Friday, April 26 2024 9:50

Steeplechase Season Fills May Weekends

Written by Eric Monaghan and Laurel Anderson

Plan for a month of equestrian excitement

Radnor Hunt Races. Photo: Bob Plant

While basketball fans may have March Madness, equestrian fans in the Brandywine Valley have May’s steeplechase season. And this month’s lineup of three spectacular weekend race days is anticipated with a similar level of excitement. Plus there’s the Devon Horse Show in late May through June 2 to extend the equestrian action (see article in this issue).

What better reason to spend a day in the countryside — admiring the rolling hills, equine athleticism and smartly dressed spectators — than Winterthur’s Point-to-Point, Willowdale’s Steeplechase and the Radnor Hunt Races. Join the fun as friends and families meet at their regular tailgate spots or at hospitality tents to nibble elegant picnic food and toast the races with everything from champagne to mint juleps to cans of Liquid Death (for those foregoing alcohol).

So, choose your favorite race or earn your own triple crown and attend all three. Remember each day of steeplechase racing raises funds for a good cause — from open space to clean water to equine health and more. Be part of a singular Brandywine Valley tradition of fun and community support.

“And They’re Off”

Willowdale Steeplechase. Photo: Tisa Della-Volpe

That’s what the announcer shouts at the start of each steeplechase race. While that may sound familiar and have an obvious meaning, other terms perhaps less so.

For example, what makes a horse race a steeplechase? Basically, it’s a distance jump race run from a starting line and over obstacles, unlike, say, the Kentucky Derby, which is a shorter, flat race with horses starting from stalls. Steeplechase courses range from 2 to 4.5 miles (the Derby is 1¼ miles) and include a variety of obstacles — fences, hedges, water jumps, even open ditches.

Steeplechases horses are different, too. They may have run in flat races in the past and are often older and appear larger than typical thoroughbreds you’ve seen on televised flat races. Another interesting fact: in steeplechase racing, horses jump the obstacles in stride, much like human hurdlers in track and field events.

These race features trace back to the sport’s origins in 18th-century Ireland, where cross-country horse races were run over stone walls and timber fences from landmark to landmark (or point to point) — often using church steeples to identify the start and finish.

Here are a few other racing terms to know:

  • Apprentice is a relatively inexperienced jockey, while a novice is a horse early in its career, and a maiden is a horse yet to win a race.
  • Furlong is the standard racecourse measurement, equaling ⅛ of a mile.
  • Jumps are hurdles (plastic or steel), timber (wood, logs or posts) or brush (hedges or topped to resemble hedges). Wings are panels on the sides of jumps, designed to guide a horse there.
  • NSA here stands for National Steeplechase Association, not the spookier one.
  • Paddock is the area where horses are saddled before the race.
  • Purse is the total money awarded for a race, with the winner usually getting 60%.
  • Post time is when the race is scheduled to start.
  • Tailgating here has more crystal and less plastic than Eagles’ tailgates, plus a few other key differences.

And with that, let’s look at this year’s races.

46th Winterthur Point-to-Point

Photo: Kirstie Donahue, courtesy of Winterthur Museum, Garden & Library

The frontrunner in the steeplechase season, on the first Sunday in May, is the annual Winterthur Point-to-Point races, May 5. This day filled with pageantry and spectacle will take place on the 1,000-acre Winterthur estate, promising riveting steeplechase racing, unforgettable tailgating and family-friendly fun.

Four races are scheduled, including timber stake races and a flat race, with purses totaling $60,000. Plus, the rider who earns the most points will win the prized Greta Brown Layton trophy. Future riders can join in the race-day competition with the stick horse races for the kiddos held between the main events.

The equestrian atmosphere and exciting races are guaranteed to satisfy ticketholders, as are the games and entertainment —
community-organized contests, crafts and special activities — held in the Winterthur Hunt area. While there, you can also shop in the Marketplace for hats, clothing, accessories and more.

Photo courtesy of Winterthur Museum, Garden & Library

Other activities for the day include the Alison Hershbell Pony Races, the Keystone Region Rolls-Royce Owner’s Club Antique Auto Display, and the George A. “Frolic” Weymouth Antique Carriage Parade.

Tailgating is another beloved race-day tradition at the point-to-point. Join in by creating your own special gourmet picnic and break out the silver and crystal to try to win this year’s tailgate competition.

Photo courtesy of Winterthur Museum, Garden & Library

Hat lovers and those who like to dress for the occasion can match their chapeau with their fanciest race-day attire to catch the judges’ eye and be named Best Dressed from Head to Toe. The winner gets a prize from Christine A. Moore Millinery.

Back this year to add to the competitive fun is the StableDuel mobile app. Create your fantasy roster of horses for the day’s races to compete to earn points to win a cash prize!

Proceeds from the races, the largest fundraiser of the year, will support Winterthur’s environmental and landscape stewardship initiatives. Help support this worthy cause by joining a day filled with equestrian excitement.

IF YOU GO: Sunday, May 5. 5105 Kennett Pk., Winterthur, DE. Rain or shine. No day-of ticket sales. 302-888-4994;

TIP: Make race-day memories with a complimentary photo by photographer Kirstie Donahue.

31st Willowdale Steeplechase

Photo: Tisa Della-Volpe

Ride further into race season with the 31st Willowdale Steeplechase on May 11, the second Saturday of the month. With the motto “Racing for Life,” this rite of spring brings families together for an annual community event on Mother’s Day weekend.

Join fellow spectators as you take in the rolling green hills, thoroughbred horses and colorful tailgating — reminiscent of a day in the English countryside. Willowdale’s 160-acre natural amphitheater setting provides an excellent vantage point to watch the races while enjoying the beauty of southern Chester County.

Photo: Elaine Cole

Willowdale features six sanctioned races on three courses of rolling turf, including one new course. The first course has three hurdles run over National fences, while the second course (the feature stakes race) is run over timber rails, European-style hedges, open ditches and the one-of-a-kind Willowdale Water Jump with an 18-inch elevation drop. The new course brings more timber rails and natural hurdles. Riders will race for purses totaling $115,000.

Photo: Tisa Della-Volpe

Adding to the race-day fun are the fast-paced Jack Russell Terrier Races and always-popular Pony Races. For fans of vintage cars, the Classic Car Exhibit showcases a variety of pre-1985 automobiles to tour as you stretch your legs between races. Other attractions include shops offering handcrafted souvenirs and food, gourmet coffee and ice cream trucks with delicious treats. Kiddos can also join the fun with activities like the stick pony jumping course, coloring contests and more at the Kids’ Alley fun area.

Enjoy the races alongside fellow spectators from your hillside tailgate. Join in the competitive spirit by taking part in this year’s best dressed, hat and tailgate contests. Choose your tailgate theme: elegant Downton Abbey or the more contemporary Ken and Barbie at the Races!

Representatives from Penn Vet’s New Bolton Center and Stroud Water Research Center — the two beneficiaries of the Willowdale races — will be available to talk about their missions. The races have raised over $1.3 million for local charities.

IF YOU GO: Saturday, May 11. 101 E. Street Rd., Kennett Square. Rain or shine. No day-of ticket sales. 610-444-1582.

TIP: Snag a ticket for Willowdale In White on May 9, 7 to 10 p.m., before they sell out. Text 610-564-9276 with questions.

93rd Radnor Hunt Races

Photo: Bob Plant

The home stretch for the steeplechase season is the Radnor Hunt Races. Since the first races almost a hundred years ago, this beloved steeplechase has become a distinctive Main Line tradition. Returning this year on May 18, the 93rd Radnor Hunt Races will continue this springtime celebration with a day of jump races and memorable experiences at the region’s oldest steeplechase.

This year’s event will feature five jump races sanctioned by the National Steeplechase Association along with some of the best thoroughbreds, riders and trainers in the country — all sure to thrill racegoers.

Special events planned between races include the fourth annual Katherine W. Illoway Invitational Sidesaddle Race, an Antique Carriage Parade and the beloved colorful (and noisy) Foxhound Parade. Look for the adorable Pony Races making a return as well. And crowd-watching is a nonstop activity, with plenty of fascinating fascinators on beautifully dressed women and jaunty bow ties and brightly colored pants on men.

Photo: Bob Plant

The tailgating competition theme this year is “Under the Sea.” Bring an oceanic vibe to your tailgate — food, decorations, activities — at the Picnic Patron area for a chance to wow the judges and win bragging rights.

While box seats on the hill near the clubhouse are a traditional way to watch the races, there are plenty of options for enjoying the day, including tailgating on the rail or in a rail tent. If you’re looking for a no-prep VIP experience, check out packages like Skip’s Fox’s Den and the all-new Hound’s Club — offering gourmet food, networking and up-front views of the finish line.

If the kiddos are along, check out the Kit’s Club option — a family- friendly version of Skip’s Fox’s Den — for fun activities and a buffet lunch right by the finish line. (Parents must accompany children.)

Proceeds once again benefit the Brandywine Conservancy — a beneficiary of 44 years. The Radnor Hunt Races have raised over $5.5 million for the Conservancy’s clean water and open space programs and have helped conserved over 70,000 acres of land — including the Radnor Hunt racecourse and surrounding grounds. Join a day “Racing for Open Space.”

IF YOU GO: Saturday, May 18. 826 Providence Rd., Malvern. Rain or shine. No day-of ticket sales. 610-388-8383.

TIP: The races attract 20,000 fans, so plan to avoid the crowds arriving shortly before post time.

View each race’s schedule of events here.

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