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High temperatures and hard falls at Montpelier Hunt Races

Under sunny skies and amid unseasonably warm temperatures topping 80 degrees, the 88th running of the Montpelier Hunt Races took place Saturday, but not without a pair of spectacular crashes on the final turn toward the finish line, the most serious of which bruised a jockey.

Other aspects of the annual steeplechase at the historic residence of James Madison, the nation’s fourth president and the father of the Constitution, contained less havoc, including contests built around this year’s theme: “home on the range.”

Michele Sidebottom, for instance, won a contest category called “best fascinator” for her exuberant floral headpiece that featured a giant yellow rose with horseshoes and horses and some fringe of Texas straw.

“I was thinking of something with Texas, and I came up with the ‘Yellow Rose of Texas,’” Sidebottom said.

Asked if she hailed from the Lone Star State, the Northern Virginia resident replied in an accent jarringly Yankee-ified: “I’m a New Yorker.”

Over at posts 96 and 97, the mother-daughter duo of Katy Schonberg and Carolyn Naoroz of Powhatan were savoring their second-place finish in the tailgate contest. Their setup included a saddle, a side saddle, historic pictures of the short-lived Pony Express messaging service and an old-time menu featuring such treats as “David’s Dutch-Oven Bread” and “Cookie’s Chuckwagon Beans.”

“We make everything from scratch,” Schonberg said. “We pick a theme and stick with it.”

Not far away, Marilyn Wenger of Ivy was selling colorful dog collars and keychains, all handsewn by Wenger herself, at a rapid clip at her Preppy Palooza tent.

Under the Montpelier president’s tent, Barbara White, an executive coach from West Orange, New Jersey, was savoring a homecoming.

“You can just feel the history,” said White, who said she’s been visiting relatives in Orange, Virginia, since she was a girl. “This is an exciting place.”

White’s ancestors worked the nearby Bloomfield plantation, and her grandfather was a master carpenter for Marion duPont Scott, the heiress who began the hunt races in 1936 at what was then her residence. Now in her 70s, White serves as the vice president of the Montpelier Descendants Committee.

“You have generations living up and down these roads,” said White. “There are not many places that still have so much present history.”

Horse racing history was on the mind of Charlie Seilheimer, who retired as race chairman nearly a year ago after 25 years guiding the event. As he stood in the race officials’ area beside a table holding various silver trophies and one of solid gold, he noted a change.

“Until 1978, steeplechasing was only for nice pieces of silver,” said Seilheimer. “There was no purse.”

By contrast, Saturday’s purses ranged from $5,000 to $75,000 for the winner of the seventh and final race: the Noel Laing Stakes. It was won by Zabeel Champion, a horse owned by Jack Fisher and ridden by Bernard Dalton.

Fisher turned out to be the day’s top trainer. His horses won two races and took third place in another. The top jockey was Jamie Bargary with two wins.

Jockey Harrison Beswick was knocked out of the competition by a terrific fall in the fifth race. Coming out of a nearly 90-degree turn toward the finish, Beswick and at least one other rider and a horse hit the grass.

“This turn is death,” exclaimed a spectator, noting that it was the second crash that day at that spot.

While the others quickly got up, Beswick lay motionless on the grass for several minutes before standing and leaving under his own power. Later, as Beswick held a compress to his aching knee inside the jockeys’ dressing room, a fellow jockey opined that the course seemed unnecessarily compressed by pre-race vehicular traffic.

“It’s just flattening down the grass, and it’s making it greasy and slippery,” said the jockey, who, expressing concern about repercussions, would comment only on condition of anonymity.

However, Martha Strawther, executive director of the Montpelier Steeplechase and Equestrian Foundation, disagreed.

“It’s not that it’s vehicles,” said Strawther. “It’s that it’s dry.”

Strawther said the foundation made a concerted effort this year to improve the course.

“We aerated, we reseeded, we fertilized,” said Strawther. “If we could have had some rain 10 days out, it would have been magnificent.”

For recently retired Charlottesville lawyer Forbes Reback, the popularity of the annual event is a mixed blessing. He said he’s been attending the races since he began practicing law in Orange after getting out of law school in 1964.

“It’s just gotten so crowded. I used to know almost everybody, now hardly anybody,” said Reback. “But that’s also an issue of my longevity.”

For Seilheimer, the recently retired race chairman, the crowds are a blessing that help keep the purses bulging to the point that they totaled nearly a quarter of a million dollars Saturday.

“We must have 18,000 to 20,000 people here today,” said Seilheimer. “It’s just been going exceedingly well.”

He attributed the success to two things.

“First of all, COVID is over, and people want to get back to life,” he said. “Second, this is something that this part of the countryside is known for.”

He said it’s not just for Central Virginians any longer.

“People come from all over,” said Seilheimer. “I have had people come in from Texas and Arizona, and I asked, ‘Do you have relatives here?’ And they say, ‘We came for the race.’”


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