From Stables to Strawberries

November 3, 2011

A Spectacular Stable Tour

Just after midnight on March 30, 1970, a large chestnut colt was foaled on a horse farm in Caroline County, VA. Three years later, this colt would become nothing short of a celebrity, electrifying the horse racing world and becoming the ninth horse to win the coveted Triple Crown of thoroughbred racing. His name was, of course, the legendary Secretariat. While many often think of Kentucky as the epicenter of thoroughbred racing, it’s important to remember that many racing champions began their careers and were trained right here in the Commonwealth. There’s no doubt that future champions will also trace their beginnings back to some of Virginia’s most impressive farms and training facilities.

On the weekend of May 29, a handful of Virginia’s top farm owners invite you down their cozy drives and into their stables and training facilities as the Hunt Country Stable Tour celebrates its 51st year. Presented by the Trinity Episcopal Church in Upperville, this self-guided tour is a once-a-year opportunity to visit some of the most remarkable hunter and show jumper barns, breeding farms and polo facilities.

Tickets may be purchased at any of the venues, with the exception of the Stone Bridge over Goose Creek. Be sure to visit the Trinity Episcopal Church and browse the wares of the many vendors at the country fair on the church lawn. Next, follow the map provided with your ticket and make your way through the Middleburg and Upperville area to the various venues on the tour.

One stop on the tour you won’t want to miss is the Middleburg training track, but you’ll have to get there early on Saturday to catch all the action. Bring your camera and grab a rail-side spot as you watch young thoroughbreds rounding the 7/8-mile track during their training sessions. Several champions, including Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner Spectacular Bid, began their training here. Come early, as the horses run before 9 a.m. — and only on Saturday.

Not far from the training track is the Northern Virginia Animal Swim Center and Stables. We all know how beneficial water and swim therapy can be when recovering from surgery or an injury. The same holds true for our equine and canine friends, and what a unique facility they have for just that purpose. The swim center will be open Saturday only, with equine demonstrations throughout the day.

In addition to these training facilities, be sure to make your way to the many beautiful private stables on the tour, including Willow Bend Farm, Windsor Farm, Rock Hill Farm, and Rokeby, just to name a few.

For more information and a complete listing of all venues on the tour, check out

A Delicious Festival

Strawberries: sweet and delicious, they’re one of the first treats of summer and a definite reason for celebration. This delectable snack derived its name from the berries that are “strewn” about on the foliage of the plants. “Strewn berry” eventually became “strawberry,” and the rest is history. In fact, strawberries actually date to medieval times where they symbolized prosperity, peace, and perfection. Today, it’s tradition for spectators to enjoy strawberries and cream between tennis matches at Wimbledon.

This year, beautiful Sky Meadow State Park is once again host to the Delaplane Strawberry Festival on May 29 and 30. Celebrating its 17th year and presented by the Emmanuel Episcopal Church in Delaplane, this festival has something fun for everyone. Catch a hayride through the park, then grab a bite to eat from one of the many food vendors and have a seat on a hay bale as you enjoy some great musical entertainment. Car enthusiasts will enjoy looking at the beautifully presented antique cars from the Bull Run Antique Car Club of America. And of course, there will be strawberries. Buy some to enjoy at the festival, and be sure to pick up some extra to take home. There’s no shortage of fun for the young ones either. Pony rides, a 4-H petting zoo, puppet shows, jugglers, clowns and children’s games are just some of the activities on tap to make this a special day for the kids.

For additional information about the festival, visit

The Upperville Colt & Horse Show

I look forward to the first full week of June every year. My colleagues automatically know I will be out of the office that week — on vacation, but not out of town. I’ll be where many horse lovers and enthusiasts will be: in beautiful Upperville, VA, just an hour outside of Washington, at the one and only Upperville Colt and Horse Show. For me, this event is nothing short of a full blown therapy session — but without all the psychobabble. The sights and sounds of the hustle and bustle around the show grounds renew my spirits and senses like nothing else can — the smell of the fresh horse stall bedding, the sound of the farrier’s hammer carefully shaping a horse shoe, and the gentle non-verbal conversation between horse and rider as they make their way through the course. It is truly magical and makes me anxiously anticipate my arrival at the barn every evening to tend to my own horses.

Celebrating its 157th year, the oldest horse show in the United States is set to run June 7 through 13. Attracting competitors from all over the United States and abroad, Upperville boasts seven full days of exciting hunter, jumper and breeder competitions.

Hunters and Jumpers
The term “hunters” refers to horses that participate in the sport of fox hunting, including their manners, ability to jump and how well they maintain a steady pace as they encounter each jump or “fence.” The criteria they are judged upon in the various hunter competitions or “classes” relates to the traits they must demonstrate to be successful in the hunt field. With hunters, it’s all about their style and stride. Some hunter classes also judge the horse’s body structure, which is referred to as its “conformation.”

Speed, stamina, and the ability to clear the course obstacles are what count in the various jumper classes. This is no easy feat, considering many of the jumps are three feet six inches to five or more feet tall, with spreads of up to six feet. Unlike the hunter classes, style, pace, and manners are not important, and are not judged. What matters is that horse and rider complete the course in as little time as possible without knocking down any of the obstacles.

A Week Under the Oaks
This year, the competition begins Monday, June 7 on what many refer to as “locals’ day” at the show, with the majority of hunter classes offered that day restricted to horses owned by residents of counties within a 60-mile radius of Upperville. Compared to the rest of show week, it’s a somewhat quieter day, perfect for kicking back in the newly renovated grandstand and taking it all in as the horses and riders leap through the hunter course under the beautiful and majestic hundred-year-old oaks of Grafton Farm. It’s also a great time for shopping. While some vendors are in the process of setting up their displays for the week, there are many that are already up and running and ready for business. It’s the perfect opportunity to pick up that one-of-a-kind item before it’s scooped up by other shoppers later in the week.

A full schedule of hunter classes are on tap for Tuesday, and the action kicks into high gear as the jumper classes begin across the street amid the rolling green terrain of Salem Farm. In the afternoon, the Founder’s Cup, restricted to horses bred and foaled in Virginia, honors the memory of Colonel Richard Henry Dulany — an avid horseman and the driving force behind the establishment of the Upperville Colt and Horse Show. One of the many highlights on Wednesday’s schedule of events is the “Paul and Eve Go as You Please Handy Hunter” class, held in memory of Paul and Eve Fout, two of Virginia’s most prominent and accomplished equestrians. On Thursday, the ponies come out to strut their stuff. Unbelievably adorable and the dream of many little girls, you won’t want to miss these pint-sized equines with over-the-top personalities. Don’t worry if you miss the ponies on Thursday — you’ll have the opportunity to catch them on Friday and Saturday too.

The weekend, of course, tends to draw the largest crowds, so plan to come early and spend the day. There’s plenty to see and do, and once you get there, you won’t want to leave soon anyway. Saturday morning features the Cleveland Bay breeder classes, and the ever-so-elegant ladies’ side saddle classes. Come see Upperville’s youngest riders (ages one to six years) make their appearance in the leadline competition on Saturday afternoon. With an adult handler keeping the pony in check, you won’t be able to stop smiling as you watch these young riders — dressed in proper attire, of course — make their way around the ring. On Sunday morning, additional breeder classes are scheduled, including those featuring the Irish Draught breed. The classic sport of carriage driving also takes center stage on Sunday with the Carriage Driving Grand Prix and the Concours d’Elegance.

The week-long event culminates Sunday afternoon with the Budweiser Upperville Jumper Classic. Not to be missed, this challenge features many of the top riders in the world. Bring a picnic of your own, or pick up something to eat from the food vendors at the show. Then grab a spot on the lawn overlooking the course and get ready for an exciting, hold-your-breath type of contest amid a colorful and extremely challenging course. It’s the perfect way to end an extraordinary week of competition. The only downside? Well, the show is held only once a year. But, like me, I’m willing to bet you’ll be looking forward to next year’s show before you leave your parking space.

For a complete schedule of events and information, check out their Web site at

Upcoming Events
The summer season in hunt country is kicking into full gear. Here’s just a few of the many upcoming events you may want to consider adding to your calendar.

Vintage Virginia Wine Festival
June 5 and 6, 2010
11 a.m. to 6 p.m.
Bull Run Regional Park Special Events Center
Centreville, VA

Magnolias at the Mill Beer Festival
June 17, 2010
Magnolias at the Mill
Purcellville, VA

Twilight Polo at Great Meadow
Every Saturday through September 18, 2010
6:30 p.m.
The Plains, VA

Fourth of July at Great Meadow
July 4, 2010
The Plains, VA
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Steeplechase Races

Following is a sampling of the race meets and point-to-points scheduled for the spring of 2010. For a complete list of Virginia’s 2010 steeplechase events, visit the Virginia Steeplechase Association’s Web site at

Warrenton Hunt Point-to-Point
Saturday, March 13, 12:30 p.m.
Airlie Race Course
Warrenton, VA

Piedmont Fox Hounds Point-to-Point
Saturday, March 20, 1 p.m.
Salem Course
Upperville, VA

Bull Run Hunt Point-to-Point
Sunday, March 21, 12:30 p.m.
Brandywine Park
Culpeper, VA

Orange County Hunt Point-to-Point
Sunday, March 28, 1 p.m.
Locust Hill Farm
Middleburg, VA

Old Dominion Hounds Point-to-Point
Saturday, April 3, 12 p.m.
Ben Venue Farm
Washington, VA
540-364-4573, 540-636-1507

Loudoun Hunt Point-to-Point
Sunday, April 11, 12:30 p.m.
Oatlands Plantation
Leesburg, VA
703-777-8480, 540-338-4031

Middleburg Spring Race Meet
Saturday, April 17 1 p.m.
Glenwood Park
Middleburg, VA
540-687-6545, 540-687-6595

Fairfax Hunt Point-to-Point
Sunday, April 18, 1:30 p.m.
Morven Park
Leesburg, VA

Middleburg Hunt Point-to-Point
Sunday, April 25, 1 p.m.
Glenwood Park
Middleburg, VA
540-454-2991, 540-687-6069

Virginia Gold Cup Race Meet
Saturday, May 1, 1 p.m.
Great Meadow
The Plains, VA

It’s Steeplechase Season!

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.