ORANGE — The Montpelier Steeplechase Foundation was planning to hold the 86th running of the annual hunt races the first Saturday in November. The only question was, “What would they look like?”
Last summer, race officials labored over the decision about whether to cancel the annual autumn tradition for only the second time in nearly nine decades, as COVID-19 case counts rose and public health directives cautioned against large gatherings — inside or out. Ultimately, the foundation announced in August that the 2020 races would be canceled — the first time they hadn’t been held since World War II canceled the 1943 races.
With COVID-19 vaccinations increasing and case counts dropping, public health officials have eased restrictions on large gatherings.
Recently, the Montpelier Steeplechase Foundation announced the 86th running of the races will be held as usual on Nov. 6.
“We’re back! Everything you love about the races will be back this year,” said Executive Director Martha Strawther. “Tailgating, the hat contest, stick horse races, the Jack Russell terrier races, shopping and, of course, seven horse races.”
Strawther said that in early spring, race officials decided this year’s event would be held, but waited to see what it might look like based on public health guidelines.
“We were planning to hold the races no matter what and would adjust based on how many people we could have. Some events ran with limited crowds, but we’re lucky in that we’re at the end of the year,” she said. “When the restrictions were lifted, we knew we could be back at full speed.”
Despite canceling the races last year, the foundation noted that sponsor support for the event remains strong, with most returning after last year’s hiatus.
“We are so grateful for the continued support of our sponsors and our audience,” Strawther said. “The sense of investment from our racegoers and sponsors is truly heartwarming.”
Accordingly, race organizers are hoping to parlay that support with a couple of new features this year aimed at promoting local businesses and tourism.
In partnership with the Orange County Office of Economic Development and Tourism, the races will host a Locally Made Market that will highlight three home-based businesses.
As a race day sponsor, the tourism office has a tent in the vendor village annually at the races. This year, they’re offering that space — and the access to nearly 20,000 race day patrons who come with it — to local entrepreneurs.
“Everyone knows that shopping at the unique Vendor Village is a fun part of race day for the thousands of visitors who attend the Montpelier Hunt Races each year. We are hoping that this opportunity allows entrepreneurs to connect with those visitors and convert them to consumers that they otherwise would not necessarily get in front of, as a home-based business,” noted Rose Deal, economic development director.
To be considered for one of the three spaces, Orange County business owners should submit a brief presentation (in Word or PowerPoint format) detailing their business along with a fully completed application no later than July 30. (Full program guidelines and application can be found at thinkorangeva.com/support.)
Deal and Orange County Tourism Manager Lori Landes-Carter said they’re envisioning local artisans, bakers and crafters applying, more than service-based businesses, but noted, “A winning pitch is a winning pitch.”
Deal said this offers an opportunity for those who have a full-time job with a hobby on the side to see if that hobby might become a viable business.
Modeled after the Quad County Business Summit’s Quad Tank Pitch Competition, the Locally Made Market will award the winners exposure instead of seed money, Deal added. “The races bring in so many people from throughout Virginia and beyond, it really could take someone’s home-based business to the next level.”
Deal said she hopes the model proves successful enough to bring to other festivals and events in the county where additional entrepreneurs could be featured.
Strawther said the Locally Made Market was a good fit for the races and a fitting way to reciprocate with the county for supporting the races through its Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act Bounce Back grants last year.
“The races are sort of a kickoff to the holiday shopping season and our vendors do very well with race-goers,” Strawther noted. “This will bring thousands of new potential customers to these businesses.”
As for those thousands of visitors to Orange County, race organizers, in partnership with Orange County Tourism and the Virginia Tourism Corporation, are encouraging people to make the races a weekend-long event to experience more of what the county has to offer.
In late 2020, the Montpelier Hunt Races received $20,000 from the Virginia Tourism Corporation’s Recovery Marketing Leverage Program, designated to help local and regional tourism entities attract more visitors by leveraging limited local marketing dollars through a local match of the state grants funds.
According to Strawther, the races will use the grant funds to introduce a series of partner events to create a festival weekend atmosphere in advance of the 86th running of the races.
“We are partnering with Orange County Tourism, The Inns at Montpelier, our local wineries, the Market at Grelen, Liberty Mills and the Gordonsville downtown to publicize events already in place on race weekend and creating new events,” she said. “The goal is to initiate a weeklong festival around the races, so that out-of-town visitors will be encouraged to stay longer or come earlier.”
The idea is to hold a number of events leading up to and after the races, with the races serving as the centerpiece of the visit.
“The Race Week Festival will showcase what makes Orange County an ideal road trip destination in Central Virginia and to encourage our visitors to stay some extra days to explore all that Orange County has to offer,” Landes-Carter added.
Tickets for the 86th running of the Montpelier Hunt Races go on sale July 5. More information is available at montpelierraces.org. Information about the Locally Made Market is available at thinkorangeva.com/support. Contact Deal at (540) 672-1238 or email@example.com for questions or additional information.