After a two-year hiatus, fall steeplechasing returns to Charlottesville, Va., on Sunday with the 43rd running of the Foxfield Races. But it won’t be the same old meet.
Major improvements to the course and grounds, new partnerships with charitable organizations, a de-emphasis on the consumption of alcoholic beverages, and a commitment to becoming a good neighbor to the community has put the focus squarely on top-class racing and family fun.
Home to presidents Thomas Jefferson and James Monroe, as well as the University of Virginia, Charlottesville, nestled in the Eastern foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, has hosted the Foxfield Spring and Fall Races since 1978. Though racing thrived for many years, it had been in decline over the past decade, as interest and attendance waned.
Enter a reinvigorated board and executive director and the meet has been reborn.
In June 2020, a new 501(c)(3) not-for-profit entity — Foxfield Racing LLC — was created to assume oversight of both the races and property. Board chair Reynolds Cowles, a longtime local equine veterinarian and the chairman of the National Steeplechase Association’s Safety Committee, assembled a group of civic-oriented members dedicated to the preservation of Foxfield, with an emphasis on providing financially stable, fun, and safe events. One of the group’s key priorities is to invest in the site and make improvements to its infrastructure.
In addition, the board is committed to creating long-term partnerships that will generate not only financial backing, but opportunities for Foxfield and charitable organizations to work in tandem to benefit the community as a whole.
In explaining Foxfield’s decline, Cowles said matter-of-factly: “The community got tired of the over-alcoholic event that students turned it into in the Spring races.” The fact that the event was not allied with any major charities — as are many other steeplechase meets on the NSA circuit — was a negative, too, he added. Poor promotion and a lack of advertising further fed the decline.
“Our community-based board and now as a 501(c)(3) under Garth Road Preservation has added imagination, strategic planning, improved grounds, and in concert with the Virginia Alcoholic Beverage Control Authority, the Albemarle County Police, and Anheuser-Busch, we are developing a plan for spring to minimize alcohol consumption and behavior,” Cowles said.
The board has invested heavily in the course turf management under vice chairman Jack Sanford’s direction. More appropriate mowing schedules, a fertilization plan, over-seeding, aeration, and mapping of slopes and soil are part of the improvements. Cowles asserted that the race course itself is in the best shape it has been in for years.
To help ensure long-term financial solvency, Foxfield developed the Founders Circle, a collection of community members who have committed substantial funds over a five-year-period. The board also initiated another group, called the Foxfield 500, 10 commercial backers who have committed tents and commercial sponsorships toward Habitat for Humanity of Charlottesville, the event’s new fall charity. Foxfield will donate $50,000 to the development of Habitat’s Southwood community. The Foxfield Spring Races will benefit the University of Virginia Pediatric Cancer Center.
“Our board wanted a social justice charity and a medical (charity), and these are great charities in our community,” Cowles said. “This is part of the ‘good neighbor’ (initiative), and the other part is the alcohol control and producing a safe event.”
$95,000 in purses up for grabs
The Foxfield card consists of six races (with 42 entries), worth $95,000, including a $20,000 handicap hurdle for horses rated at 110 or lower; a $25,000 maiden hurdle and another $25,000 maiden hurdle restricted to fillies and mares; a $10,000 hurdle for apprentice riders; $15,000 maiden claiming hurdle; and training flat contest.
First race post time is 12:30 p.m., but the day’s activities begin at 11 a.m., with the Jack Russell Terrier Races. The parade of hounds is at 11:50 a.m., and the stick pony races for children commence at 1:15 p.m. There will also be additional activities for children throughout the day. Gates open at 9:30 a.m.
If you cannot make it to the races in person, be sure to watch the live stream, which you can access via the National Steeplechase Association’s web site: https://www.nationalsteeplechase.com/jump-racing-usa/. The live stream is sponsored by Brown Advisory, the Temple Gwathmey Steeplechase Foundation, Charleston’s Post & Courier, and the Virginia Equine Alliance.
Here’s a link to the entries: https://www.nationalsteeplechase.com/wp-content/uploads/2021/09/Foxfield-Overnight.pdf