Nearly a century ago, eight sportsmen met in Virginia at the Fauquier Club with the shared goal of creating a legendary steeplechase race. From its inception, the gentlemen’s ambition was to host an event that would entice the best hunters from across America to compete each and every year. Thirty-four days after they met in May, their first race, which is known today as the Virginia Gold Cup, was held in the Virginia countryside.

The modern day steeplechase is a long-distance horseback riding competition whereby competitors race through a course set up to emulate the challenges of hunting on horseback. Originating in Ireland in the mid-1700s as a race from one village’s church steeple to the next (thus the name steeplechase), the event is enormously challenging for horse and rider as they jump stone walls, fences and hedges.

What Happens at the Virginia Gold Cup

Competitors mount their horses, gather up their reins and spur their equine companions across the rolling hills before them. Navigating the marked course, the horses jump over multiple obstacles in hot pursuit of the promised trophy and accompanying prestige—wining the Virginia Gold Cup. The four-mile race challenges the horse and riders’ speed, agility and endurance, all while competing against some of the best equestrians in the country.

Where Did the Gold Cup First Run?

The original landscape for the Gold Cup race was tucked along the hills abutting the Blue Ridge Mountains at an estate at Oakwood. The historic venue, a residence once owned by President Lincoln’s personal physician, Dr. Robert King Stone, was apt for the commencement of what would become a historic day. At the first race in 1922, the event’s founding fathers pledged $1,000 to purchase a trophy for the owner of the winning horse, and resolved to bequeath the trophy permanently to the first competitor to win the Virginia Gold Cup three times.

Has a Horse Ever Won the Gold Cup Three Years in a Row?

In 1994, Henry Stern and Jack Fisher decided to take a chance on their five-year old horse named Saluter, by entering him in the Virginia Gold Cup races. Sure enough, Saluter brought home the title as the youngest Virginia Gold Cup winner since 1953. From there, it was quite the journey. Saluter posted wins at many other races, including the Middleburg Hunt Cup, Radnor Hunt Cup, Virginia Hunt Cup, St. James Hunt Cup and the Marlborough Cup in Wiltshire, England in 1997.

That same year, the equestrian world established the World Timber Championship, offering an envious prize to any horse who consecutively won the Virginia Gold Cup and England’s only timber race, the Marlborough Cup. After coming back from an injury, Saluter galloped to victory.

Throughout his career, Saluter broke many records. Between 1994 and 1999, he won the Virginia Gold Cup six times and the International Gold Cup in 1998 and 1999. Many remember him for his “come-from-behind” runs. In 2008, at the 83rd running of the Virginia Gold Cup, 45,000 spectators gathered at Great Meadow to acknowledge Fisher and Stern’s contributions to the sport. The race also commemorated Saluter’s career, and his winning the Virginia Gold Cup Timber Stakes six consecutive years. Following his final win, the Gold Cup trophy was retired and a permanent bronze statue of Saluter was placed beside the Great Meadow Race Course.

Where is the Virginia Gold Cup Held?

When a philanthropist and news executive bought Great Meadow, the Virginia Gold Cup’s current home, a new era of racing began. The course challenged horses and riders to new degrees, demanding new levels of athleticism and endurance. The fences at Great Meadow are higher than its original home and demand both speed and fortitude while racing the four-mile course. “A Gold Cup winner at Great Meadow must be a very talented animal,” 1978 Gold Cup Winner Don Yovanovich said in an interview at the time.

Today, the Virginia Gold Cup has realized its founders’ ambition of becoming one of the most prestigious and competitive races in America. Viewers come from across the country to watch the fierce competition play out on the demanding course.

This year, 2020, marked the 95th Annual Virginia Gold Cup. Due to COVID-19, for the first time in the event’s history, crowds had to watch the spring races from the comfort of their homes, and will be doing the same for the upcoming 2020 fall races on Saturday, October 24.

Although some aspects of the steeplechase have changed over the past century, the spirit of good hearted competition and appreciation for the bond between horse and rider remain. Race day typically features seven different races, in addition to a plethora of newer activities and competitions. Horses are not the only animals showcasing their talents; terriers streak across a course to compete in the terrier races.

Other Things To Do at the Virginia Gold Cup

When the event normally welcomes thousands of attendees in person, they also host a variety of competitions for equestrian lovers. Dressed in their best, attendees can also enter the crowd-pleasing hat competition. Women wearing seasonal dresses don everything from elegant fuchsia fascinators to race-day themed horse hats as they sip mint juleps, while men clad in sports coats and ties show off bowlers or top hats while toasting to wagers. No matter whether they are gathered along the rails of the track or up on top of Members Hill in tents reserved for patrons, all who attend appreciate the sheer beauty and power of the horses.

As they have for decades, spectators also bring picnics, host tailgates or stroll through the Tavern Tents that serve beer, wine and other delightful refreshments. And, fans can be seen with their trunks open wide sharing hors d’oeuvres with friends and family.

Today, the Virginia Gold Cup has realized its founders’ ambition of becoming one of the most prestigious and competitive races in America.

What began as a race has evolved into so much more. The past several years have drawn crowds of over 50,000 people who come to share in a legacy that began nearly a century ago. As the day has grown in size and scale, the prizes are more prestigious. Still, the spirit remains the same. Horse and rider work together in perfect synchronicity, spurred on by their wish to become the next Virginia Gold Cup champion.

Gold cup horse race

With this year’s races being hosted virtually, we hope you will share your at-home tailgates and festivities with us on social media @wineandcountrylife, as we are proud to be sponsors. For more information and to watch the races virtually this year, visit vagoldcup.com. For at-home tailgating essentials, stop by our Wine & Country Shop in Ivy, VA. And, we look forward to seeing you in person again next year. ~

This article appears in Book 10 of Wine & Country LifeStart your subscription here or give a gift subscription here.

ABBY MEREDITH is an attorney who splits her time between Charlottesville and Washington, D.C. As a Double Hoo, she loves writing about Virginia and all things UVA and equestrian.

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Wine & Country celebrates elevated living in Virginia Wine Country. Wine & Country Life, a semi-annual life & style magazine, and Wine & Country Weddings, an annual art book celebrating elegant Virginia weddings, are complemented by the Wine & Country Shop in Ivy, VA—a beautiful lifestyle boutique that brings the pages of the magazines to life. The Shop features over 40 Virginia artisans with everything from tailgating essentials and Dubarry attire to locally made foods and award-winning Virginia wines and craft beverages for your next event. Wine & Country covers the grape-growing foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains from Lynchburg to Leesburg, including points in between like Charlottesville and Middleburg. Ivy Life & Style Media also creates other projects, including CharlottesvilleFamily.com, a collection of local resources including a popular calendar of events, family services guides and features on education, health and family day trips for parents and teachers in Charlottesville, as well as the CharlottesvilleWelcomeBook.com a guide to resources for Charlottesville tourists and newcomers.

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