As someone who adores all manner of equestrian events, I was delighted to receive an invitation to what’s called the Spring Race Meeting in Middleburg, Virginia, taking place on April 21. On March 16, I took a jaunt to the country for a preview.
The Middleburg Spring Race Association has been operating Virginia’s oldest steeplechase for nearly 100 years. The organization is based in a modest office in downtown Middleburg. Its president, Doug Fout, a champion racer and trainer, regaled me with stories of selling horses to his family friend Jackie (yes, that one) and being launched from his saddle like a rocket after his horse was spooked by a spectator. Fortunately, he escaped near disaster without any broken bones, but his front teeth were a different matter.
I learned that this is what makes the event so special: the stories, the characters and especially the love of country life and horses. People risk their lives for it.
The Gold Cup and the Kentucky Derby attract thousands of revelers, mainly for the drinking and socializing. The Spring Race Meeting — which benefits Inova Loudoun Hospital, Glenwood Park Trust and local charities — is a smaller, more insular affair, almost like a very affluent family reunion.
I’m told that attendees can easily spot someone “from away” by their fascinators and stilettos. Spring Race regulars are more likely seen in tweed blazers and sensible boots or flats. The odd Hermès scarf and the hat competition are the only fashion indulgences.
This ecosystem even has its own vocabulary, and you best learn the basics, I was told, or be branded (heaven forbid) “from away.” For example, a “maiden” is a horse that has never won a race. And you don’t call the place where the equines saddle up a “barn” — it’s a “paddock.”
What people are really here to see is the $50,000 Temple Gwathmey Grade III Handicap Hurdle Race, which is, if you can’t tell by its uber-macho title, a really big deal.
On the way down, I stopped at Greenhill Winery and Vineyards, where a special breed of cattle, the Charolais from France’s Burgundy region, graze beneath American and French flags. If you’re a teetotaler like me and want to skip the tasting rooms, sit in one of the lawn chairs and take in the postcard Loudoun County scenery.
Once you arrive in Middleburg, I highly recommend the burger and fries at King Street Oyster Bar, with a nice glass of Pilsner. Middleburg has ventured outside all-American fare and high-end game at the Red Fox Inn by opening Red Bar Sushi on East Washington Street and Thaiverse on South Madison.
I never get tired of the bar at the Salamander Resort and Spa. The doormen set the hospitable tone from the moment they greet you. The fires are always going, even when there’s the slightest chill, and “Cupcake,” the Salamander’s house pony, sometimes holds court in the main hall. The guest dogs (the hotel takes pride in being canine-friendly) can never figure out if he’s friend or foe, but the kids love him.
Perhaps Middleburg’s most endearing gem is the National Sporting Library & Museum, which has promoted the art and culture of equestrianism and field sports since 1954. See exquisite works by Sir Alfred Munnings, a mammoth sculpture of a horse’s head or a simple painting of a spaniel. On April 13, the museum will open an exhibition of British sporting art from the collection of the late Virginia legend Paul Mellon, on loan from the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts.