Spring Fever- Racing Over Fences Starts March 5th
By Julie Reardon
It surely doesn’t feel like spring in February, with no signs other than a lonely crocus or two struggling up through the snow. But there are signs. The sun rising earlier and setting later as daylight gradually increases. The occasional taste of warmth on a bright sunny day. We know it’s coming: the hunt country’s harbinger of spring – opening of the point to point season. For true horse lovers, those suffering from cabin fever, and those looking for a social distancing-friendly country outing, there’s nothing like the early race meets in March. These races tend to be smaller more informal affairs but there’s no shortage of equine talent as the country’s top steeplechasers as well as hot young prospects make their debut racing over fences after a winter layoff.
This year’s season opener is Saturday March 5th at a new venue on the calendar. The Rappahannock Hunt races opens the 2022 season at The Hill, a spectacular 600-acre farm just north of the town of Culpeper. Post time for the card of races over fences and on the flat is 1 pm, gates open at 10 am. Rain date is Saturday, March 12.
With over $4 million in total purses, meets in 12 states, and millions of spectators, steeplechasing is big business. Some of the best horses and horsemen thoroughbred racing has to offer race over fences, and it all starts right here in Virginia next month. The governing body, the National Steeplechase Association, sanctions the big meets later in the spring, including the best known Virginia Gold Cup races in May. But point to points, run under rules similar to the NSA, are where it all starts for both horses and riders and offer a wonderful social outing for fans as well. Virginia holds more meets than any other state during the season and most are about a scenic, hour-long drive from the DC area.
Both serious fans and casual spectators are able to get closer to the action and rub elbows with owners, trainers and riders as well as the local landed gentry starting March 5th. Their new course, established in 2020, provides arguably the best views on the circuit. Snow and cold weather are par for the course at the early meets — but part of the fun, too. Dress warmly (fashionable attire takes a back seat to comfort) and pack plenty of adult antifreeze in your tailgate. Plan to rub elbows with local celebrities in a way you can’t at the larger spring meets – that is, if you recognize them under their winter layers!
Admission fees are generally less than half of what the big sanctioned races cost, and most of the courses offer spectacular scenic views of the racing as well as the iconic Blue Ridge splendor in the background. Rappahannock’s season opener has a variety of reserved railside tailgating spaces and tent rentals are available by advance reservation as well. (Call 540-222-9887 or email firstname.lastname@example.org for info) The location, at the Hill farm between Culpeper and Sperryville, has a long history of sport with horse and hound, and has been a long time favorite fixture for hunting for its rural beauty and sweeping vistas. The farm owner, himself a horseman and active participant in racing over fences as an owner, trainer and rider, has worked hard to install a first class course in a splendid little valley with sweeping views of not only the entire course, but the panoramic mountain vistas.
“He [Hill farm owner Larry Levy] has pulled out the stops to make it perfect. You drive through the beautiful, pristine farm to get to it, and it’s in a natural bowl, with parking on three of the four sides of it. All will have really good views of the course,” said Rappahannock Hunt’s Barton Hitchcock, race committee co-chair. In addition to general admission parking, tailgating spaces and party tents are available to reserve for tailgate parking. “We’re having good food, too,” Hitchcock added; and said there would be plenty of food trucks and vendors, if visitors don’t want to bring their own.
Rappahannock’s general admission is $10, and tailgate party spaces are available by advance reservation. Having your vehicle railside provides a place to warm up should the weather be inclement. And should you wish to invite a bunch of friends, books of admission tickets are available at discounted prices prior to Feb. 22; go to the hunt’s website at www.RappahannockHunt.com for information.
Point to point races are the minor leagues of steeplechasing, or racing over fences, a sport popular in our state since colonial times. It has its roots in the hunt field–hundreds of years ago, a pair of Irish foxhunters raced cross country using a church steeple as a landmark, to settle the question of who had the faster foxhunter.
The local hunt clubs are still the backbone of the sport here in Virginia, where each sponsors a race meet every weekend in the spring. For most foxhunting clubs, their point to point is a major fundraiser to offset maintaining a kennel of hounds and paying for staff, vehicles, and insurance. The pandemic cancelled most meets in 2020 and 2021, although some larger meets were held with no spectators or fans allowed. Cancellation of the hunt meets was particularly devastating because these races depend on spectators. In inclement weather, call the information number listed below; if a meet is cancelled or postponed, the hunt will have a recorded message.
SPRING RACE SCHEDULE 2022
Saturday, March 5 1:00 p.m.
RAPPAHANNOCK HUNT POINT-TO-POINT
13257 Durante’s Curve, Boston VA
Information (540) 222-9887
Saturday, March 12 1:00 pm
RAIN DATE FOR RAPPAHANNOCK POINT-TO-POINT
Woodley Farm, Berryville
Information (540) 837-2262 (h)
Saturday, March 19 12.30 p.m.
WARRENTON HUNT POINT-TO-POINT
Airlie Race Course, Warrenton
Information (540) 219-1400