The mostly overcast sky cast little shadow and less shade on the thousands of area residents and University of Virginia students who dressed to impress everyone but the horses at the 43rd running of the Foxfield Spring Races.
The spring steeplechase races rank traditionally as a major social event for UVa students and other college-aged adults who don their most dapper and dashing fashions and formal attire, including the flouncy and flashy hats that often seem de rigueur in the world of horse racing.
Approximately 10,000 attendees, less than half of prior years, gathered along and around the racecourse to eat, drink and watch the races, which had taken a two-year hiatus due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The event also provided $50,000 in proceeds for Camp Holiday Trails, a year-round nonprofit camp for children with medical needs.
Saturday was a day of firsts. It was the first spring races under new management, Foxfield Racing LLC. It was also the first races to feature a new entertainment section geared toward college-aged adults with food and alcohol for sale.
“We have a lot of new attendees,” Executive Director Kelsey Cox said. “They are excited to be out here. They’re excited to learn about Foxfield.”
Saturday was the first spring races held since the property was put under a conservation easement in 2019, resolving a three-year court battle and ensuring that spring and fall steeplechase races are still allowed on the property, as well as other events specified in the deed of easement.
It was the first racing slate with a restructured board.
“What we’ve done is kind of pulled together some brains from different areas — whether you have a philanthropic mind, or marketing, or construction or veterinarian,” Cox said. “So we have this wonderful group of all different people that come together that are now bringing some different ideas to revitalize Foxfield and continue to conserve this property.”
It was also the first racing event to have limits on how much alcohol spectators could bring to the traditional day of tailgating. Each tailgating space could have two 750 milliliter bottles of hard alcohol, three bottles of wine and three six-packs of beer, seltzer or cider.
“We really want to continue to bring these races to the community, and that meant making it a safe, enjoyable place where people felt proud to be out here,” Cox said. “And [reducing the amount of alcohol people can bring in] helps us make everyone a little bit more proud, a little bit more safe, and they’re still able to enjoy a fun racing day.”
Nearly everyone who spoke with The Daily Progress was unbothered by the alcohol reduction.
For friends and sorority sisters Isabel Puchner and Abigail Challas, third-year students at UVa, this was their first time at the race, and they were excited.
“She’s from Atlanta, and I’m from Milwaukee, so this is very different from what we would typically experience,” Puchner said.
“Yes, but we like it,” Challas said.
“It feels very Virginia,” Puchner replied.
With the pandemic canceling the races their first two years at the university, the pair didn’t have another time to compare the alcohol restrictions with.
“I think it’s good,” Puchner said. “If it calms everyone down, if it makes it a little less rowdy, then I guess that’s for the best.”
The Overtons came in from Christiansburg for their first spring races, and to see their son, a graduate student at UVa.
“He’s having a reunion of all of his Hampden Sydney fraternity brothers, so the whole crew’s been coming over and hanging out and it’s been really nice,” Stephanie Overton said. “We’re trying to keep our visitors full of food.”
“And hydrated,” John Overton added.
Under a large Carolina-blue University of North Carolina tent, Ray Freeman, Jake Schild, Garrett McCarthy and their group had quite the spread, including Cajun crawfish etouffee, beef Wellington made with black Angus and bacon-wrapped Brussels sprouts — all “hosted” by Field V. Fox, a taxidermy fox, who was relaxing on the table with his miniature mint julep.
“These are the only friends who we go all out for,” Freeman said. “It’s not the event that is important. It is the people who are important.”
Tom Bowditch has been coming to the spring race since the mid-1990s, after he first attended the event as a doctoral student at UVa.
“We just love it,” he said. “You stand here in the beautiful Virginia weather — look at the beautiful trees are turning now as spring comes, and all the green grass is so lush — and then you get to watch horses go by every few minutes. Then you have another beer. Then you talk to your friends.”
The Earlysville resident and his friends and family used to have spaces right next to the finish, but sponsor tents in that area this year moved the group further away.
Kristen Rhodes, the ticketing manager, “has bent over backwards to ease the difficulty of the move to a new space, so we can’t say enough good about her,” Bowditch said.
There were times past when the event was more a spectacle of spectators than a horse race. In 2013, for instance, 33 people were arrested for mostly misdemeanor charges mainly involving alcohol or its effects.
On Saturday, such was not the case. Police confirmed at 4:30 p.m. that no arrests had been made the entire day. Although there were some medical issues during the event, the number and severity of was not known by press time.
Perhaps reflecting the day’s demeanor for others in attendance, Bowditch said the alcohol restrictions still allowed for a “reasonable amount of alcohol” and they have “absolutely no problem with it whatsoever.”
“A reasonable amount of alcohol, I think, is necessary to the ambiance of a Virginia afternoon,” Bowditch said. “But, you know, use it in moderation, as we always do. So no, we have no problem with that.”