November 08, 2011
The civilized world greeted St. Hubert’s Day (patron saint of hunters) on November 3 with the usual masses and hound blessings that commence the annual hunting season. In the village of Saint-Hubert in the Belgian Ardennes, the Compagnons de Saint Hubert kept the feast with their usual pomp. These activities were mirrored in France, Austria, Germany, the Netherlands, and wherever hunters seek religious sanction for their sport. Echoes of these rituals can be found even here in California, where the three hunts recognized by the Masters of Foxhounds Association begin their official hunting season in early November. There will be gala hunt balls later in the year, and all the familiar protocols of dress and behavior will be observed.
This being California, fox-hunting is a bit different from that practiced elsewhere. For starters, there are no foxes hunted. Except for Northern California’s Los Altos Hounds (who are drag hunters), the quarry is the wily coyote, a cleverer foe than the fox that often eludes its pursuers. Unlike most sorts of hunting, where the quarry is delicious and thus the major reason for setting out, coyotes are not really tasty; the riding and working with the hounds are the major draws. In that sense Californian “fox-hunting” is more an integral part of the state’s equestrian interests, alongside polo, horse racing, and dressage, than hunting per se.
Also unlike other places, California’s hunt tradition is of rather recent, postwar vintage. Pasadena’s elite Valley Hunt Club may have been founded in the late 19th century, but it has been many decades since its members terrorized the jackrabbits of the Arroyo Seco. There was some such activity among the interwar film community. The first of the modern clubs was the West Hills Hunt (now rechristened West Hills Hounds), co-founded in 1947 by returning war vet and MGM star Dan Dailey. During Dailey’s tenure as Master of Foxhounds from 1952 to 1960, colleagues such as Ronald Reagan, Randolph Scott, John Huston, Spencer Tracy, Walt Disney, George Raft, and Burgess Meredith rode by Dailey’s side in search of the coyote. The Los Altos Hounds followed in 1953, the Santa Fe Hunt in 1969, and the Santa Ynez Valley Hounds in 1972.