The Middleburg Spring Races will be run at Glenwood Park on Saturday, April 20. The event, more than 100 years old, is the equestrian highlight of the year for many of the 600 or so residents of the charming and historic Virginia hamlet. It also attracts thousands of visitors from near and far.
The setting is bucolic: the 12-acre equestrian park, some 20 miles from Middleburg, is in the midst of rolling green hills. Tailgaters start gathering around 11 a.m. on race day. They set up tables, often with elaborate settings — “bouquets of flowers and buffets of grilled meats, tender asparagus and other crudités, plus beautiful cakes and cookies,” Lauren Wilcox, volunteer chairwoman since 1998, told The Georgetowner.
“Reservations for tailgate places also give the subscribers access to the paddocks where the race horses are saddled and prepared about half an hour before each race,” Wilcox said. “But what is most wonderful at Glenwood Park is that everyone, whether in the reserved areas or not, can see the entire race. The lay of the land falls away from the flat picnic and parking areas so that everyone can see the entire race field.”
The seven races are each different and exciting, notes Wilcox, who has owned, bred and raced many steeplechase and hunter mounts for decades. They differ widely depending on the length of the course and the type of jumps, horses and riders.
The brush races are about 2.5 miles over 14 hedge jumps. “It’s about speed, not clean jumping,” Wilcox explained. “The horses are allowed to jump low and broad, to brush the hedge jumps with their bellies, as they go for speed not height.”
The biggest race of the day, the Temple Gwathmey hurdle race over a brush course, has a $75,000 purse. “It’s an historic brush race that was run long ago in Belmont,” Wilcox said. “It journeyed to other tracks in Pennsylvania for a while until Doug Fout, the Spring Races president, was able to bring it to Glenwood Park. Now it draws some of the best steeplechase mounts in the country.”
The timber races are over wood fences, along a three-and-a-quarter-mile course with 18 jumps that the horses must jump clean. “No horse wants to hit their hooves on the fences,” Wilcox said knowingly.
“And while some fences will yield to a horse’s low jump, others won’t.”
The Middleburg Hunt Cup is an open timber race. “That means that the horses are the best jumpers in the country with an ‘open’ designation,” said Wilcox — something like a zero-handicap golfer who gets no special allowances.
The third type of steeple race is the most exciting, according to Wilcox. It’s a mixed course of brush and timber and can include water, large logs and other obstacles. It is sometimes referred to as a New Zealand course. “While most horses are specialists — brush or timber — horses who jump in the New Zealand courses have to be able to do all well.”
And there are other events that fill the day’s “race card,” such as apprentice races for riders wanting to experience steeplechasing. Many of them have ridden in informal point-to point, non-timed jump course events in local equestrian meets since they were children, also riding with local fox hunt clubs in the area.
“I started fox hunting at age 12 and rode point-to-point, hunter and other horse show events for the next seven decades,” said octogenarian Middleburger Jimmy Hatcher. “It’s all complicated and takes a long time to explain.” Hatcher then gamely proceeded to educate a Georgetowner reporter who asked impossibly simple questions.
“How high are the average steeple race jumps?” “Three to three and a half feet. It varies,” answered Hatcher. “What happens when a wooden fence doesn’t yield?” “The horse falls down!” “Do you still ride?” “No,” he sighed. “I just keep and feed several horses.”
“The Middleburg Spring Races are special in that it draws a lot of local and area people who are friends and neighbors we don’t see regularly,” commented Wilcox. “For Middleburg’s horse people, the Spring Races are the highlight.”
Gates for parking and set-up open at 10 a.m. on race day. At 11:30 a.m., there are stick pony races for the children and at 2:30 pm. a hat contest for those sporting imaginative toppers known as “fascinators.” Post time for the first race is 1 p.m., with paddock check-in and viewing a half-hour earlier. The gates close at 6 p.m.
The Middleburg Spring Races is a nonprofit organization. Proceeds benefit animal welfare groups and the Inova Loudoun Hospital.
“There are still some reserved enclosure parking tickets available, as well as general admission. Best to get them online,” said Wilcox. Prices range from $25 per person up to $75. For details, visit middleburgspringraces.com.