The thoroughbreds in the Virginia Gold Cup steeplechase look like
distant figures in a landscape by J.M.W. Turner as they take the
far jumps on the long timber course called Great Meadow in
northern Fauquier County. ¬∂ Here in the soft, rolling foothills
of Pignut Mountain, a steady breeze ruffles the wildflowers in
the infield of the mile-and-three-quarters track. Stables are
clean, hedges clipped, manure invisible. Everything from the
paddock to the weigh-in pavilion is as immaculately tailored as a
legislator lunching at Richmond's rigorously exclusive
The Gold Cup and its sister, the International Gold Cup, are not
only two of the most prominent steeplechase events in the United
States but also Virginia's last bastions of aristocracy and
Anglophilia. Held on the first Saturday of May, the Gold Cup
kicks off the summer racing season, a season that ends--as it
will next Saturday--on the same track with the International.
Though still magnets for the rich and semifamous, the two race
meetings are no longer just for the horsey set of Virginia hunt
country. The Gold Cup draws 50,000 fun lovers; the International,
about half that. "We have the haves, the have-nots and the
have-some-todays," says local trainer Neil Morris.
For a purse of $50,000 and a thistle-shaped, octagonal goblet,
horsemen contest the Gold Cup over four miles and 23 timber
fences. The rest of the program features pony races, hurdles and
a steeplethon run over a three-mile obstacle course that includes
brush, timber, a ditch-and-hedge jump, a chicken coop, a
sod-topped stone wall and an imposing 170-foot-long water jump
not unlike the Reflecting Pool at the Washington Monument.
The steeplethon is the proud creation of Nick Arundel, the
75-year-old sugar granddaddy of Great Meadow, who stepped forward
in 1982 when the former site of the Gold Cup, a leased course in
Warrenton, was about to fall to development. The newspaper
publishing magnate bought a tract of swampy Fauquier farmland at
auction for $2 million, intending, he says, to turn "the old
crayfish field" into a racecourse like Aintree, home of Great
Britain's Grand National steeplechase.
Great Meadow lies about midway between Warrenton and Middleburg,
a rural swath of the Piedmont that's full of associations with
Virginia's Revolutionary and Civil War past. Middleburg was
established in 1787 by Revolutionary War army officer Levin
Powell, who bought the land for $2.50 an acre from Joseph Chinn,
a cousin of George Washington. Confederate Col. John Mosby met
his Rangers regularly at the Red Fox Inn, which still stands and
bills itself as the oldest tavern in America. Some of the
barflies look old enough to have been Civil War conscripts.
Virginia, a state rich enough in thoroughbred stock to have been
the birthplace of Secretariat and enough other winners to total
21 Triple Crown victories, has been steeplechase country since
the 18th century. Washington and Thomas Jefferson jumped fences
for sport there, and organized races have been run in Fauquier
County since 1844. The inaugural Gold Cup was held on April 3,
1922, and was won by Katherine Hitt's Irish Laddie. By winning
three Cups, with two more victories in the next three years, Hitt
retired the first trophy. In the years since, the Cup has been
retired only five more times, most recently by Henry and Ann
Stern's six-time champ Saluter (1994-99), which in his final
victory covered the four miles in a record 8 minutes, 23 4/5
seconds. "They say there are horses for courses, and courses for
horses," says Arundel. "This was the course for that horse."
The lineage of Gold Cup horses is rivaled only by that of their
owners, many of whom earned their money the old-fashioned way:
They inherited it. "One need only look at a page of the
Middleburg Life [monthly newspaper] to find names with Old
Virginia pedigrees," says spectator Georgia Getz, the sort of
arriviste natives snootily call "come-heres" (as opposed to
Gentrified manor folk still come to the Gold Cups with their
yeomen retainers, but every year suburbia creeps ever closer.
Upper-class women favor pearls, tea dresses and hats that are
vast confections of flowers, tulle and feathers. The menfolk are
identifiable by their striped club ties, kelly-green pants and
sensible blue blazers. Some of the more mature gents still affect
ascots and houndstooth sports jackets, but not many.
They drive into their slots by the rail on Members Hill and
tailgate off the back doors of their Range Rovers and Jeep
Liberties and vintage Buick Roadmasters, the last of the
wood-paneled estate cars. Virginia's old money tends to lard its
coolers with Triscuits, goat cheese and half gallons of Dewars.
The new money sets out damask tablecloths with sterling
candelabras and extravagant floral arrangements that would not be
inappropriate at a White House state dinner. The Rule: Old money
watches the horses; new money watches each other.
From his seat on Members Hill, actor Robert Duvall takes it all
in with wry amusement. "You come to the Gold Cup, you socialize,
you watch a race, you try in vain to find a good piece of food,
then you socialize a little more," says Duvall, who owns a nearby
horse farm. "Lots of times the racing itself is boring as hell.
Don't quote me, though. I'll be assassinated."
The minor orders are barricaded from Members Hill by a line of
Port-A-Potties. "If it weren't for all the poor folk on one side
of the toilets, the ones on the other side wouldn't be rich,"
observes mechanic Dave Carlin. "It takes a lot of little people
to make a big one."
The little people gain entry to Great Meadow at $75 for a carload
of six ($50 at the International Gold Cup). They spread their
quilts and ground clothes and numerous offspring on the grassy
slopes off the turns, claiming territory like colonialists
dividing one of the darker continents. They bring lawn chairs and
beach umbrellas and picnic hampers full of comestibles. "The
crowds have changed since the races moved to Great Meadow," sighs
Marion Banner, one of the grand dames of Members Hill. "I hope
there are no bare-chested motorcycle bikers with tattoos!"
Ah, but there are, along with six-pack-toting bowling teams and
busloads of college kids who are brandishing Mason jars of mint
juleps and chanting, "Hey, hey! First Saturday in May! Outdoor
lovin' begins today!"
In the parking lot there's even a little grass shack with bamboo
curtains and a sign that says MARGARITAVILLE. Bourbon slushies,
not margaritas, are the favored drink. "You make them with
Gentleman Jack," says Alicia Mrozowski of Hughesville, Md., who
works the blender. "The recipe comes from Oliver North, a
born-and-bred Virginian. He hasn't been to the Gold Cup in years.
He's in different circles now."
Mrozowski and her husband, Mike, have been Gold Cup irregulars
since 1980. They watch about half the horse races and bet, among
friends, on the day's first event, a Jack Russell terrier sprint.
"Just a buck apiece," Mrozowski says. "You can't win a whole lot
of money." Wagering on the steeplechase is, of course, illegal.
Still, after the big race it's a sure bet the ancien regime will
head out for sundowners at Summer House, the hilltop retreat
Arundel has built for the bluest of bloods. The younger bloods
stagger off to their own party, which one reveler promises, "will
separate the sheep from the goats."
"The crowds have changed since the races moved to Great
Meadow," says one grand dame. "I hope there are no bare-chested
motorcyclists with tattoos."
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