History, Horses and Spring Racing Season

By Julie Reardon


History, Horses and Spring Racing Season


A favorite spring ritual begins this month, when the point to point season starts. All winter, an army of volunteers have been planning for these events, getting the courses ready, arranging logistics, manning the phones and websites, renting the tents and assigning jobs on race day. Owners, trainers and jockeys—sometimes, for a one- or two-horse stable these three hats may all be worn by the same person—have been readying their horses and getting them fit. Many of the horses were “foxhunted” regularly; many miles of cross country riding up and down hills and on dirt roads are necessary to build endurance for racing over fences, since these races are usually two to three times longer, and over more demanding terrain, than flat races. When the bad weather arrives, trainers and riders get creative; some find indoor arenas, some use a local equine swimming pool, and some just brave the snow drifts.


All the local point to point race meets are put on by the area fox hunting clubs and serve as their major annual fundraisers to pay staff salaries and feed hounds. The meets are not sanctioned, as are the later steeplechase races governed by the National Steeplechase Association, but they follow roughly the same format, and the same horses that compete in the latter, usually get their start at the point to point meets. The early meets, in particular, offer a close up look at some of the top Thoroughbreds tuning up for the rich purses at the prestigious NSA steeplechase races held later in the spring, in Virginia and elsewhere. Once called the “pots and pans” circuit, the point to point races rarely offer purse money, but the trophies and bragging rights are no less coveted.


Steeplechasing has its origins in the hunt field, to answer the challenge of “my horse can beat your horse.” By most accounts the first steeplechase race was held in County Cork, Ireland in 1752 when one Mr. O’Callaghan challenged a Mr. Edmund Blake to a match race, covering approximately 4 ½ miles and ending at a church whose tower was known as St. Leger Steeple. While there’s no record of who won this race, the idea caught on as a way to settle the question of who had the fastest horse and quickly spread to England. Church steeples provided the most prominent landmarks for these early races, and from the chase to the steeple came the name steeplechase. By the end of the century, the match races had grown to include more than just two contestants, although it wasn’t until 1810 that they would be held on a course instead of cross country.


Horses have been a way of life in Virginia since early colonial times, first arriving from England with settlers in 1609. But those horses were used for food, not sport, as those early settlers were forced to eat them during the brutal winter of 1609-10. By the early 1700s, more settlers and their horses had arrived and the horse became the primary means of transportation, as well as an outlet for sport. Some of the settlers brought over their hounds and began foxhunting in Virginia—George Washington was a foxhunter–and a long tradition of racing had begun, including racing over fences.

Despite its rich history, Thoroughbred racing on the flat in Virginia fell victim to state restrictions on pari-mutuel wagering as well as the competition from and growth of other spectator sports, and for many years, Virginia did not have a flat track, although many champions, including Triple Crown winner Secretariat, were bred here. Steeplechasing was never dependent on betting for its fan base, so it continued to flourish. When voters approved limited areas for off track betting and pari-mutuel wagering, the state’s only flat track, Colonial Downs, opened in New Kent County in 1997 to rave reviews from horsemen. But the track struggled to break even despite holding flat, steeplechase and harness races. Facing an uncertain future, it closed in 2014.


While there may no longer be a flat track, racing over fences continues in the spring and fall with a heavy concentration of meets in the northern Blue Ridge area. Most are an easy drive from the Beltway, and there are enough among them to satisfy any horse fan as well as delight some new to the sport. Each meet has a slightly different flavor. The early meets in March tend to be smaller and more casual; dress is weather dependent and the tailgates are more likely to be simple, easily stowed inside the vehicle should wind or weather arise, rather than the elaborate spreads with centerpieces, fine linens and silver such as you might see at the later meets and the big sanctioned races. The later meets, held in more agreeable spring weather, is when the Easter bonnets and fine linens come out; and the NSA sanctioned meets have the corporate sponsors and party tents and usually many more attendees. The March meets, too, occasionally have had to be rescheduled due to snow storms—so it’s always a good idea to call if the weather is questionable.


The season starts Saturday March 12th with the 67th running of the Blue Ridge Hunt point to point at Woodley Plantation near Berryville. Post time for the first race is 12:30; there will be races over hurdles, timber and on the flat. Woodley is a beautiful old brick manor house on 300 acres in the northern Shenandoah Valley about forty minutes west of Middleburg. The action moves to Warrenton the following weekend, where the Warrenton Hunt hosts its’ point to point at Airlie Saturday, March 19th. Post time is noon for the first race. A complete schedule is attached; most meets charge about $20 a car for general admission and have reserved tailgating spaces available for purchase. If you go, remember that the race meets are held in farm fields, so appropriate dress and a four wheel drive vehicle are a must.

Point to Point Schedule
Saturday, March 12
12:00 noon

Blue Ridge Hunt Point to Point
Woodley Farm, Berryville, Virginia
(540) 550-7015
(703) 509-4499
Sunday, March 13
12:00 noon

Blue Ridge Hunt Hunter Pace Events
Woodley Farm, Berryville, Virginia
(540) 687-5449
(540) 247-3449
Saturday, March 19
12:30 pm

Warrenton Hunt Point to Point
Airlie Race Course, Warrenton, Virginia
(540) 270-1730
Sunday, March 20
1:00 pm

Warrenton Hunt Hunter Pace Events
To be decided.
(540) 229-6679
Saturday, March 26
9:30 am

Piedmont Fox Hounds Hunter Pace Events
Salem Course, Upperville, Virginia
(540) 454-7896
Saturday, March 26
1:00 pm

Piedmont Fox Hounds Point to Point
Salem Course, Upperville, Virginia
(540) 592-7100
Saturday, April 2
9:00 am

Orange County Hounds Hunter Pace Events
Locust Hill Farm, Middleburg, Virginia
(540) 253-5566
Sunday, April 3
1:00 pm

Orange County Hounds Point to Point
Locust Hill Farm, Middleburg, Virginia
(540) 687-5552
Saturday, April 9
12:00 noon

Old Dominion Hounds Point to Point
Ben Venue Farm, Ben Venue, Virginia
(540) 364-4573
(540) 636-1507
Sunday, April 10
1:00 pm

Old Dominion Hounds Hunter Pace Events
Ben Venue Farm, Ben Venue, Virginia
(540) 364-4573
(540) 636-1507
Sunday, April 17
12:00 noon

Loudoun Hunt Point to Point
Oatlands Plantation, Leesburg, Virginia
(540) 338-4031
Saturday, April 23
12:00 noon

Rappahannock Hunt Hunter Pace Events
Greenwood Farm, Washington VA
(540) 547-2810
(540) 229-7752
Saturday, April 23
1:30 pm

Middleburg Spring Races
Glenwood Park, Middleburg, Virginia
(540) 687-6545
(504) 687-6595
Saturday, April 30
10:00 am

Loudoun Fairfax Hunt Hunter Pace Events
Rolling Meadow Farm, Philomont, Virginia
(703) 887-2711
Saturday, April 30
1:00 pm

Foxfield Spring Races
Charlottesville, Virginia
(434) 293-9501
Sunday, May 1
1:00 pm

Middleburg Hunt Point to Point
Glenwood Park, Middleburg, Virginia
(540) 687-6069
(540) 454-2991
Saturday, May 7
1:00 pm

Virginia Gold Cup Races
Great Meadow, The Plains, Virginia
(540) 347-2612


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