Virginia Gold Cup Adds a Grade 1 Stakes to its May 4 Date
Virginia’s horse racing event calendar for 2024 is set and in addition to dates at Colonial Downs (thoroughbred) and Shenandoah Downs (harness), seven spring Point-to-Point (PTP) meets along with seven National Steeplechase Association (NSA) sanctioned meets –- three in spring and four in fall — fill in the calendar.
The Rappahannock PTP kicks the season off March 2 at The Hill in Boston with a rain date of the following Saturday, March 9. Additional meets in March include Warrenton Hunt PTP March 16 at the Airlie Race Course, the Piedmont Fox Hounds PTP March 23 at the Salem Course in Upperville and the Blue Ridge Hunt PTP March 30 at the Woodley Farm in Berryville. Heading into April, the Old Dominion Hounds Point-to-Point kicks the month off on the 6th at the Ben Venue Farm in Ben Venue, VA. followed by a pair of Sunday gatherings — the Loudoun Hunt PTP April 21 at Morven Park in Leesburg and the Middleburg Hunt PTP April 28 at Glenwood Park.
The Virginia Equine Alliance (VEA) will again offer a popular Starter Rewards initiative called “Point-to-Points Pay”. The program began in 2019 and has helped to enhance participation in the early spring race meets. The concept is straightforward— every time a Virginia-owned or Virginia-trained horse makes a start in any PTP race, the owner will receive a $200 starter reward. The bonus is designed to increase steeplechase participation at all levels, from owner-rider divisions to open hurdle and timber divisions.
Growth of this program is important and in 2024, two of the PTP meets will raise their profiles dramatically. The Old Dominion Hounds card will host a trio of NSA sanctioned races for the second year in a row and for the first time ever, the Blue Ridge Hunt will host a pair of NSA sanctioned events.
“The Point-to-Point season is critical and gets horses ready for sanctioned races,” said NSA Director of Racing Bill Gallo. “It provides a feeding ground and gives trainers a good gauge on what they’ve got. The NSA is engaged with the Point-to- Points more than ever. It is a very exciting step to be able to combine sanctioned races into a non-sanctioned race card. That aspect provides a nice synergy between the Point-to-Points and the NSA.”
“Spring in Virginia is heralded for many by the beginning of the steeplechase season,” said NSA President, Dr. Al Griffin. “From the Point-to-Points that begin in March through the National Steeplechase Association meets in April and May, jump racing provides an exciting and varied experience to gather with family and friends for a great day at the races.”
A trio of those NSA spring jump meets will be contested on three consecutive Saturdays starting with the Middleburg Spring Races at Glenwood Park April 20 followed by the Foxfield Spring Races in Charlottesville April 27 and the Virginia Gold Cup at Great Meadow in The Plains –- that features pari-mutuel wagering — on Kentucky Derby Day, May 4. Griffin spoke of unique aspects each of the three provide.
“In addition to great racing, Middleburg’s Spring Race Meet is known for its beautiful setting and spectacular tailgates. The Foxfield Races is where racing enthusiasts and college students come together to celebrate spring at a renewed and greatly updated Foxfield Racecourse. Foxfield also contributes significantly to the local community in the form of its financial support of local charities, including Habitat for Humanity. The Gold Cup is known for its high quality racing and wide open race course and will be hosting a Grade One Hurdle Race this year for the first time, one of only two grade one steeplechase races in America run in the spring season.”
Heading into warmer weather months, Colonial Downs will continue its successful weekly steeplechase program by offering two jump races every Friday during their summer thoroughbred meet — with a potential twist. Discussions are taking place about making the races part of Colonial’s betting card instead of presenting them before that day’s pari-mutuel program begins — and live streamed only to NSA online viewers. If that plan moves forward, the jump pair would be treated like Colonial’s flat races – simulcast to a broader audience that wagers an average of $2 million-plus per program. In all, 18 sanctioned steeplechase races will offered at the New Kent facility.
“Having our races there each week has been impactful to say the least,” said Gallo. “It has made a significant difference to our summer racing schedule. It’s remarkable actually. To be part of the pari-mutuel program this year would just add another element. Having two races per week over the 9-week meet enables us to focus on maiden and ratings races, in addition to two nice filly stakes races (Life’s Illusion & Randolph D. Rouse) which don’t conflict with Saratoga. This provides a tremendous opportunity for horsemen with jump racing at Saratoga on Wednesdays and at Colonial on Fridays. The schedule allows jockeys and trainers to travel back and forth easily.”
The state of steeplechase racing seems to be on the rise according to Gallo. “Coming out of pandemic, it’s been a long road back but it’s been a remarkable journey – from competing with no fans in 2020 to where we are now. We have a solid horse population and have new owners coming into the sport. From an infrastructure standpoint, Foxfield revamped their racecourse and they, along with the Gold Cup, added an irrigation system to their course. Foxfield will inherit races from Charlotte, North Carolina and be able to present an upgraded card in 2024 which includes a $75,000 novice stakes renamed in honor of D.G. Van Clief. Middleburg Spring Races plays host to the Temple Gwathmey Stakes and the Gold Cup has the Semmes and Gold Cup Stakes itself. That is an impressive spring stakes lineup between the three Virginia tracks.”
Foxfield’s Van Clief Stakes, which had been known as the Queen’s Cup, is the middle leg of a three-part series with the Carolina Cup and a novice stakes at Iroquois.
Absent from the steeplechase scene this spring is Will O’Keefe, who passed away December 18. Will was a longtime race caller for race meets in Virginia and throughout the steeplechase circuit nationally who also wrote regularly for “In and Around Horse Country. “Will is a longtime Virginia horseman,” said Griffin. “Will’s voice was easily recognizable to all in racing and his enthusiastic calls defined the thrill of racing in the countryside for over 40 years.”
“It’s quite a loss,” added Gallo. “He wasn’t just a race caller. He worked the PTPs and created the Central Entry Office (clearinghouse for all events) which will continue to be used. I’ve known and worked with Will for 45 years. He is a special kind of guy. He put his heart and soul into racing. Will called in Maryland too so his presence went beyond Virginia. He had a big focus on Point to Points.”