Party Hats, Tailgating, Whiskey and Fast Horses
By Julie Reardon
Kentucky may have its Derby and celebrities preening for national news in their party hats sipping mint juleps, but in Virginia, the first Saturday in May has always been about the Virginia Gold Cup. And the hats are just as fine. With Virginia’s only flat track open for its boutique summer season, Virginia’s love affair with horses runs longer and deeper than Kentucky’s. We’re starting to produce some decent whiskey locally and young girls still hope to find a pony under the Christmas tree, so the cowboy ballad by the legendary Tom T. Hall about older whiskey, younger women and faster horses could have been written about our state. Kentucky’s famous horse race, first run in 1875, may be the country’s best-known equestrian event, but 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 Saturday May 6th, the Derby will have to share top billing with the Virginia Gold Cup steeplechase race meet, held at Great Meadow, The Plains, VA.
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 railside boxes are often passed down in wills. Good ones are usually sold out long before race day. You can, however, still get general admission tickets up until race day starting at $100 for a car pass that admits 6 by contacting www.VAGOLDCUP.com or calling 540-347-2612. If you have been invited to a party on Members Hill, there is a dress code you’re expected to adhere to, “afternoon dress” including hats for ladies; flat shoes are encouraged, and sport coats for men. Shorts are discouraged. Dress is slightly more casual in the general admission section. Dogs are not allowed and there are no food vendors, so pack a tailgate to bring.
The country’s top steeplechasers aren’t the only fast horses you can see this month. Lightning 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 on Saturday nights starting May 27th. Gates open at 5:30 pm and the first of 3 matches begins at 6. Great Meadow, host to the Virginia Gold Cup steeplechase races, has an outdoor polo field too and you can find a schedule of those daytime games on their website or Facebook page. The twilight arena series is very popular with locals and Washingtonians alike; 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 the arena hosts its popular Twilight Jumpers program, where tailgaters can watch high jumping show horses compete for prize money. Both events run through mid-September. General admission for the twilight polo is $25 per car and reserved tailgating spaces are available. 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: www.greatmeadow.org
Culpeper is home to Belmont Farm Distillery in the history-rich Cedar Mountain area, and this distillery produces some fine aged whiskeys along with some younger corn liquors made famous by the Discovery TV program Moonshiners, including Tim Smith’s famous Climax Moonshine. Belmont Farm grows all the corn and grains they distill, and master distiller Chuck Miller is proud of the reputation his spirits have gained for being “grain to glass” products. The distillery is open for tours Tuesdays through Saturdays 11 to 4, and you might get to meet Chuck or moonshiner Tim Smith.
Just up the road from Belmont Farm in Sperryville is the Copper Fox Distillery, nestled at the foot of the Blue Ridge Mountains. As distilleries go, this one’s not old, but owner Rick Wasmund, who founded it just 17 years ago, strives to make his single malt and rye whiskeys and his gin the best, patiently using slower methods such as malting his own barley and toasting his own apple, cherry, and peach wood for the finest results. The Copper Fox is open for tours and tastings from 10 am until 6 pm Monday through Saturday. The tours are free; tastings are $8 and they have a store on site. Groups larger than eight are asked to make appointments – visit them at CopperFox.biz or call (540)987-8554.
What young woman hasn’t begged for her very own pony at some point in her life? For the young and the young at heart, May is a great time to take in a local horse show or polo match or even just take a drive around to see new foals and ponies frisking in the new spring grass. Morven Park, the spectacular 1200 acre estate that was once the home of General Westmoreland Davis, hosts several different horse related events in May. On Saturday the 13th there is a dressage show, and on the weekend of the 20th and 21st there is a two day horse show held on the grounds. It’s located right off Rt. 15 just north of Leesburg, visit their calendar of events at www.morvenpark.org for more information.