March came in like a lion and postponed the start of the point-to-point season, a longtime tradition celebrating the end of winter. Thornton Hill Fort Valley Hounds rescheduled to April 19 and Blue Ridge Hunt, second on the calendar, will run on March 22.
So Warrenton Hunt kicks off the racing season this Saturday (March 14) at the Airlie course just north of Warrenton. The Open Hurdle, first of the nine races on the card, goes under starter’s orders at 12:30.
Mother Nature’s hissy fit last week, which dumped six more inches of snow on the area, didn’t discourage the folks at Warrenton Hunt. They studied long-term forecasts and are determined to produce the Airlie course with footing as safe and as good as possible. This responsibility rests on the shoulders of Warrenton Huntsman Matt van der Woude, who raced over fences and knows firsthand what trainers and owners want when they send horses and riders to the post.
“Matt has been working very hard on the course at Airlie and we are very optimistic that we will run our races,” said Rick Laimbeer, Warrenton’s master of foxhounds. “Matt has been in charge of our course for nine years and he continues to improve on his techniques for getting the course ‘right’ for the horses and riders. As for viewing the races, we recently added spectator tents near the finish line, which allow enthusiasts to be right in the heart of the action. ‘Tent Row’ has become the popular place to enjoy both the races and a lively social scene.”
Van der Woude’s biggest concern is the safety of the horses. “We get the course footing as best we can and do everything possible to accommodate the trainers,” he said. “Being the first race meet of the year, we shortened the timber and hurdle races. We will drag the course several times this week with a chain harrow to help with the melting. Ultimately, we’ll borrow the English compacting turf roller from Great Meadow to pack the surface to make sure the footing is as good as it can be.”
The “on dit” from horsemen is that Airlie resembles a sanctioned course, thus providing horses, riders and trainers the opportunity for a good school before they run for the money.
As for the rest of March, weather permitting, the PTP and Hunter Pace calendar (in detail at centralentryoffice.com along with results, overnights and more) includes March 21: Piedmont Foxhounds PTP & Hunter Pace, Upperville; March 22: Blue Ridge PTP, Berryville; March 29: Orange County Hounds PTP (OCH Hunter Pace is March 28), Middleburg; April 4: Old Dominion Hounds PTP (ODH Hunter Pace is April 5).
Shake off your cabin fever and get up a party of family and friends. Bring your boss and co-workers. Pack a tailgate picnic and beverages. Bring your kids and your cameras. Be prepared for all kinds of weather — it’s spring, after all — and celebrate our rural sporting heritage with a day at the races.
“When the Airlie course was first built, there were several complaints that the timber fences were too stout. After the first few years, horsemen came to realize that because the obstacles are so strongly constructed horses actually respect them and jump them better,” said Laimbeer. “Also, I believe that the fences are set in strategic locations on the course with attention to the topography of the approach thus giving the racing horse its best chance for a successful jump.”
With the hillside in the middle of the Airlie course, many spectators stay at their tailgates and enjoy announcer Will O’Keefe’s outstanding ability to call the race and bring it to life. This will be the 74th annual Warrenton Hunt Point-to-point. O’Keefe has been calling races since the early 1980s. There’s history and tradition here and also a great celebration of the sporting life and the end (we hope!) of winter.