The foremost coming-out social event of the spring, the 88th running of the Virginia Gold Cup will draw more than 50,000 well-coiffed supporters from as far west as Nashville and as far north as New York. On May 4, they’ll descend on Great Meadow in The Plains, Virginia, to cheer on the largest and most exclusive racing affair in the Washington metropolitan area. Convention prevails, as horse racing has been a Fauquier County tradition since 1844. Horses were a relied upon form of transportation during early colonial times—George Washington and Thomas Jefferson reportedly even met in competition—and the region’s first organized races were run at White Sulphur Springs in West Virginia. The events moved to nearby Warrenton, Virginia, where eight sportsmen organized a four-mile race—the state’s first official Gold Cup—in 1922. The event has gained notoriety and fans nearly every year since, with only a few interruptions during World War II.
This year’s May 4 race day features the usual hurdle and timber horse races, Jack Russell terrier races, and various contests (including those for tailgating and hats), but it is also the first time that the Virginia Gold Cup Association (VGCA) will offer parimutuel betting. “The Virginia Racing Commission granted us a license to host pari-mutuel betting [“pooled” wagering against other people, as opposed to the house], which is something very new for steeplechase races and adds a great new dimension to ours,” says Dr. Will Allison, VGCA president. Looking to Churchill Downs, the premier racetrack of the Kentucky Derby, as a model, the VGCA will now host the only two steeplechase events in the state with approved pari-mutuel betting. The motivation for the new method is to counter decreased corporate sponsorship due to the economic downturn, Allison says. “We hope to raise more money this year to make our races even more attractive to horsemen.”
The association is also looking to implement modern technology with Wi-Fi-enabled wagering. Allison hopes to have the course equipped by the fall so that spectators will be able to bet from their smartphones: “With Wi-Fi around the whole course, you will be able to dial into a betting channel from your parking spot, and place a bet.”
Cocktails and Competition
Race day features six hurdle and timber events and Jack Russell terrier races, yet total track time only occupies a small part of the activities. “The day consists of 30 minutes of race-watching, and the rest of it is for people-watching,” quips Allison. The annual hat contest adds to the charm, he says. “Every year, the ladies seem to outdo themselves with imagination, size, color, and design of their hats… and our men are very stylish, too.”
Marriott Ranch, a nearby 4,200-acre working cattle ranch, will cater Members Hill, an area that overlooks the Winners Circle and offers the best view of the course from the tents. In keeping with Gold Cup culinary customs, the menu is designed as picnic fare with upscale flair. Executive Chef John C. Conklin is overseeing this year’s menu offerings. “For the first time, our guests will enjoy fennel-rubbed tenderloin of beef, roasted cinnamon chipotle salmon, assorted pastel Persian macaroons, Cajun fried chicken, and a smoked fish trio featuring trout, salmon, and whitefish,” he explains. Adding to the fun is a “build-your-own” bellini station.
Of course, a day in Hunt Country would not be complete without the ubiquitous cocktail made famous by horse racing culture. “Our most popular is the mint julep, as one might imagine, in the spirit of the day of horse racing and the Kentucky Derby,” says Lanier Cate, general manager of Marriott Ranch. Inspired by the official cocktail of the Virginia Gold Cup, race-day carousers will compete to create the perfect mint julep. Judged by local arbiters of taste, the annual tailgate contest also calls for originality in décor, themes, and food recipes. For more information call 540-347-2612