Spring Guide to Hunt Country Jump Racing
By Julie Reardon
Point to point season kicks off this month in the Blue Ridge!
Our mild winter, balmy spring days in January and February bode well for the spring point to point and steeplechase season here in the Blue Ridge hunt country. And, there’s no better cure for a little cabin fever than taking in some world class racing action over fences just an hour from Washington D.C. It all starts Saturday, March 4 with on the circuit’s newest course in rural Culpeper County hosting the Rappahannock Hunt Point to Point Races. Rappahannock Hunt’s races have long been a favorite fixture on the early spring circuit but had a 12 year hiatus searching for a new course until 2020 when the new location opened for business. And it may be the circuit’s prettiest course, located in the shadow of some of the best Blue Ridge views around in Boston, Va., at the Hill Farm.
The Rappahannock Hunt season opener is already a winner with both fans and horsemen, not only for the views but the careful attention paid to making the course and grounds inviting for both horses and people. The Hill Farm has a long history of hosting fox hunts and not surprisingly, hunting owner Larry Levy has also trained and ridden races. It’s near the Culpeper/Rappahannock county line about halfway between Culpeper and Sperryville. Officials report due to its instant popularity, reserved railside party spots are selling briskly but it still remains one of the best general admission viewing course and starting at $10, is a bargain. Gates open at 10 am on March 4th (rain date March 11) for the first race at noon. For up to the minute details visit the hunt’s website at www.RappahannockHunt.com or their Facebook page. The next race on the schedule is Warrenton Hunt’s point to point held at Airlie on March 18th.
Point to point races are the minor leagues of steeplechasing, or racing over fences, a sport popular in our state since colonial times. These races have 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 hunting horse. Now, as back then, horses still race over natural countryside and farmland and jump natural obstacles, although courses are set up so spectators can see all or most of the race from the sidelines or the infield. Later in the spring, races are sanctioned by the National Steeplechase Association and offer cash purses and in some locations, pari-mutuel wagering, but the feeder program for these prestigious races is the local point to point circuit, with none bigger and more competitive than Virginia’s.
The local hunt clubs are the backbone and the labor force of the point to points in Virginia, where clubs sponsor race meets in the spring. Foxhunting clubs are mostly subscription-based but for most, their point to point is the major source of income to offset the costs of maintaining a kennel of hounds, horses, trucks, trailers and tractors as well as associated feed, veterinary and staff expenses. Every hunt member, including non-riding social members, volunteers for the myriad tasks involved, from entries, hospitality tents, parking, programs and admissions, and course maintenance—no small task, since most of the “courses” are actually cow pastures.
These meets, long referred to as the “pots and pans” circuit, are considered “unsanctioned” and offer little or no prize money—horses race for bragging rights, trophies and season-end awards. But the competition is nevertheless fierce; point to points provide an important training ground for horses and riders that will go on to run in the bigger national races sanctioned by the sport’s governing body, the NSA, such as the Virginia Gold Cup. For the fans, the point to points offer the fans a chance to see the action up close and rub elbows with the owners, trainers and riders.
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. Admission starts at just $10 per person at the Rappahannock Hunt’s March 4th races; a variety of reserved railside tailgating spaces and tent rentals are available by advance reservation at most.
If you go to just one, we suggest Rappahannock Hunt’s races. “He [the 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 a Rappahannock Hunt race committee co-chair. “We’re having good food, too,” she added. “While many prepare and bring their own tailgate picnics, several food trucks will be offering delicious on site fare. Really good stuff, like fried chicken, macaroni and cheese, good old country cooking.”
Race day attire is country casual; these March race meets are not as much about high fashion’s latest trends as they are about being warm and comfortable for early or variable spring weather. Head gear and footwear tend to be practical rather than fanciful. Admission prices vary for each race meet, most offer discounted pricing for advance ticket purchase and general admission on race day. Visit their websites if available or call the listed numbers for specific questions. Races are generally run rain or shine but unusually wet or inclement weather has been known to force postponement or even cancellation; if any questions visit the website or call the information number listed for each race.
For information and the race schedule log on to http://www.centralentryoffice.com/calendar.aspx.