Editorial: What’s the point of the Point-to-Point?

If you have to ask the question posed in the above headline, then Rappahannock County might not be the place for you. For certainly the precise place to be in the county this Saturday is Mrs. Thomas L. Eastham’s Ben Venue Farm, site of the annual Old Dominion Hounds Point-to-Point. It is not to be confused with “Point-to-Point Protocol” (PPP), an Internet term, or “Point-to-Point Transit,” a route structure common among low-fare airlines. Those came later.

Rather, this point-to-point is all about horses, the people who ride them and the people who watch (not just the horses, but other people). The first of nine races – “The Junior Field Masters Chase” – begins at noon. Tickets for general admission can be bought at the gates on Ben Venue Road (Route 729) just north of U.S. 211.

If you’ve ever wondered how it came to be that Rappahannock has so much undeveloped open space, long before there were zoning ordinances there was foxhunting. The dogs, horses and their riders giving chase to foxes required acres upon acres of running room. Landowners joined together to create “hunts.”

Though open, this acreage is not without obstacles: fences, stone walls, hedgerows, streams. Spring steeplechases (or point-to-points) recreate the terrain and obstacles of a typical autumn hunt.

The first such races, it is thought, occurred in the 18th-century British Isles. Here’s a contemporary account: “The Hon. Mr. O’Hea and Captain Magrath ran a steeplechase, near Galloway, in Scotland, lately, for a bet of 50 guineas, which was won by the latter, after a hard contest. To some of our readers it may perhaps be necessary to say, that this amusement consists of riding over hedge and ditch as fast as possible, towards the nearest (church) steeple from the place of starting.”

Locally, the Old Dominion Hounds grew out of a foxhunt after World War I led by the commanding officer at Front Royal’s Remount Depot (now the Smithsonian’s zoological research facility). The first Master of the Foxhunt (MFH) was Sterling Larrabee, of Oakwood, an estate on the Warrenton side of the so-called “Free State,” first course for the Virginia Gold Cup and 1930s trysting place for the Duke of Windsor and Wallis Simpson. “Mr. Larrabee’s Hounds” became “Old Dominion Hounds” in 1931.

“See you at the Races!” The cry can be heard all across Rappahannock this week by residents and weekenders alike, for you don’t have to be a “horseperson” to know that the Ben Venue Races are perhaps the biggest social event of this and every year.

Walter Nicklin