Perhaps it was a friendly wager over a pint of ale after a rigorous day of fox hunting through the Irish countryside. No one is quite certain, and history is vague as to the outcome. What we do know is that the sport of steeplechase, with its roots firmly embedded in fox hunting, began over 250 years ago when Cornelius O’Callaghan challenged his neighbor and fellow horseman, Edmund Blake, to a match race from St. John’s Church in Buttevant to St. Mary’s Church in Doneraile, County Cork, Ireland. Taking the most direct route from point to point, or in this case steeple to steeple, the four and a half-mile contest on horseback required that the horsemen traverse challenging fences, ditches, stone walls and other obstacles found in the terrain. The sport derived its name from this early “chase” from steeple to steeple, and the obstacles that the riders had to overcome as they raced through the countryside evolved into the hurdle and timber fences we see on today’s steeplechase courses.
Steeplechase eventually made its way to the United States in the 1800s, becoming a popular sport particularly on the East Coast. Today, the National Steeplechase Association, located in Fair Hill, MD, is the official sanctioning body of steeplechase horse racing in America. Races are generally classed as either a hurdles race or a timbers race. Hurdle races usually cover a distance slightly over two miles, with horse and rider leaping over obstacles that are constructed of natural or synthetic brush-like material standing four feet, six inches tall at their highest point. Timber races, typically longer in distance and considered more difficult than hurdles, are run over wooden rail fences of varying height, which are not as forgiving. Horses participating in steeplechase must be thoroughbreds, a minimum of three years of age, and registered with The Jockey Club.
This year, more than twenty race meets and point-to-points will be run in Virginia, giving spectators ample opportunity to experience this exciting sport. Enjoyed not only for the thrill of the race, steeplechase is the perfect occasion to tailgate with friends, engage in some merry-making, and enjoy the beautiful venues that so graciously open their gates to race fans and horse lovers of all ages. For many, the races are an annual tradition that is eagerly awaited as soon as winter temperatures give way to more temperate weather.
Attracting more than 50,000 spectators each year to Great Meadow in The Plains, the Virginia Gold Cup Race Meet is one of the most popular and highly anticipated springtime events in the Washington D.C. area. Saturday, May 1 marks the 85th running of the event, which this year flaunts an impressive total purse of $185,000 that will be shared among four hurdle races and two timber races, including the prestigious $75,000 Virginia Gold Cup. While fashion tends to run the entire spectrum at most steeplechase events, the Virginia Gold Cup is renowned for its spectators looking as if they’ve just stepped out of the pages of Town and Country or been dressed personally by Ralph Lauren. Hats atop perfectly coiffed hair rival those seen at the Kentucky Derby, which, coincidentally, is run the same day. Not surprisingly, corporate events on Members Hill, as well as tailgate gatherings along the rail, often reflect the same sense of impeccable style; gourmet fare, fine linens, china, silver, and flower arrangements with every petal in place. Make sure you arrive early enough to catch the Jack Russell Terrier races and spend some time on vendor row shopping for that perfect rail-side gift.
If you prefer steeplechase on a slightly more intimate scale, mark your calendar for the 89th running of the Middleburg Spring Race Meet on Saturday, April 17. Glenwood Park, located in Middleburg — the heart of hunt country — will open its gates at 10 a.m. to welcome race fans to the oldest sanctioned steeplechase event in Virginia. Unobstructed panoramic views of the racecourse ensure that spectators won’t miss a hoof beat. Make sure you bring your camera, as you are guaranteed photo opportunities you’ll not want to miss. The Temple Gwathmey, one of the country’s oldest hurdle races and featured event at this meet, boasts a $50,000 purse this year. Six additional races — three over hurdles, two over timber, and one training race on the flat — round out the day’s total purse of $140,000. Between races, take a break from your picnic or tailgate and make your way over to the paddock area where you can check out the flurry of activity as the horses warm up and await their jockeys for the next race. This event promises a day of great racing against the backdrop of the upscale country elegance Middleburg always delivers.
The Virginia Gold Cup and Middleburg Spring Races are just two of the many steeplechase events held each year in Virginia. In addition to race meets sanctioned by the National Steeplechase Association, many area hunt clubs organize point-to-point races at various locations throughout the Commonwealth. Whether your calendar permits you to attend a race meet or point-to-point, be assured that neither will disappoint.
Some things to consider as you plan for your day at the races:
• Races run rain or shine, although in cases of severe weather, they may be cancelled. Check the Web site or phone the contact number for your particular race if you are unsure as to whether the event will be held.
• Consider fashion and comfort as you determine your attire for the day. While the tendency is to consider fashion first — and understandably so — the weather, of course, should be the primary factor in determining your selection. Early in the season, when chilly temperatures may prevail, ladies may want to consider slacks and a stylish blouse with a tweed blazer. In warmer weather, steeplechase races are the ideal occasion to show off that perfect little sundress. If you’re considering heels, think wedge heels. Stilettos and spike heels will make for a difficult and unpleasant time on the turf. Hats, of course, are always in style, so go for it, don’t be shy. Men usually can’t go wrong with khaki pants and a blazer, although at particular events, some may choose a sport coat and tie. If the weather seems uncertain, remember to bring appropriate outerwear.
• If invited to a tailgate, be sure to ask your host what you can bring. Beverages and desserts are always welcome, and if by chance you’ll be engaging in some friendly wagering at the tailgate, don’t forget to bring some cash. Corporate gatherings are generally catered, so just arrive and enjoy the fun.
• Allow ample time to arrive at your destination. Traffic in and around race venues will more than likely be somewhat congested, so allow extra time.
How fortunate we are to have access to a sport so entrenched in history and steeped in tradition. Take a moment and imagine all that goes into this effort — the support of the owners, the untiring work of the trainers, jockeys and grooms, and the skill and athletic prowess of that magnificent animal we call the horse. As you raise your glass to toast a day at the races, listen carefully, and in the distance, you just may hear the steeple bells of St. Mary’s Church as Mr. O’Callaghan and Mr. Blake race to the finish.
Check out a schedule of Virginia’s upcoming races here.