The show jumps on at Middleburg Saturday

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The Middleburg Spring Races of 2020 were meant to be a celebration of the historic meet’s 100th running in mid-April. One hundred. Since 1921, horses and people have been racing around Glenwood Park, watching from the boxes nestled into the rocks, socializing behind open tailgates along the home stretch and admiring one of American jump racing’s great vistas.

Like all celebrations this year, everything is different. The coronavirus pandemic shut down the idea of the traditional April date, forced the cancelation of 14 other National Steeplechase Association race meetings and altered almost everything about the Middleburg Spring Races.

But the races are on. Saturday, the historic race meet hosts 11 races, 119 horses and a limited number of people. Race officials, trainers, jockeys and grooms will make the racing go. Emergency personnel and some important people from the Virginia Department of Health will also be there to make sure everything goes according to the protocols in place.

There will be no tailgates, no people in those box seats once frequented by President Kennedy, no antique cars following the dirt driveway, no food truck on the hill, no fancy hats sold in the tent behind the paddock.

“That part is so sad,” said Doug Fout, a steeplechase trainer, president of the race meet and clerk of the course at Glenwood. “For the first time in 44 years we had everything sold out. There wasn’t an empty spot, tailgate space, tent, anything. Everybody bought tickets. We were sold out by the end of March and had to turn our ticketing website off because people kept buying stuff. We had no more room . . . and we had to give all that money back.”

Fout, his board, members of the Sports Council (a select group of supporters started by Fout’s father Paul) and others tapped as many sources as they could for $200,000 in purses, funded temporary barns to ensure social distancing in the stable area, reorganized the jockeys’ changing area, paid for extra sanitization of common areas and kept in fairly constant contact with the Department of Health and other experts. All people on the grounds must be checked in by 11:15 a.m. Saturday, at which point the Glenwood gates will be closed.

Fout singled out sponsor Merrill Lynch for staying on board, plus contributions from the Grassi family (in memory of Temple Gwathmey, namesake of the feature race), Peggy Steinman, Lauren Woolcott, Jacqueline Ohrstrom, Vivian Warren and Sharon Sheppard as key supporters plus the Virginia Equine Alliance, the Temple Gwathmey Steeplechase Foundation and the National Steeplechase Association’s reverted purse fund.

“Because of kind people who love the game for what it is and stepped up when we needed them we are able to do this,” Fout said. “That’s the only reason. The biggest thing it shows me is how many people care. It gives you an idea how tight this community is. It’s there, and it matters.”

The work at Middleburg, and the Virginia Gold Cup June 27, ensures that steeplechase horses and horsemen have some racing. The 2019 season ended in November and 2020 was supposed to begin in March and include stops in South Carolina, North Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia, Maryland, Delaware and Pennsylvania. Some $2 million worth of races were lost. Unlike flat racing, where wagering fuels the bulk of the sport’s finances, the steeplechase circuit counts on spectators and sponsors for survival. A ban on public gatherings for health reasons basically shut down the sport.

Through time, effort and a little luck, Middleburg and the Gold Cup saw it through and made racing (even a little racing) a reality.

“I promised the horsemen in March I would do the best I could to make the races go,” Fout said. “We got pretty close there to the deadline about not doing it, but we stayed with it. We ran out of purse structure, but we wanted to give horsemen the opportunities. There’s been no racing all year, and that’s hard.”

Horsemen responded with a record 225 entries taken June 1 (two weeks out to try to sort through the demand and craft a program). In the end, 11 races were carded with 119 horses in the fields. Another 28 are on the also-eligible lists, after exclusions.

“I remember saying over the winter that I thought this was the largest horse inventory I’d seen in a decade,” said Bill Gallo, director of racing for the NSA. “Then everything blew up. I fully expected more horses to come out of training. I think a few did, some of the timber horses logically did. This is historic. The reality is there’s no revenue – no sponsorships, no spectators, but we’re all in this together. We’ve got to get past this spot. If we just stopped racing, it would have a debilitating effect on everybody.”

Saturday’s card includes something for almost every horse – the $50,000 Temple Gwathmey Handicap over hurdles, a loaded allowance for non-winners of two over hurdles, two stocked maiden hurdle races (one restricted to 4-year-olds), a filly/mare maiden hurdle, two maiden claimers over hurdles, a maiden timber, an open timber, the Alfred Hunt cross-country race and a 16-runner training flat.

NSA president Al Griffin, whose term began this year, worked closely with state officials on the protocols and setup of the meet. He’s also the co-chairman of the Virginia Gold Cup, and appreciates the work that went into salvaging even two race meets this spring.

“It’s been a long road,” he said. “Three months of unknown. Because it’s. been that way, you just keep asking, ‘What’s going to keep us from running now?’ But I think we’re good. We’re in great shape as far as the plan part goes. Now we have to implement it. I’m really excited about where we are. We just wanted to maximize whatever opportunity we could for people.”

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The races from Middleburg and the Virginia Gold Cup will be available via live stream. Access the feed via the NSA Network here.