Throwback Thursday: The first Winterthur Point-to-Point

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In honor of its 40th running this year, the Winterthur Point-to-Point steeplechase meet presents a weekly Steeplechase Throwback Thursday feature. We’ll look back on historic moments, horses and people in the jumping game – at least a few connected to the race meet on the grounds of the famed Winterthur Museum and Gardens just north of Wilmington, Del. This year’s races are Sunday, May 6.

You’ve got to start somewhere. The first Winterthur Point-to-Point shared a page deep in the Wilmington Morning News sports section with coverage of pacer No No Yankee’s upset loss to Richmond at Brandywine Raceway – in front of 5,373 – the night before. The handle was $481,589, presumably all on-track.

The page included results and entries from Liberty Bell, the continuation of a University of Delaware baseball game story (the Blue Hens swept St. Joe’s), a few paragraphs about Salesianum High’s 11-3 baseball win over St. Elizabeth’s (Timmy Szymanski hit a grand slam) and the end of a story about Spectacular Bid’s triumph in the Kentucky Derby the day before (trainer Bud Delp was confident of a repeat effort in the Preakness). Oh, and don’t forget the tire advertisement from JC Penney, where $25 would get you a B78-13 bias ply whitewall. Balancing would cost you $16 more.

It was 1979, the year ESPN became a thing, Pink Floyd released The Wall, Sony sold its first Walkman and somebody invented the snowboard.

And a Delaware phenomenon was born.

It’s simply called “Point-to-Point” by the thousands who show up on the first Sunday in May every year. Back then, Winterthur offered no purse money and was a largely amateur affair. Sanctioned by the NSA since 2007, the racing is still pretty casual – four timber races, one flat race – but it’s a bigger deal with purse money, professional jockeys, top horses, paid officials, live video on big screens and all the other trappings. And of course, tailgate parties to put any college football game to shame.

“The chief architect of the plan was “Greets” Layton,” said Paddy Neilson, a steeplechase trainer and jockey, and one of the initial course designers of Winterthur. Layton was Greta Brown Layton. She was on the Winterthur board for 40 years and thought a point-to-point would help generate interest in the museum, a former du Pont family estate with a collection of 90,000 objects made in America between 1640 and 1860, a 60-acre garden and 1,000 acres of preserved meadows and woodlands.

“She wanted to use the races as a way to get people to the grounds,” said Neilson, “It was terrific. Every now and then people have ideas whose time never comes. This was an idea whose time came.”

And how. Winterthur’s races became the outdoor social event of the spring and ultimately a major contributor of funds, awareness and activity for the museum thanks to corporate sponsors, loyal buyers of tailgate spaces and horsemen who show up with runners.

“It was a slice of France, really,” said Neilson, who worked with Donny Ross, Russell Jones and others to design the course and help with the early steps. “It was popular from the beginning with people, and horsemen liked to go. It was a much bigger idea than anybody thought it was going to be.”

Today’s Point-to-Point raises $250,000 annually, and is as much a part of the museum as the antiques, art and silverworks.

“Greets started it,” said Jill Abbott, who started at Winterthur 20 years ago and is now the race director. “She did it because she wanted people to know more about Winterthur, she wanted to bring more people to Winterthur. To go from that to where we are today with 18,000 people – it’s our largest fundraiser – that says it all. It’s a beautiful place, a beautiful day in May. It really begins the spring. Generations have come here now.”

Of course, even big ideas have growing pains. Organizers spent plenty of pre-race energy convincing golfers at the adjacent Wilmington Country Club that loose horses would not wind up galloping down the fairways. On race day, Neilson recalled seeing the public-address system go up in smoke – and silence – before the first race. Upon further review, that may not have been the first year – Abbott’s been told there was no PA system that first year – but it happened. Late in the day the first year, crossing guards and many of the spectators were completely unaware that the flat race had been split into two divisions.

“Somehow, miraculously there were no real disasters,” said Neilson. “The races happened, nobody drove out on the course and it was a great beginning.”

And – as far as anyone knows – no horses have ever been on the golf course.

Thirty-nine horses started in five races in 1979, with the first (ladies timber) won by Eriatsa. Steeplechase legend Joy Valentine owned the winner, a son of Dancer’s Image whose name is Astaire backward. Valentine’s daughter Jill Fanning trained the winner and granddaughter Joy Slater was the jockey.

The featured Winterthur Bowl, a 3-mile open timber race, attracted eight runners including future two-time Maryland Hunt Cup winner Tong. The 5-year-old was just getting started in 1979, however, and settled for third. Irish Sailor won the race by a half length over Master’s Degree for jockey Jay Griswold, who met Gov. Pete du Pont in the winner’s circle and left Delaware as the answer to a trivia question.

“Damn right I did,” Griswold said when recently informed that he won the first feature race at Winterthur. “Three of us owned that horse – myself, a friend of mine Roland Slingluff and my uncle Fife Symington. Irish Sailor was a good jumper, but wasn’t anything real special and I’m not sure it was all that tough of a race.”

When told that Tong finished behind him, Griswold of course changed direction.

“Oh, it was a better race than I thought it was,” he said. “It must have been a terrific race.”

Like anyone else there the first day, Griswold (who won the Winterthur Bowl again in 1986 aboard Mikendon) is impressed with Winterthur’s growth and longevity.

“My uncle Fife was great friends with Greets Layton so it would have been important for him to come up there with a horse,” said the Marylander who is still active as an owner. “They’ve really figured it out. They get an upscale crowd, do a good job with it all and it’s become a great place to go.”

In celebration of its 40th running, the Winterthur Bowl will carry a purse of $40,000 (its highest ever) to headline the four-race card. Post time is 2 p.m. The antique cars will be there, so will the horse-drawn carriages, fancy spring outfits and – in a fitting tribute – the annual presentation of the Greta Brown Layton Trophy to the owner, trainer or jockey accumulating the most points on the day based on race results.

“She was the grande dame of Point-to-Point,” Abbott said of Layton, who died in 2014. “She epitomized a lady, because that was Greets, and she was the definition of Point-to-Point and everything I do. I have the best job in the world. I want to do it to make her proud.”

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Read more about Layton here.

A few photos from 1979 (courtesy of Winterthur Point-to-Point). That open field in photo three is full of people on raceday:


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