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'Taming' Foxfield: Spectators, neighbors celebrate return of a more civilized spring steeplechase

Anyone claiming the 3-plus inches of rain that fell Friday would slop up the Foxfield steeplechase course should have checked with jockey Barry Foley.

“The ground is lovely, and it’s a great cover of grass,” Foley told The Daily Progress shortly before the day’s final race. “And there’s been good racing.”

Foley ought to know, as the resident of Cork, Ireland, won two of the six races at the 44th running of the Foxfield Spring Races on Saturday.

Launched in 1977, Foxfield was born as a steeplechase but got discovered a few years later by University of Virginia and other East Coast college students who wanted a replacement for a now-canceled spring festival called Easters.

Lately, Foxfield has experienced a rebirth after surviving cancellations during the worst of the COVID pandemic and a brush with extinction roughly six years ago. In 2017, neighbors sued to prevent if from being sold as a luxury farmette community called Hermit Thrush.

The new owner is a nonprofit group that wants to share the wealth. And share they did — with a check for over $51,000 to Camp Holiday Trails, which serves children with special needs.

“It takes a community,” said Foxfield advisory board member Olivia Branch.

The community on Saturday numbered about 12, according to Foxfield’s executive director, Kelsey Cox.

“Our big focus is safety, whether its equine or attendee,” said Cox as she gestured out toward what’s commonly called the student section. Now equipped with free water, it is officially known as the “New Orange Section.”

That’s where a couple who just moved here from Minnesota found themselves.

“I think we’re in the wrong section,” said the wife, Anja Bielinsky, who chairs the department of biochemistry at the University of Virginia Medical Center. “Everyone is about 30 or 40 years younger.”

Husband Eric Hendrickson, who studies human genetics at UVa, agreed.

“We’ve seen one race so far and lots of scantily clad 16-year-olds,” said Hendrickson.

Nearby, two young women were sound asleep against the course rail with at least one pair of buttocks catching rays. When security appeared, the women arose from their slumber to a round of applause.

Suddenly, a shirtless young man who was covered in mud emerged from a pond and began running across the course toward the Orange Section. Onlookers urged him keep running, but security guard Lynn Dixon stopped him and directed him into the back of a Kubota utility vehicle, where he was whisked away.

“You’re not supposed to jump the fence, and you’re not supposed to go in the pond,” said Dixon.

“He was just having some fun,” said attendee Elizabeth Wiegman. “It’s the last weekend before finals, so why not?”

“That’s his choice,” said fellow Orange Section occupant Jeff Pete. “He’s got to live with that one.”

Just past the Orange Section’s northern tip, Sherrie Spalthoff, in her dress and sun hat, was asked what her group with its carefully curated tailgate was doing so close to the student revelry.

“We accidentally parked here,” answered Spalthoff. “There was no signage that there was a student section right here.”

Still, her party said they got a decent deal, as $400 bought them not only four tickets but also their parking spot — which turned out to be a front row seat on “bad decisions,” she said.

“They were dropping like flies,” said Spalthoff.

Capt. Darrell Byers of the Albemarle County Police Department reported no arrests by the time of the final race.

“We’ve just been assisting rescue making sure that people are properly hydrated,” said Byers.

At the nearby medical tent, paramedic and physician assistant Alexander Patton said the day’s partial cloudiness and moderate temperatures helped limit the problems.

“What we saw today was a lot like what we’ve seen in the past,” said Patton. “A lot of dehydration, a lot of intoxication and heat-related injuries, but nothing too serious, thank goodness.”

Youthful attendee Mariah Reeves said that students got a taste of the New Orange Section last spring, when its new location was unveiled, and planned accordingly this year.

“People came strapped,” said Reeves. “They knew where to hide the alcohol.”

Tiffany Smith from the Virginia Shop had several Foxfield-branded flasks available for sale at her booth, a temporary outpost of her Barracks Road retailer, but she sold just one.

“I think they already came with flasks,” Smith said with a laugh.

Nearby, a group of men, two of whom sported bowties and two of whom wore seersucker pants, was checking out the loafers made from handmade kilim rug remnants at a booth called J. Wilder Imports.

“You put them on with a tuxedo or a dinner jacket, and they’re fabulous,” said proprietor James Alexander Brodie. “They just pop.”

To longtime neighbor John Deal, attendees do seem to be behaving better these days, and he said the rows of chartered buses are an example of a more civilized Foxfield.

“They’ve done a good job taming it,” said Deal. “We used to have people throwing up and peeing in our yard and knocking on the door asking for mixers.”

A horse named West Newton, owned by Upland Flats Racing and John W. Lewis, trained by Ricky Hendriks and ridden by Harrison Beswick, won the day’s biggest prize, the $60,000 purse of the day’s final race.


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