Horse World Reacts To Worldwide Pandemic; Virginia Schedule Changes

The following was written by Betsy Burke Parker and appeared in Fauquier Times March 17.

Postponing the Virginia Gold Cup was a no-brainer, race officials say.

Finding a new date was a little harder to wrap their minds around.

Though there are no known cases of COVID-19 in Virginia’s equestrian community, the horse world has been hit hard by the global pandemic – from cancellation of the smallest practice events to the gigantic Gold Cup, one of the nation’s most prestigious steeplechases and the region’s largest sporting event.

In recommending that no gatherings of more than 10 people be held for the next eight weeks, the Centers for Disease Control forced the hand of meet fence-straddlers hoping to retain Gold Cup’s traditional first Saturday in May date.

Virginia Gold Cup race chair and new president of the National Steeplechase Association, Al Griffin told the Fauquier Times that Gold Cup has been moved to June 20. The date, he said, was not chosen lightly.

Horses compete in the Warrenton Hunt Point-to-Point March 14 at the Airlie Racecourse. Photo by Douglas Lees.

“This date allows other race meets to run before Gold Cup,” as on the normal spring circuit. This allows, Griffin said, an opportunity “to build the conditions in a synergistic way.”

As big a deal as it is, Gold Cup doesn’t exist in a vacuum. Traditionally, Gold Cup is the last big timber stake on the spring ’chase circuit. Griffin believes the de-constructed and re-constructed NSA spring schedule achieves a similar slow burn. The 100th running of the Middleburg Spring Races, originally set April 18, will be May 30. The 3 1/4-mile Middleburg Hunt Cup is traditionally a “prep” for the four-mile Gold Cup.

The NSA spring calendar may have been rebuilt, sandwiched into late May and June — traditionally a fallow time between spring hunt meets and summer major track ‘chasing — but the local point-to-point circuit has been fully abandoned.

Virginia Point-to-Point Foundation president Don Yovanovich said Rappahannock Hunt races opened the series with an “excellent meet” on March 7, with the Warrenton Hunt Point-to-Point run as scheduled March 14 at Airlie with world-class entries overfilling a 10-race program. But the circuit’s four other hunt-sponsored races have been canceled due to crowd-control measures that effectively make sporting events impossible.

“These cancellations are unprecedented,” Yovanovich said, saying the March 21 Piedmont Foxhounds Point-to-Point he’s chaired for decades decided to cancel early on Monday, along with the Upperville club’s hunter pace. “This situation is very real and very serious. It is the risk that’s (especially) worrisome when among crowds,” as typically attend Virginia’s popular steeplechases. “It’s a shame, everything for a great season was in front of us – great weather so far, good footing and lots of horses and new riders.

“We can only wait this situation out. It’s the only responsible thing to do.”

Andi’Amu clears one of the timber hurdles at Great Meadow en route to victory in the 2019 Virginia Gold Cup. Photo by Douglas Lees.

Local races aren’t the only ones affected – the May 2 Kentucky Derby is almost certain to shift to the autumn, insiders believe, and England’s April 4 Grand National Steeplechase has been canceled altogether. Three-day eventing’s elite international Badminton and Land Rover Kentucky (formerly Rolex) have been canceled.

Most area foxhunt clubs stopped their seasons early – many last weekend, others ending early this week. The prestigious Southern Hound Show and Central States Hound show have been canceled; the world’s largest hound event – the Virginia Foxhound Club show slated May 24 – is still on schedule, but that may change, officials warn.

“It’s the horses and fans, that are the big losers,” said Warrenton sporting photographer Douglas Lees, two-time Eclipse Award-winner. “The horses might (compete) next spring, but they’re a year older, and this kind of time off, you never know.”

Gold Cup executive director Diane Jones said the mass confusion has been a major disruption. “Never in my life have I seen this kind of behavior, except when there was a snowstorm,” Jones said. Great Meadow director of communications Kira Topeka added that center staff is “actively monitoring the situation. We’ll work around it.”

Topeka said she hopes the Aug. 20 to 23 Great Meadow International will be able to run as scheduled. The “short format” event might actually benefit from suspension of elite-level competition this spring, with the late August date setting competitors up for four-star and five-star events later in the fall. “We’ll navigate this dynamic situation,” she said.