Point-to-Point in 1981.

Arts & Antiques

A History of the Region’s Steeplechase Races

A look at the origins of Point-to-Point at Winterthur, the Willowdale Steeplechase and Radnor Hunt Races.

Point-to-Point at Winterthur

“It was a pretty time of year when people wanted to be outside.” —Greta Layton, Point-to-Point co-founder. 

As Winterthur celebrates its 40th running on May 6, organizers remember Greta B. “Greets” Layton, who co-founded Point-to-Point. The original idea was to find a way to get more people to Winterthur, increase visitation and expand community awareness. Mrs. Layton grew up around horses, and she believed it would work at Winterthur, with its open countryside set in a region where people were interested in horses. She went to then-board member Julian Boyd, who suggested a steeplechase in the spring. 

The first race 40 years ago was described as fairly well attended–certainly not like today, and it was not much of a family event. According to Mrs. Layton, it took several years before the event took hold, but its success grew. She attributed that to two things: There was a window of opportunity the first week in May, when Winterthur wasn’t competing against any other racing events, and it was the time of year people wanted to be outside. 

Winterthur honors Mrs. Layton for believing in an idea, working to bring it to fruition, fostering its growth, and helping it bloom into one of the most spectacular and anticipated annual spring events in the region.

The Willowdale Steeplechase

“Footing, not fences, injure the horse,” – Hugh Morshead, Willowdale course designer.

The Willowdale Steeplechase features a first-class steeplechase course in a community known for its top jockeys, trainers and owners. Behind this great event is W.B. Dixon Stroud Jr., who’s ridden all his life and won the prestigious Maryland Hunt Cup in 1984. After having competed at the top levels in both steeplechase and polo, Dixon decided it was time to have a world-class steeplechase course right in the heart of Cheshire Hunt County. Combining his love of steeplechasing and his commitment to the community, he—with the help of many others—founded the Willowdale Steeplechase.

It takes a great deal of time, effort and money to create a world-class steeplechase course. The project began in earnest in 1991, when Stroud began construction on the course with the aid of Hugh Morshead, a native Irishman now residing in Canada. Carved out of a former 160-acre dairy farm, the Willowdale site is a natural amphitheater, allowing for 80-95 percent viewing from any location.

With its spectacular water jump, hedges, and post and rail jumps, the course is equally inspired by European and American racecourses. It features an uphill approach to the fences, which encourages less speed and more jumping. This causes less wear and tear on the horses. “Footing, not fences, injure the horse,” says Morshead. “A lot of thought had to go into the drainage of this field. Dixon has taken great care to develop this surface with a horse’s safety in mind.”

The length of the course is a little over 1.2 miles. The water jump is the only one of its kind in North America. Due to its 12-foot span and 18-inch drop in elevation, jockeys have to ride “California surfing” style, referring to the way they must sit on the horse.

From the inaugural race on Saturday, May 22, 1993, until today, attendance, interest and support have become stronger and stronger at the Willowdale Steeplechase. And it will continue to grow thanks to its commitment to combining the great tradition of steeplechasing with the ever-changing needs of the community. Since it’s founding in 1993, Willowdale has donated more than $400,000 to local charities.

Joy Valentine, Mike Smithwick and Betty Moran in the Radnor Hunt winner's circle in 1985.
Joy Valentine, Mike Smithwick and Betty Moran in the Radnor Hunt winner’s circle in 1985.

Radnor Hunt Races

This year marks the 88th running of the Radnor Hunt Races. Held on the grounds of the Radnor Hunt in Willistown Township, Pa., the event is expected to draw an estimated 25,000 guests. The National Hunt Cup and the Radnor Hunt Cup headline the day’s six races.

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The first Radnor Hunt Races were held in 1928 on the former estate of A.J. Cast.

Founded in 1883, the Radnor Hunt is the oldest foxhunt in the United States, recognized by the Masters of Foxhounds Association of America. The first Radnor Hunt Races were held in 1928 at Chesterbrook, Pa., the former estate of A.J. Cassatt. Bill Hunneman Jr., first chairman of the Radnor Hunt Race Committee, was largely responsible for its successful beginning. He spearheaded the relocation of the famed National Hunt Cup from Brookline, Mass., to its current location in Malvern, Pa. His inspiration and foresight are very much alive today. The William C. Hunneman Jr., Perpetual Trophy annually recognizes the winner of the Radnor Hunt Cup Race.

The Radnor Hunt Races were run annually until racing was suspended during the war years of 1943-1945. The following year, George Brooke II—with the aid of Morris Dixon, Thomas McCoy Jr., and George Strawbridge Sr.—supervised construction of a new course on the present club property. 

In 1980, the Radnor Hunt began a partnership with the Brandywine Conservancy spearheaded by Betty Moran and George A. “Frolic” Weymouth. Under their leadership, the Radnor Hunt Races came under the “Racing for Open Space” theme.

For the past 38 years, the Brandywine Conservancy has been the sole beneficiary of the Radnor Hunt Races, with nearly $4 million raised—funds that have fueled the conservancy’s vital efforts to protect open space and water resources in southeastern Pennsylvania and northern Delaware. To date, more than 64,000 acres have been permanently protected, including the Radnor Hunt racecourse itself and the surrounding lands. The Radnor Hunt Races continues to attract the country’s finest steeplechase horses, owners, trainers and riders, with purses totaling $190,000.

The Hunt Spring 2018  Issue

This article was published in Arts & Antiques from the Spring 2018 issue.
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