“Are you going to Oatlands?” That’s a common question at this time of year as thousands of Loudouners gear up for the annual rite of spring—the Oatlands Point-to-Point races.
There will be a special buzz of excitement this Sunday as the crowd gathers at the historic estate south of Leesburg for the Loudoun Hunt’s 50th running of the races.
The Oatlands Point-to-Point Races are distinctive in that they feature both serious racing and a strong social aspect—a mix that appeals to die-hard racing fans and to those who enjoy a spring day outdoors while paying scant attention to the Thoroughbreds thundering past their finely appointed tailgate spreads.
The event features nine races, highlighted by the coveted Eustis Cup, a 3.5-mile endurance run, and the Mrs. George C. Everhard Memorial Invitational Side Saddle Race.
How It All Began
The origins of steeplechasing go back centuries, beginning in Ireland where neighbors challenged each other to race from church to church, jumping over stone walls, ditches and hedges.
There will be no steeples in sight at Oatlands on Sunday, but all other aspects of the sport of kings will be on full display—as they have been since 1966.
Brett Phillips, then editor of The Loudoun Times-Mirror, was part of the original planning for the races. He recalled the 1965 meeting involving some of those who became legendary supporters of the Oatlands races, including Loudoun Master of Foxhounds Dr. Joe Rogers, Harry Wight, Morris Fox, Silas D. “Sonny” Phillips and Anita Graf. A large jug of sour mash whiskey was also present at the meeting in Fox’s Leesburg office.
It was Rogers who suggested Oatlands as a good site for the race meet—because of the property’s historical significance as well as its rolling terrain, Phillips recalled.
From the beginning, organizers wanted the race to be different from other point-to-points in the region. Part of that distinction lay in the event
committee’s determination to have the course be, above all, a horseman’s event a focus emphasized by Rogers and Wight, both veteran steeplechasers. At the same time, the committee wanted to provide good entertainment value to paying fans. That included a post-race party for patrons, owners, trainers and riders that would become a fixture on the calendar and established Oatlands races as the social event of the season.
The Oatlands Course
Joe Rogers is credited with being the driving force behind the design of the Oatlands course. According to his widow, Donna Rogers, he also suggested that the group approach his friend, Tommy Smith, the only American rider to have won the English Grand National, for his advice.
“That was the genesis of the creation of the twin stone wall jumps that flank the main entrance to the Oatlands estate,” Phillips recalled. A $2,000 purse was provided for the William Corcoran Eustis Cup, named after a previous owner of Oatlands, which is now owned by the National Trust for Historic Preservation.
Today’s relatively smooth racecourse turf is a far cry from the conditions riders found during the first meet in 1966. The ground was rocky and filled with stones. Phillips remembered Rogers “fastidiously” walking the course and picking up rocks, marking uneven ground and testing low-lying wet areas.
Committee member Sonny Phillips designed the relationships between
the paddock, finish line, mounted outrider stations and location of the van area, all of which were important to horsemen.
Phillips and Wight installed and maintained the first sound system—strung from tree to tree—around the course. Will O’Keefe began narrating the Oatlands races from the finish line tower in the early 1980s. Many race-goers know his voice intimately, even if they’ve never met him.
In the early years, O’Keefe noted the emphasis was on gentlemen riders. Later it grew in importance on the racing circuit, and for many years the Triple Crown of point-to-point racing included the four-mile Eustis Cup as its third event.
“They’re tough jumps at Oatlands—and it has a different feel than other point-to-points,” O’Keefe said, noting the huge community gathering race day has become. No race rivals it for a faithful following, O’Keefe said, calling it “a really big social event.”
Of all the legendary figures associated with the Oatlands Point-to-Point races—Joe Rogers, Harry Wight and Arch Kingsley among them—Rogers was perhaps the best known. A modest man, he was a leading owner-rider in the race’s early days.
Rogers died in 2014. His fellow Eustis Cup winner, Wight, who died last year, will be remembered this year with a special tribute in the program. Kingsley also died last year.
According to Phillips, a race tradition had been to paint the finish line posts in the colors of the owner whose horse won the previous year’s Eustis Cup, But, ultimately, the race committee settled on permanently displaying the red and white of Rogers’ silks, “in honor not only of his founding role in the event, but the many victories his horses achieved at the course, including by his legendary King of Spades.”
Purchased in Chile by Rogers, King of Spades achieved five victories in the Eustis Cup—in the first race in 1967, ridden by Dr. John S.R. Fisher, and again in 1970, 1971, 1972 and 1973. Rogers was aboard for three years of that famous run.
“In 1972, Joe was hurt after a fall from Mother Lode,” Donna Rogers said. “I remember as we were in the ambulance Johnny [Fisher] running alongside and tapping on the window. I couldn’t hear him but I lip-read him saying, ‘Can I ride King of Spades?’” Fisher rode King of Spades to a Eustis Cup victory that afternoon. The horse died in a freak accident the following year.
King of Spades was not the only horse to be remembered at the races. Barros Negros, winner of the 1975 Eustis Cup, died of a coronary after the race. The horse was buried that night at the finish line in a ceremony attended by race committee members, while fans attended the post-race party at the Oatlands stables.
Even more vivid to Moyes is his recollection of jockey Bay Cockburn’s “fantastic Eustis Cup win” about a week before he had a fall from his mount during a race meet in 1998 that left him paralyzed. Even confined to a wheelchair, Cockburn continued as a champion trainer until his death in 2014.
On the Lane
The Loudoun Hunt was the first to promote the sale of patron spots, an innovation Phillips attributed to the late Connie McElhinney. She came up with the idea of selling 100 premium-priced parking spots along the driveway, for $50. Not only did those slots rapidly sell out, but a waiting list soon developed.
The waiting list remains long, but the spots are more likely to be handed down as family heirlooms than to become available to the next in line. McElhinney once recalled one bitter divorce in which a key point of contention between the spouses was who would keep the spot on the lane.
Tailgate parties developed and race-goers wandered up and down the lane, greeting friends they may not have seen since the previous year’s race. The spring scene soon gained attention beyond the hunt-country set to include the general public. Throngs brought picnic baskets and settled down on blankets and chairs along the front stretch or on the knoll at the center of the course.
Michael O’Connor, who recently stepped down as Oatlands’ chairman, has had a patron’s spot for 15 years. He decries the notion that steeplechasing is an elitist sport. “That’s false, you see young people and very old people—they’re drawn to it at all ages,” he said.
He loves the tradition of it, the fun of the tailgate parties and the proximity of the horses. “You can smell the horse going by,” he said of his patron’s spot near the crossing of the lane.
In recent years, race attendance has been between 5,000 and 7,000, but current patrons’ area overseer Catherine Spicer expects this year’s crowd to be larger than normal. She is getting calls from former patrons who gave up their space, but are now reserving subscriber spots. “They’re coming into town for the big celebration,” she said.
Trainers and Jockeys
For trainer and former champion jockey Eva Smithwick, the allure of the Oatlands course is “that it’s related to foxhunting—the stone walls, stacked rails change the way you do turns, like foxhunting.” It’s a great course for both the sport and the public, she said.
She and her husband “Speedy” Smithwick own and operate Sunny Bank Farm on Sam Fred Road near Middleburg, formerly run by Speedy’s parents, “Mikey” and Dot Smithwick. Both generations earned reputations as top trainers.
“It has a lovely feel to it,” Eva Smithwick said of Oatlands. “It’s different from a lot of hunt club meets.”
In their days as top jockeys, both she and her husband won races at Oatlands. The training they give at Sunny Bank Farm prepares their racehorses well for Oatland’s grueling uphill finish. “We do lots of bottom foundation, jogging to get air in them and we train up hills for fitness,” Smithwick said. “It’s the best horse that gets there,” she said of Oatlands’ finish line.
Jockey Woods Winants is an old family friend and schools the
Smithwicks’ horses. He’s had his “fair share” of winners at Oatlands, and appreciates the difficulty of the course, as well as the fact that it draws a great crowd. “The Eustis Cup is a very demanding jumping course. It takes a special horse to go four miles,” he said. (Last year, the Eustis Cup was shortened to 3.5 miles.)
Both he and fellow jockey Kenny Shreve admired the older riders, like Rogers, who were good at whipping their younger competitors.
“He was the nicest man I’ve ever met, so warm and welcoming,” Winants said.
“I’ve always liked the race meet here,” Shreve said. “You’ve got to be patient. It’s a real long stretch race up the hill for a timber horse. You and your horse are tired.”
Shreve raced at Oatlands for about 15 years. He won several races in the three-mile timber owner-rider series and “fell off a few times,” he said, laughing. “I got a kick out of riding there.”
Moyes also remembered his days racing at Oatlands, one year coming in second in the Eustis Cup. The weather could be brutal: one year it was raining and blowing so hard Moyes’ goggles kept popping off.
On Sunday, rain or shine, everyone will be having their customary good time. “There’s no race like it. You see everybody,” Moyes said.
Donna Rogers agreed, recalling her first introduction in 1972.
“It was like a family gathering. You were introduced to every single person there—they all knew each other, and gathered to celebrate spring.”