The thoroughbreds in the Virginia Gold Cup steeplechase look like distant figures in a landscape by J.M.W. Turner as they take the far jumps on the long timber course called Great Meadow in northern Fauquier County. � Here in the soft, rolling foothills of Pignut Mountain, a steady breeze ruffles the wildflowers in the infield of the mile-and-three-quarters track. Stables are clean, hedges clipped, manure invisible. Everything from the paddock to the weigh-in pavilion is as immaculately tailored as a legislator lunching at Richmond's rigorously exclusive Commonwealth Club.
The Gold Cup and its sister, the International Gold Cup, are not only two of the most prominent steeplechase events in the United States but also Virginia's last bastions of aristocracy and Anglophilia. Held on the first Saturday of May, the Gold Cup kicks off the summer racing season, a season that ends—as it will next Saturday—on the same track with the International. Though still magnets for the rich and semifamous, the two race meetings are no longer just for the horsey set of Virginia hunt country. The Gold Cup draws 50,000 fun lovers; the International, about half that. "We have the haves, the have-nots and the have-some-todays," says local trainer Neil Morris.
For a purse of $50,000 and a thistle-shaped, octagonal goblet, horsemen contest the Gold Cup over four miles and 23 timber fences. The rest of the program features pony races, hurdles and a steeplethon run over a three-mile obstacle course that includes brush, timber, a ditch-and-hedge jump, a chicken coop, a sod-topped stone wall and an imposing 170-foot-long water jump not unlike the Reflecting Pool at the Washington Monument.
The steeplethon is the proud creation of Nick Arundel, the 75-year-old sugar granddaddy of Great Meadow, who stepped forward in 1982 when the former site of the Gold Cup, a leased course in Warrenton, was about to fall to development. The newspaper publishing magnate bought a tract of swampy Fauquier farmland at auction for $2 million, intending, he says, to turn "the old crayfish field" into a racecourse like Aintree, home of Great Britain's Grand National steeplechase.
Great Meadow lies about midway between Warrenton and Middleburg, a rural swath of the Piedmont that's full of associations with Virginia's Revolutionary and Civil War past. Middle-burg was established in 1787 by Revolutionary War army officer Levin Powell, who bought the land for $2.50 an acre from Joseph Chinn, a cousin of George Washington. Confederate Col. John Mosby met his Rangers regularly at the Red Fox Inn, which still stands and bills itself as the oldest tavern in America. Some of the barflies look old enough to have been Civil War conscripts.
Virginia, a state rich enough in thoroughbred stock to have been the birthplace of Secretariat and enough other winners to total 21 Triple Crown victories, has been steeplechase country since the 18th century. Washington and Thomas Jefferson jumped fences for sport there, and organized races have been run in Fauquier County since 1844. The inaugural Gold Cup was held on April 3,1922, and was won by Katherine Hitt's Irish Laddie. By winning three Cups, with two more victories in the next three years, Hitt retired the first trophy. In the years since, the Cup has been retired only five more times, most recently by Henry and Ann Stern's six-time champ Saluter (1994-99), which in his final victory covered the four miles in a record 8 minutes, 23 4/5 seconds. "They say there are horses for courses, and courses for horses," says Arundel. "This was the course for that horse."
The lineage of Gold Cup horses is rivaled only by that of their owners, many of whom earned their money the old-fashioned way: They inherited it. "One need only look at a page of the Middleburg Life [monthly newspaper] to find names with Old Virginia pedigrees," says spectator Georgia Getz, the sort of arriviste natives snootily call "come-heres" (as opposed to "been-heres").
Gentrified manor folk still come to the Gold Cups with their yeomen retainers, but every year suburbia creeps ever closer. Upper-class women favor pearls, tea dresses and hats that are vast confections of flowers, tulle and feathers. The menfolk are identifiable by their striped club ties, kelly-green pants and sensible blue blazers. Some of the more mature gents still affect ascots and houndstooth sports jackets, but not many.
They drive into their slots by the rail on Members Hill and tailgate off the back doors of their Range Rovers and Jeep Liberties and vintage Buick Roadmasters, the last of the wood-paneled estate cars. Virginia's old money tends to lard its coolers with Triscuits, goat cheese and half gallons of Dewars. The new money sets out damask tablecloths with sterling candelabras and extravagant floral arrangements that would not be inappropriate at a White House state dinner. The Rule: Old money watches the horses; new money watches each other.
From his seat on Members Hill, actor Robert Duvall takes it all in with wry amusement. "You come to the Gold Cup, you socialize, you watch a race, you try in vain to find a good piece of food, then you socialize a little more," says Duvall, who owns a nearby horse farm. "Lots of times the racing itself is boring as hell. Don't quote me, though. I'll be assassinated."