IT’S STEEPLECHASE SEASON SOUTHWARD:Ponies, Picnics And Pates From Tailgate To Starting Gateby ML Jacobsen

Ponies, Picnics And Pates From Tailgate To Starting Gate

Grand National in Aintree'jpgA spectator sport is often measured as much by the events surrounding it. Tailgate parties, good food, a nip on a flask and sunny weather stand out as much as the winners and losers.

And what about the thousands-plus sports fans taking their sideline activities so seriously that judges are needed for extravagant hat and tailgate competitions equally as important as the sporting event? We’re talking about Steeplechase racing, which gets its name from the early days when racing took place between the distance from steeples atop the local church and court house, where riders race over hills and fallen trees.

Tailgating is a tradition in which fans revel.

Fittingly, every spring, the prettiest season unfolds with blossoms and horse shows on weekends from mid-March through early summer. Riders from all over the country pour into areas as far North as Pennsylvania and on through Virginia, Georgia, North and South Carolinas, areas renowned for a bounty of steeplechases, point-to-point races and show-jumping competitions.

This is something that’s been around since colonial days. Born out of the sport of fox hunting, the racing angle grew. Then came the close connection between the sporting and social. Some say the sport caught on because of large swaths of open farmland.

Ford Conger Field - AikenAt first, it was the socially prominent group that could afford it. But now, it’s become a cross-section of people that cover the social gamut. Today, horse shows retain their proud and somewhat upper-crust heritage while organizers have succeeded in broadening the appeal. The fun is in the people who come out and spend the day.

Steeplechase CrowdsAnd people do come out all day – which brings us back to the sport of the spectators: having fun. Although people do watch the main attraction, horse shows are surrounded by carriage parades, pop-up boutiques, music, and yes, elaborate tailgating picnics.

Because most Steeplechase race enthusiasts go all-out, special judges are usually appointed to select the best tailgating efforts We haven’t even touched on the Outstanding Hat competitions that abound, seriously rivaling the chapeaus parading about in the Royal Enclosure each season at London’s Ascot.

truck tailgateWherever the races take place, people bring out everything from folding tables and barbeque grills on to complete outdoor-tented dining rooms. Queen Anne furniture, silver settings, candelabrums, champagne are not unheard of. And the cuisine is everything from home made salads to cold fried chicken and alligator pate.

glam tailgateIf it seems that horse shows are all fun and no sport, some background is needed to broaden the readers’ perspective. Although the show season begins in mid-March, the area’s biggest spring shows occur during April and May. All of the shows involve some kind of jumping but they are varied in length, terrain and the type of horse and rider that participate.

Point-to-point races started in England with two fox hunters racing from the church to the courthouse. Roughly three miles long, the point-to-point course includes jumping and cross-country sprinting. The riders are a scrappy lot, made up of mainly amateur riders and an occasional professional.

Breaching the chaseSteeplechase races, sometimes called hunt meets, are longer-course races and similar to point-to-points. But with cash prizes, modern-day steeplechases attract professionally licensed riders on thoroughbreds. In the riding community, steeplechase riders are described as “fit and brave,” “brazen” and “out for a risk.”

If you want excitement, Steeplechase racing is for you. The horses go at full speed over brush and timber jumps. These are races for only the most daring horses and riders.” Fans are attracted by the mayhem on the course, as thoroughbreds bound over (and sometimes run into) jumps at full gallop.

Jumping the DitchIt’s fast, it’s exciting, and it is dangerous. It’s a higher class of racing. Call it the Daredevil Fast Class!




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