we like partying," Macaulay said, laughing. "A lot."

That was round one. Three more drag hunts, kills and rounds of drinks to go.

Macaulay hopped back into his truck and grabbed his walkie-talkie to keep up with the group as they trailed behind him to the site of the next kill.

The hounds quickly caught on. Before the last truck had a chance to unload its passengers and fill up their cups, a horn was blown.

"Mac, that was too fast," said Roy Brewer, an auctioneer who served as the emcee and wore a red tailcoat. "OK, drinks. Bar's open again."

Each of the four drag hunts was the same, except the hunts became shorter and the stops longer as spectators mingled.

"We've got to make it a good morning," Brewer said. "It'd be an awful slow morning if we only did one."

Hours later, when the drag hunts were done and the hounds tired out, more champagne and a buffet brunch was served. With hounds and horses put away, everyone drank and socialized as if the morning wouldn't expire. It was almost noon.

Tradition.

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