Steeplechasing is a cross-country race for horses, and Thoroughbreds are the heart and soul of this exciting sport with its roots in foxhunting in England, which gave rise to enthusiasts challenging each other to a race from one church steeple to another—point to point… Early American settlers brought horses, hounds, and red fox to the new colonies, and George Washington, the first American president, rode to hounds and kept his pack.
Winter’s end is heralded by the spring point-to-point season when local hunts stage annual races that double as a fundraiser to keep hounds and the “country” in good health. Unfortunately, COVID brought the 2020 Spring racing season in Virginia to a screeching halt after two meets. Rappahannock Hunt made their surprising but welcome revival, following a 12-year hiatus on March 7 when they christened the brand new course at Larry Levy’s The Hill Farm (near Culpeper). Warrenton’s annual point-to-point at Airlie (Warrenton) squeezed in under the wire on March 14. Then there was nothing until June when Middleburg Spring Races and Virginia Gold Cup rescheduled their major meets sanctioned by the National Steeplechase Association.
Jump racing is a heady mixture of fresh air, amazing vistas, gorgeous horses, spectators, officials, participants, and tailgates in a festive atmosphere. It all adds up to a terrific day at the races. You don’t have to know anything about horses to enjoy a day at the races. With social distancing and masks mandated, along with other safety measures for all, such as temperature-taking and signing a COVID waiver for those involved as officials, staff, or participants on arrival, but no spectators are allowed at NSA meets. More than ever, racing is all about the horses.
Horses aren’t something you can take up and then ignore. They require care and attention, 24/7. Horse-people come from all walks of life, but the good ones learn how to how to keep the horses in their care healthy and happy. Of course, the best are often found at the top in both NSA and Point-to-point Foundation standings, and they tend to eat, sleep and breathe horses. Running a racing stable is hard work, but it’s a passion for those who get their greatest enjoyment from seeing the horses in their care do well. Even if they never make it to the winner’s circle, the horses who love their jobs are the greatest in the eyes of their people.
See that photo? This year’s Old Dominion point-to-point at Ben Venue Farm is by Richard Clay Photography about 19 miles out Route 211 from Warrenton. The rolling terrain hides ODH’s timber and hurdle courses’ ups and downs, considered one of the best venues on the circuit. To jump at racing speed over a hurdle or timber jump and land downhill at a gallop is the next best thing to sprouting wings and flying.
Exciting? Heavens, yes! Thoroughbreds can run as fast as 35-40 mph, and many are capable of galloping at even greater speeds for short distances. It’s an exciting finish when horses engage in a stretch duel, racing head to head, striving to be first as they reach for that extra gear while you cheer them home.
Racing returned in September, albeit on a limited basis. The vastly reduced calendar is better than nothing. Two hunt-sponsored point-to-points opened the fall season for enthusiasts. Old Dominion Hounds rescheduled their wildly popular early April races, attended in the past by as many as 10,000 spectators, for September 12, but only 1,000 spectators were allowed, five per tailgate. On the following Saturday, September 19, Waverly Farm again provided a significantly improved stage for the Blue Ridge Hunt Races. Both meets had abundant entries with safety protocols in place according to Virginia’s Phase 3 Opening, which includes temperature checks and a signed COVID waiver upon arrival.
There are three more NSA racing dates in Virginia, all running without spectators: Foxfield Races in Charlotteville on October 4, Middleburg Spring Races at Glenwood Park on October 10, and the International Gold Cup at Great Meadow in The Plains on October 24. The NSA offers live streaming on the day and also video archives.
Meanwhile, check out CentralEntry.com for lots of info on the three’ chasing circuits—Virginia, Maryland, and Delaware Valley. You’ll find plenty of information at NationalSteeplechase.com as well.
Remember: horses are the heart and soul of racing. Support your local pack, go out and walk hounds in the early morning. Many have social memberships. Think about learning to ride if you don’t already, or you’ve been out of the saddle for yonks. Look into joining an owner’s syndicate. You’ll have a blast cheering your horse. Take up photography – awesome action and landscape opportunities. Contribute to one of the 501(c)(3) Thoroughbred and Horse Rescue charities that walk the walk. There are lots of ways to get involved, and you’ll have a good time to boot.
Photo by RichardClayPhotography.com