Steeplechase Racing Comes Galloping Back in Delaware

Photo by Jim Graham

After a year lost to the pandemic, a new season of races returns reinvented with socially distanced tailgating, private parties and a MASK-querade contest.

After a lost year due to COVID-19, steeplechase racing comes galloping back.

After a year lost to COVID-19, there’s really only one goal for the organizers of Willowdale Steeplechase, the Radnor Hunt Races and Point-to-Point at Winterthur: Get back on the horse.

Willowdale Steeplechase held the only local race last year, in October rather than May./Photo by Jim Graham

This May, the events resume, rain or shine. In this transitional year, fans can expect fenced-off areas and other measures to ensure that social-distancing protocols are met. In addition to the fancy hats, expect to see masks and other face coverings. Willowdale is rolling out touch-free ticketing and a digital race-day program accessed by a link on a smartphone. Spectator areas on the 145-acre grounds will be reconfigured. “The challenges of the pandemic have forced us to think differently, move out of our comfort zone of business as usual and completely retool,” says Leslie Carpenter, Willowdale’s race director. “Change is uncomfortable, but change is also exciting—and we can’t wait for May 8.”

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And while there will be a full card of races, there will be fewer spectators. “It will be a smaller, more streamlined version this year,” says Kathy Franey Smith, race director at Radnor Hunt Races, which will host its 90th meet on May 15.

Winterthur will host its 43rd Point-to-Point on May 30, the last Sunday of the month, instead of the traditional first Sunday in May. Expect socially distanced tailgating that adheres to guidelines established by the State of Delaware and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Fans can also enjoy tailgating at home as they watch the races remotely. “We’ve been working for months on different plans and scenarios that adhere to safety and health protocols,” says race director Jill Abbott. “We’re lucky that we have 70 acres to spread out and accommodate our event. We’ve reduced the number of spectators to under 30 percent and separated each tailgate area. Those who want to have their own tailgate at home can livestream the races on their computers.”

Point-to-Point at Winterthur’s Jill Abbott/Photo by Tessa Marie Images

A (Different) Day at the Races

Historically, as many as 25,000 spectators attend Radnor Hunt, with 18,000–20,000 at a typical meet. While a precise number of guests won’t be determined until closer to race day, attendance is expected to be scaled back significantly to meet guidelines established by the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, Chester County and the CDC. For organizers to get a better handle on the number of attendees, guests will be issued individual tickets, rather than a single pass for a vehicle that might be carrying as many as six people. “We looked at a plan with no spectators, which didn’t make sense for us because there’s still a big expense involved in running the races,” Smith says. “Radnor Hunt is a fundraiser. We can’t lose money.”

Organizers are also mulling new ways to reinterpret large tents traditionally anchored by corporate sponsors. Options might include premium accommodations for socially distanced private parties. Rod Moorhead, who owns horses and sponsors the purse for the Buttonwood/Sycamore Farms Willowdale Steeplechase Stakes, plans to attend the 28th running of Willowdale, as he has for a quarter century. He was first invited by longtime friend and neighbor Dixon Stroud, the event’s founder. “It’s a great layout, so fans can see the races well,” he says. “I’ve had the vaccine, and I’m hoping to have the same tailgate spot I’ve had for years, but if things are different this year. I understand that, and I’m OK with it.”

Radnor Hunt Races’ Kathy Franey Smith/Photo by Tessa Marie Images

M&T Bank and other longtime corporate sponsors will continue to support Willowdale, which raises money for clean water and veterinary excellence through donations to the Stroud Water Research Center and Penn Vet’s New Bolton Center. “Wilmington Trust has been a sponsor of Willowdale since our first race in 1993, and that string has been unbroken,” says Stroud, who rode in the timber race that first year.

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Lisa Thompson of Otto’s BMW says the Chadds Ford dealership has hosted a welcome tent at Willowdale for more than 15 years. “It’s something our customers really enjoy,” she says. “We realize that this year it will be a little different, but we know it will still be a great event.”

Willowdale also hosted a one-time event this past October. The first Louis “Paddy” Neilson III Apprentice Timber Race was led by the late racing icon’s daughter, Kathy Neilson, herself a gifted trainer. No spectators were permitted.

At Winterthur, where Point-to-Point has been a longtime fundraiser for the museum, the focus will be on racing, tailgating and antique autos. In the interest of safety, ancillary activities like the parade of carriages and stick races will be stabled until next year. “We’re taking Point-to-Point back to its roots—watching horse racing while having lunch with family on Mr. du Pont’s estate,” Abbott says.

Instead of a contest for the best-dressed race fan, organizers are planning to focus on an essential pandemic accessory. “The mask is the new hat contest,” says Abbott. “We hope to send a special 2021 Point-to-Point mask with credentials as part of the tailgate purchase—and to have a MASK querade contest, with prizes for wearing the official PTP mask and best PTP-related mask,” Abbott says.

Persistent and Resilient

This year, COVID has upended travel, impacting riders from the United Kingdom and other countries. Up-and-coming competitors from the United States have taken the reins in filling the void. National Steeplechase Association president Alfred C. Griffin Jr. noted in a letter to the racing community that 20 amateur/ apprentice riders went to post at NSA race meets. Some went on to win in open company, which is a good sign for the future of the American jockey colony. “The steeplechase community did not quit,” he wrote. “Rather, in this struggle, we were persistent, resilient and cohesive. The spring season will continue to challenge us. But this past year has served to put us in a position to weather that storm, too.”

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—Willowdale Steeplechase’s Leslie Carpenter

COVID is not the first global event to curtail the Radnor Hunt Races, which were first run in 1928 at Chesterbrook, the former estate of A.J. Cassatt, president of the Pennsylvania Railroad and brother of Impressionist painter Mary Cassatt. The races were suspended from 1943 to 1945 due to World War II. In 1946, Radnor galloped back, as George Brooke II supervised the construction of a new course on the present Radnor Hunt club property with the aid of Morris Dixon, Thomas McCoy Jr. and George Strawbridge Sr.

Smith and the other race directors are champing at the bit to restore cherished racing traditions. “The high is when you have a safe meet and everyone had a wonderful time,” says Smith.

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