By Jeff Poole
The Montpelier Hunt Races will celebrate their 85th anniversary Saturday, Nov. 2, with the fall tradition that draws horse racing and tailgating enthusiasts to the home of James Madison.
And while the races have a landmark anniversary, their history predates the 1934 iteration, which was the first recognized by the National Steeplechase and Hunt Association.
According to hunt race archives, Marion duPont Scott and her younger brother, William, never lost their love of horses and horse racing they first embraced as children growing up at Montpelier. While William became a noted course designer and built tracks around the world, his older sister was an equestrian legend.
When their father moved the family from England to Montpelier, the two children were given ponies and soon there was a show at the presidential estate with classes in driving and side-saddle. In 1909, William duPont Sr. constructed a pony stable that now serves as administrative offices at James Madison’s Montpelier.
The young siblings soon found their niches in foxhunting, showing and racing.
By the early 1920s, Marion duPont, according to hunt race archives, “fixed her eye on a small mare she felt might be fast,” and, after convincing a jockey friend to ride her—to victory—soon “was hooked on racing and breeding for racing.”
Her brother, meanwhile, was instrumental in designing the steeplechase course at the sprawling, 2,300-acre property, and by 1923, early jump races were introduced on the grounds.
“These were rough and tumble affairs,” the archives record, but these were replaced five years later by the formal course which is raced today without changes.
The flat track—which annually features the first race of the day—debuted in 1929—the same year the first “official” jump race was held, according to Montpelier records. “Admission was free and the Montpelier property was opened to the public for the only time during the year.”
Five years later, the National Steeplechase and Hunt Association sanctioned the races and Montpelier has been hosting them ever since.
This year’s event will introduce a new race to the day’s schedule honoring the longtime host of the races.
According to Martha Strawther, the executive director of the hunt races, the Marion duPont Scott Memorial will be the fifth of seven races this year. It will be a filly and mare allowance hurdle, two miles and three furlongs over national fences and run at approximately 2:55 p.m. on race day.
“The duPont family built more race courses and started more meets than any other race family in America,” she said. In addition to a $25,000 purse, the winner of the namesake race will receive an antique English trophy with a chicken on its finial—a nod to Scott’s affinity for cockfighting.
Other additions to the 85th annual event include1930s-era antique steam and gas-powered equipment, on display from the Somerset Steam and Gas Engine Association and the James Madison Museum and the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts’ art mobile. The tractor-trailer mobile museum will be stationed between vendor row and infield parking, Strawther said.
For the first time ever, the races will be live-streamed and broadcast on site, Strawther noted. In the past, the races had been aired on closed-circuit television and broadcast only in hospitality tents with connected televisions. Andrew Butts, the chief executive operator of Honor Valor Courage Companies—which will sponsor the Marion duPont Scott Memorial—will have cameras mounted around the course that will be sound-activated and fed to a control center for production. Strawther said there will be a $2 fee for those who wish to stream the races on their mobile devices.
“If it works well, it’ll be great,” Strawther said, since most of the race day’s 16,000 to 18,000 patrons often only get a quick glimpse of the horses and jockeys as they pass by their tailgate or their place on the rail.
Another new innovation, Strawther reported, is a change in the race map and parking designations. New color codes for parking passes will help law enforcement officers more efficiently direct race day patrons in and out of the event, she said.
While the 85th annual races will feature a number of new additions, the longstanding traditions remain, including the hat and tailgate contests. This year’s tailgate contest theme is “Hollywood Heydays of the 1930s.” Strawther said the theme was chosen in honor of race founder Marion duPont Scott the races in 1934 and then married movie star Randolph Scott in 1936.
There is no cost to enter either contest, though tailgate competitors must register in advance (by calling 672-0014 or emailing firstname.lastname@example.org).
Other standard race day staples include the popular Jack Russell Terrier races, sidesaddle riding exhibition and stickhorse races.
Advance tickets are available throughout central Virginia, including at Orange-Madison Co-op locations in Orange and Madison, Virginia Community Bank branches, the Laurie Holladay Shop in Gordonsville, Lake of the Woods True Value in Locust Grove, Faye’s Office Supply, Farm Credit and Med Spa of Virginia in Orange, the Montpelier Visitors Center and the Somerset Center Store. Advance tickets are available through Nov. 1, the day before the races.
Orange County residents receive a 20% discount on advance tickets for general parking, infield parking and general admission. Ticket prices are higher at the gate on race day.
Whether patrons are new to the experience or have been coming for the past 85 years, Strawther said she thinks everyone who attends finds something special to them about the event.
“For those who are just coming for the first time, I hope they get the feeling of hospitality and welcoming that exists throughout the grounds,” she said. “It’s amazing to me how those who have been coming forever are so happy to have them and say, ‘Come into the fold,’ and are eager to share the experience.
“For those who regularly come, I think they still appreciate the experience and the immediacy of the power and speed of the horses,” she continued. “It’s really quite a spectacle.”
For more information, visit www.montpelierraces.org. Also, see next week’s issue of the Eagle for more race day information.