Every January, it would happen to Duncan Patterson. His friends and business associates knew he did something with horses, knew the Winterthur Point-to-Point was coming up, knew they just had to ask him.
“Are you riding at Point-to-Point this year?”
Patterson would laugh and try to explain. First, there’s more than one point-to-point so don’t call it that. Second, nobody really knows if they’re riding in a horse race until it happens.
Patterson, now a national racing official and Delaware businessman, rode at the first Winterthur races back in 1979 and was a regular for years. The amateur rider with a career in real estate won a few races, lost far more, joined the race meet’s organizing committee, ultimately became its chairman and can be credited with helping Winterthur join the National Steeplechase Association a dozen years ago.
“It’s fun and a great community event,” said Patterson, who stayed on the committee but handed the chairmanship over to Josh Taylor in 2012. “The success of it is really something. They have really good people and it shows.”
Back in 1979, Patterson rode in two races on the card – Koolabah in the heavyweight timber and Blue Haven in the open flat. Neither did much running. Patterson returned for several years and broke through with a win in 1983. Ventarron and Patterson prevailed over just one other finisher in the heavyweight timber as Kilkea Castle went off course. Bred in Virginia by Larry Jones (no, not that one), Ventarron won on the flat at Delaware Park in 1977 before switching to jump racing for Patterson, his wife Beezie and co-owner Bill Lickle.
The next year, Patterson found the winner’s circle again – this time aboard Pink Squirrel (another Patterson-Lickle combination). Pink Squirrel, a Pennsylvania-bred by Son Excellence, outran four others including a horse named Harvey. In Pink Squirrel’s prior life, he won three times at Charles Town and later won over hurdles at Fair Hill (in a race with a $5,000 purse). No matter, for one day at Winterthur the chestnut was a star.
“Just riding there was a big deal,” said Patterson, who lives a few miles from the race course. “People would start in January, are you riding at point-to-point? They had no clue. Some people say 90 percent of the people who go to steeplechase meets don’t go to another race and at Winterthur it might be 99 percent. It’s really fun though, and the way it’s grown over the years is amazing. People don’t want to miss it.”
Patterson won the flat race again, aboard Performance Bond in 1988, but recalled the last jump race he ever rode – also at Winterthur. The horse landed on his knees and skidded to a stop as Patterson gingerly stepped/rolled off and their race was over.
Walking back to the paddock, leading his horse, Patterson thought about what just happened.
“I’ve been doing this for 20 years and this is the easiest fall I’ve ever had,” he told himself. “They’re not going to get any easier as I get older. Maybe somebody is trying to tell me something.”
He never rode over jumps again.
Patterson eventually became a steward on the steeplechase circuit and later a member of the Delaware Racing Commission, all the while building his real-estate business Patterson-Schwartz and several spinoffs including Patterson-Woods and Patterson-Price. Now, he chairs the Delaware Commission and also heads the committee on drug testing standards for Racing Commissioners International. In the 2000s, when entries on the the point-to-point circuit (unsanctioned, with no purse money) began to decline, Patterson steered Winterthur toward official NSA sanction. It took a legislative change, and some political wrangling to achieve – since Delaware Park was the only authorized Thoroughbred racing for purse money in the state – but Winterthur joined the NSA circuit in 2006 and will offer $70,000 in purses for its 2018 running May 6.
“Some people were against it early on, but it got more and more difficult to fill the races since it’s a little bit late in the spring for some of those horses,” Patterson said. “We had to get the legislation passed, and it somehow became a Republican/Democrat issue for a while but it got done and the races are healthy and growing.”
But he’s not riding.
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. For more installments, click on the logo below or the Throwback Thursday text tag.