At Thornton Hill: spring’s unofficial start

Marner Yates of Luray, here with her horse Blaze after a successful day at Cinnamon Ridge Horse Show in Amissville, can't wait to tackle the team’s first Hunter Pace at Thornton Hill Fort Valley on Sunday.Lauren R. Giannini
Marner Yates of Luray, here with her horse Blaze after a successful day at Cinnamon Ridge Horse Show in Amissville, can't wait to tackle the team’s first Hunter Pace at Thornton Hill Fort Valley on Sunday.

A sure remedy for winter blahs awaits in Sperryville this weekend: a day of fresh air and racing excitement at the inaugural running of the Thornton Hill Fort Valley Point-to-Point on Saturday (March 3). This “field trip” is also a timeless social event. And best of all, you don’t have to know a thing about horses to enjoy watching them.

Veterans and sporting enthusiasts could write books about how to attend and enjoy this traditional ode to spring. Point-to-point racing provides the perfect ambiance for alfresco parties on the hillside at the Thornton Hill racecourse.

Steeplechasing – racing over fences and on the flat in natural countryside – is one of the greatest shows on earth. Eagerly dancing thoroughbreds parade in the paddock until the official gives the signal for “Riders, up!” Jockeys, resplendent in distinctively colorful silks, partner with half-ton “rockets” propelled by the original horsepower and race full tilt over hill and dale.

“If you really want to enjoy the whole racing experience, hang out at the paddock where you can watch the interaction between the horses, trainers, owners, and jockeys,” suggests Brandy McDonald, who borrowed her passion for steeplechasing from her Irish horseman-husband, Bryan. Their Crevalle is entered for the Novice Timber, with Alex Thomas in the irons. “The paddock lets you observe how the grooms handle thoroughbreds that are so fit and ready to run. Usually, the person walking with the horse is the “binkie” [yes, as in pacifier] and knows the horse inside out.”

Betsy Burke Parker | Rappahannock News

Spectators can choose how up-close and personal they want to get to the action. Watch from the hillside, or hover close to the snow-fenced perimeter and position yourself near a hurdle or timber fence. Feast your senses on the horses as they gallop by; feel the rhythmic pounding of their hooves through the ground.

Whether you’re general admission or reserve a tailgate parking space, hunger will strike. Pack your picnics into the cargo area of your car, back of the truck or a portable basket. Also, Etlan’s Little Country Store will be at the racecourse, dishing up their signature pork BBQ, burgers, rib eye steaks and the fixings.

On Sunday, enthusiasts compete in Thornton Hill Fort Valley’s first ever Hunter Pace, the second in the series sponsored by the Virginia Point-to-Point Association. The first pair starts at 1 p.m.

“I’ll probably jump that telephone pole down by the brook, but we’re doing the Hilltoppers,” declares 8-year-old Marner Yates, already an accomplished rider who said she’s been riding and training her horse Blaze for four years. Her mother, Lindy Liscomb, whips in to huntsman Billy Dodson twice a week, and her father James Yates hunts when THFVH meets at the family’s farm on the other side of the mountain in Luray.

Though the Thornton Hill racecourse has been here for years, some might know it better as the site of last summer’s Hazzard Homecoming. (Thornton Hill will set the “Hazzard Homecoming” stage again this Aug. 11-12.)

Rappahannock’s own Ben “Cooter” Jones, the easygoing former congressman and TV mechanic from the “Dukes of Hazzard,” will attend the March 3 races with his wife, Alma Viator. Jones will be the first to tell you that you don’t have to know anything about racing to cheer home the winner and enjoy the unique party atmosphere.

“If you love horses and great races, it’s a wonderful social event,” says Jones. “The ambiance is timeless – you could be standing on that hill 200 years ago! – and the racecourse itself is a beautiful spot. It’s a really nice farm for a social event and people have a great old time.”

Post time on Saturday is noon, when the Junior Field Master Chase goes under starter’s orders. General admission at the gate is $20 per car, and you can call 540-987-8338 to see about reserving a tailgate spot. The scenic Thornton Hill racecourse is about two miles south of Sperryville on U.S. 522.