From the Bay to the Blue Ridge, To the Blue Ridge

Older Women, Younger Whiskey….Faster Horses!

By Julie Reardon

Or is that old Tom T. Hall favorite supposed to be younger women and older whiskey along with the faster horses? Regardless of what attracts a young man’s fancy these days, the  drum of hoof beats kicks off the unofficial start of summer in the Blue Ridge as popular tailgating venues have returned to full swing in horse country after a two season pandemic disruption.

I’ll leave the whiskey discussion to our editors, since I don’t drink and they’ve spent countless hours exploring the distilleries, wineries and breweries cropping up in our area. I’ll just add that this is the first tailgate season that weed has been legal to consume in the Commonwealth so don’t forget to pack the spliffs and the edibles if drinking isn’t your thing.

Although the first Saturday in May, the 7th this year, is Kentucky Derby day for horse racing fans nationally, here in Virginia it’s Gold Cup day. Kentucky’s famous horse race, first run in 1875, may be the country’s best-known equestrian event, George Washington was hunting hounds here in Virginia and colonials were racing horses before Kentucky was even settled. And here in suburban Northern Virginia, the Kentucky Derby is held on Gold Cup day, not the reverse. On May 7th, the Derby will have to share top billing with the Virginia Gold Cup steeplechase race meet, held at Great Meadow, The Plains, VA.

The Fast Horses

With crowds of over 40,000 in attendance, the Gold Cup is to Washington D.C. what the Derby is to Kentucky: a premiere social and sporting events.  Arrangements and tailgating parties are planned months, even years, in advance; prime tailgating and rail side boxes are often passed down in wills.  Pent up demand may equal short supply. Last month’s Middleburg Spring Races sold out the week before race day, so contact the office about online ticket sales and car passes at or calling 540-347-2612.

Blue Ridge-Gold Cup Photo courtesy of

The country’s top steeplechasers aren’t the only fast horses you can see this month. Lighting fast, responsive and keen, able to turn on a dime and anticipate the action, polo horses, called ponies, are just as fun to watch. Polo season in the hunt country gets underway this month also, with the return of the twilight arena polo at Great Meadow Saturday nights and field polo at several locations also starts mid-May. Beginning May 14th, the Great Meadow arena games—usually two matches each evening—start at 7 pm.

Great Meadow, host to the Virginia Gold Cup steeplechase races, is a world class international polo field and during the summer more than 20,000 fans–young professionals as well as families—gather with tailgates and picnics to watch the Twilight Polo program. On selected Friday nights starting May 29th, there is also a Twilight Jumpers program, where tailgaters can watch high jumping show horses compete for prize money. Both events run through mid-September, gates open at 6:30 pm, and admission is $40 per carload, $35 for tickets purchased in advance.  Some of the events feature music and dancing by moonlight afterwards. For a complete schedule, and ticket information, call the Great Meadow event line at (540) 253-5001, or visit:

Photo by Nancy Milburn Kleck

Older (and younger!) Women

What girl aged 8 to 80, hasn’t begged for her very own pony at some point in her life? Little and big girls alike, whether they grew up with horses or only wish they had, will enjoy attending any of a plethora of  horse shows ongoing every weekend in the hunt country. Alas, at press time we learned the memorable Memorial Day weekend hunt country stable tour will be postponed again this year, a victim of not being able to preplan during the pandemic. The sponsoring Trinity Church in Upperville reports that they intend to return in 2023.

Still an important part of the social fabric of rural Virginia, horse shows are held all over the state every weekend, small and large, English and Western, casual and formal. For every horse and rider, there is a class somewhere at a show some place—children too young to ride on their own have “leadline” classes where a parent or adult leads the pony; there are “short stirrup” classes for beginner riders, children’s and adult classes and open classes where anyone, including professionals, can compete. There are classes “in hand” for miniature horses too small to be ridden, young horses and horses being judged on conformation or grooming and presentation; there are trail classes with obstacles the horse and/or rider must navigate; there are equitation classes where the rider is judged, pleasure and hunter classes where the horse is judged on its movement and smoothness, and jumper classes where the horse is penalized for knocking down rails and clear rounds are called back to do a timed jump off. There are also shows for specific breeds and colors of horses, like Tennessee walking horses, Quarter Horses, paints and palominos.

Of all these shows, the hunter and jumper show is probably the most common in the Blue Ridge. These shows can be informal “schooling shows” where many top riders get their start, or rated shows that are run in accordance with the rules of the U.S. Hunter Jumper Foundation. Upperville is an AA rated show, as befits the country’s oldest and one of its most prestigious. Many of the country’s top show hunters and jumpers, and top junior and amateur riders come to compete under the oaks at Upperville, a show that’s long been a favorite of both competitors and spectators. On the grounds there’ll be pony rides, arts and craft exhibits, boutiques, children’s games, and a wide variety of food options all week and preceding the Sunday, June  12th premier event, the $200,000+ FEI (world ranked) Upperville Jumper Classic.

The show is open June 6 through the 12th at 8 a.m. (admission fee; children under 12 accompanied by an adult admitted free). For information or a complete schedule, visit the website

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