America’s Oldest Show Brings Olympic-Caliber Horses, Riders to Upperville

By Linda Roberts

For Tommy Lee Jones, manager of the Upperville Colt & Horse Show for the past 37 years, spring signals a time to begin the meticulous grooming of the historic show grounds for its annual week-long event. This year’s show runs June 3-9.

Although maintenance goes on year around, Jones said that “from the first of May on, it’s like building a little city.” With some 1,600 horses competing in about 300 classes in five different rings during show week, Jones has his work cut out for him.

Now in its 166th year, the event is recognized as the oldest horse show in America. Bringing top-class horses, exhibitors and trainers from across the country, as well as from an international scope, Upperville stakes its claim as a premier destination for the horse show circuit’s serious contenders.

“The last few years we have really concentrated on bringing the Olympic-caliber horses,” Jones said.

As the show goes on regardless of the weather, Jones noted that the installation of all-weather footing in the show rings has made it possible to attract top competitors. That the show awards $400,000 in prize money is another attraction for riders and owners.

Located on scenic farmland hugging both sides of Rt. 50 just east of the tiny Village of Upperville, one of the show’s unique appeals for equestrians and the equine curious are the stately oak trees lending shade to the manicured grounds.

“We’ll meet you under the oaks,” is a common refrain among spectators who may come for a morning of watching jumpers at the Salem Farm course and then perhaps while away the afternoon across the road at Grafton Farm at the shade-dappled ringside. The well-maintained, old wooden grandstand overlooking the main ring is partitioned off in labeled box seats that read like a Who’s Who of the equine world. Some of the same family names have been appearing for the past 50 or 60 years.

Tradition abounds at Upperville. Just ask Jimmy Hatcher, longtime horseman and area resident. Hatcher rode in his first Upperville show in 1949 and continued showing there for years afterward with horses that he trained. While he no longer rides, that doesn’t keep him from attending the show, and Hatcher can be spotted talking with friends and making note of which horse is winning a class.

“Upperville is bigger than ever,” he said, “and it’s great to see the top horses coming here.”

Olympic rider McLain Ward takes Cerise over the jumps at Upperville.
[Photo by Liz Callar]
The show is a place to see and be seen, catch up with friends and neighbors, stroll with your dog, shop the many vendor tents and grab lunch from a food stand. On the Sunday of the show before the Jumper Classic, visit the car exhibit, watch the terrier races and take the kids to the petting zoo. Upperville has managed to hang on to its storied past even as change continually drives it forward to deliver a product that is attractive not only to the horse show world, but to the spectator wanting a day of entertainment in the country.

In June of 1853, that was exactly what Loudoun and Fauquier residents were looking for when they arrived in crowds by horseback and in carriages and wagons on the dusty turnpike that is the present-day Rt. 50. The old oaks dotting what was to become Grafton Farm provided them with shade to spread out picnics, talk with friends and watch the two classes of the day—one for colts and another for fillies—heralding the first Upperville show.

Credit is given to Upperville resident Richard Henry Dulaney, whose interest in the humane treatment of horses and the production of high-quality animals led to the formation of the “Upperville Union Club for the Improvement of Horses,” which later became the Upperville Colt & Horse Show. The Civil War stopped the show for a few years as useable stock was needed for the war effort, but by 1869 the club was back in business, having dropped the word “Union” from its title. Dulaney served as its president.

Records of the earliest shows are believed to have been lost in a fire that destroyed the original home at Grafton Farm, but the Southern Plantermagazine of August 1857 noted that the show had grown to three divisions: “Riding Stock, Quick Draft (carriage horses) and Heavy Draft (work horses).” As the show grew, so did attendance. It was to become a major social and sporting event every June with the Fauquier Democratnewspaper of Warrenton reporting crowds as large as 10,000 in the 1930s.

Dulaney died after a morning ride in October 1906. To honor his memory and his many contributions, the Founder’s Cup was created for horses born and bred in Fauquier and Loudoun, later being opened to horses bred in Virginia. In recognition of the show’s 150th year, Dulaney’s descendants donated a silver trophy designed by Tiffany & Co. to become a perpetual trophy for the Founder’s Cup class.

Perhaps C. J. FitzGerald writing in the old Loudoun Fauquier Magazine captured the magic that is Upperville after he judged the 1930 show: “The knowledge that the Upperville Colt Show once launched has never been permitted to lapse, but has been carried on year after year through periods of stress and strife, furnishes an illuminating insight into the character of the people of the region. A further evidence of the worth is seen in the fact that the show through all the years has been staged in the same location—a lovely sylvan retreat studded with oaks of great size, whose spreading branches furnish a grateful shade to competitors and spectators alike.”

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Ramiro Quintana and Corento VH Dingenshof captured the Grand Prix class at Upperville last year.
[Photo by Liz Callar]

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