All in the Family
Steeplechase events are a multigenerational affair.
Horses don’t have the only bloodlines in steeplechasing. It’s a family sport, enjoyed by generations of equine enthusiasts.
Jill Abbott, race director at Winterthur, looks forward to an annual visit from Irénée du Pont Jr., who attends Point-to-Point faithfully with his family. “Sponsor No. 1 may be our longest-standing tailgater, a Lifetime Rights owner, and an annual guest who drives his antique car every year,” she says. “We love to see him every March 1, when sales start, and he pops by our office to square away his parking space and wristbands for him and his family. He’s amazing!”
Familial bonds help to keep the sport strong, Abbott notes, with children frequently attending meets with their parents and grandparents. “It’s one of the rare places where teenagers actually want to hang out with their parents,” she says.
Falling in love with horses and racing was a natural course of events for Phoebe Fisher, who grew up watching her mother, Phoebe Albert Driscoll, ride to the hounds. Her mother-in-law, Dolly Fisher, is still in the saddle at 84. And her father-in-law, Johnny Fisher, a former jockey and trainer, expects to get back on a horse soon after a knee replacement.
Fisher, a pediatric anesthesiologist, and her husband, Rush, an orthopedic surgeon, both volunteer as physicians at various meets. They are tasked with clearing jockeys to resume riding after they take a tumble on the course. “As a physician, I can tell you it’s the most dangerous sport there is, with the risk of spinal injuries, head injuries and even death,” says the Unionville resident.
The Fishers’ four children—18-year-old twins Jack and Lydia; Buzby, 16; and Phoebe, 12—all ride, too. “We started them out when they were less than a year old in a double saddle designed for a child sitting in front of an adult,” she recalls. “Now, our kids do pony racing at Willowdale and Winterthur.”
Fisher and her family attend Radnor Hunt, Willowdale, Winterthur and other point-to-point events. Her brother-in-law, Jack Fisher, is a retired jockey who trains horses that often compete in the steeplechases. “These races are true gems of the community,” she says. “We always have someone to root for.”
Like many steeplechase enthusiasts, the Fishers also enjoy riding to the hounds at foxhunts.“It’s a way of
life. Hunting all winter long, then hitting the meets in the spring,” she says. “There is no better feeling than galloping with your kids beside you and looking over and seeing them grinning ear to ear.”
She believes that the timeless appeal of the steeplechase is rooted in a deep sense of history and tradition. “It brings you back to a different era, when life went at a different speed,” she says. “Just hearing the pounding of the hooves, everyone cheering as the horses come to the finish, is completely thrilling.”
A day at the races also provides families with a unique opportunity for boutique shopping, picnicking, and trying new nibbles from various food vendors. At Willowdale, beneficiaries are helping to nurture the next generation of steeplechase supporters with hands-on activities for children at the event’s Kid’s Alley.
The Stroud Water Research Center provides aquatic insects for kids to look at under microscopes. Scientists are on hand to explain why bugs are important to the ecosystem. Quest Therapeutic Services, which focuses on special-needs children, offers a hippotherapy demonstration, showing how horses can be harnessed as partners in therapy. Kids can also craft their own stick horses and then “race” their ponies on the course. Quest even snaps keepsake photos of youngsters posing with the Quest Ponies.
“Penn Vet’s New Bolton Center helps young people learn about veterinary medicine by hosting an educational booth,” says Willowdale race director Leslie White. “Veterinarians and students are there to answer questions, and kids can touch and try to identify skulls, teeth, and some really surprising stuff we’ve pulled from animal stomachs. They can also see broken and repaired horse leg bones, a brain, and hooves.”
Intergenerational interaction is a steeplechase tradition, says Carol Griffin, who coordinates the Radnor Hunt Races. “You often see grandparents enjoying a cocktail at a very elegant tailgate with their adult children, with their teenage grandchildren tossing a Frisbee a few yards away,” she says. “Everyone is smiling. Everyone is enjoying spending time together at a day at the races.”
Brian Cawley was a teenager when he and a cousin attended their first Winterthur steeplechase 28 years ago. He hasn’t missed one since. He also regularly attends the Radnor Hunt Races, where his extended circle of family and friends collaborates on elaborate tailgates, including recreating dinner aboard the Queen Mary, complete with teak deck chairs and a shuffleboard court.
“I’m proud to say we’ve earned one red, one yellow and three blue ribbons for our efforts,” he says. “As our tailgates have grown, a full cast of aunts, uncles and parents have been in attendance. We even extended a friend’s family one year, when we hosted the first wedding at a tailgate, a feat that I’m flattered to say has been copied.”
Fun and camaraderie keep Cawley coming back, he says. No matter what the weather, no matter how many demands on his time, the meets are a personal priority. “It’s impossible not to have a good time,” he says. “Our circle of friends grows each year, and the steeplechase racing is exciting to watch. In the end, though, the causes that benefit from the merrymaking—open space conservation and the exhibition of art—are the things that make life in the Brandywine Valley so beautiful.”