As we approach the thick of the 2010 spring steeplechase season, we at REDD would like to offer our readers a brief primer on the history of the storied horse race—especially as it pertains to Virginian culture—for your heightened enjoyment of the weeks ahead.
The Steeplechase is a form of horse racing originating in Ireland circa 1752, the first case of which is said to have been initiated due to a wager between Messrs. Edmund Blake and Cornelius O'Callaghan, consisting of a 6km. cross-country jaunt from Buttevant Church to St. Leger Church in Doneraile, a town in County Cork. Subsequent early races occurred over country until 1810, which saw the first steeplechase on a prepared track take place in Bedlam, North Yorkshire.
According to the Virginia Steeplechase Association, American steeplechase racing evolved out of the custom of foxhunting, but as an organized sport, it "owes its life" to the efforts of nine men from New York who chartered the National Steeplechase Association on February 15, 1895. Early meets included races on Long Island, New Jersey, Maryland, and Virginia.
Over a century later, the custom of a few has grown into an international pastime—occurring in 12 states, annually offering $4 million in total purses, and beloved by millions of people.
The Elements of the Chase
The Steeplechase takes its name from the custom, during the first races, of orienting the course in alignment with the local church steeple. Essentially, the Steeplechase is an equestrian obstacle course, involving the clearing of ditches and hurdles. In the United States, steeplechasing—also known as jumps racing—takes two forms: firstly, Hurdles racing, the fences of which stand at 4ft. 6in. tall at the highest point, comprised of a synthetic "brush" that provides little resistance to a horse that fails to clear it; secondly, Timber racing, in which the hurdles consist of wooden rail fences—more hazardous in that a collision is likely to bring a horse to a complete stop. Hurdles racing is more broadly practiced along the east coast, but Timber racing, perhaps due to its higher stakes, also lays claim to a number of high-prestige races, including The Colonial Cup in South Carolina; The Maryland Hunt Cup; last, but certainly not least, The Virginia and International Gold Cup in Old Tavern Virginia—which arguably serves as the climax to the fall and spring racing seasons in the Commonwealth.
Steeplechasing in Virginia has developed into a unique (but by no means insular) racing culture. Typically beginning in mid-February with the Casanova Hunt Point to Point in Warrenton—although sadly, the Casanova will not take place in 2010—the racing season follows through the Blue Ridge Hunt in Berryville, then on to The Warrenton Hunt, a series Piedmont Fox Hounds races, and a series of point-to-point and hunter pace races: Bull Run Hunt in Culpeper, Orange County Hunt in Middleburg, Piedmont Fox Hounds in Upperville—and of course, the Foxfield Spring Races in Charlottesville.