How Three Race Directors Prepare for Their Annual Steeplechase Events
Jill Abbott, Leslie White and Kathy Smith share insights into what it takes to make Point-to-Point at Winterthur, Willowdale Steeplechase and Radnor Hunt Races go off without a hitch.
Imagine planning an outdoor wedding for 15,000 guests. Or a picnic for a small city. Or an alfresco birthday party for your 25,000 closest friends.
And then hope Mother Nature smiles on you with a sunny day.
The race directors at the Radnor Hunt Races, Willowdale Steeplechase and Point-to-Point at Winterthur each devote an entire year of planning for a one-day race. They lead an effort that enfranchises horsemen, trainers, jockeys, caterers, gardeners, business people and an army of volunteers.
At the Winterthur event, held May 5, Jill Abbott coordinates horses, carriages and horseless carriages—as in the vintage Rolls- Royces that circle in an annual tailgate. “An outdoor event manager is a different breed,” she says. “It doesn’t stop at plan B. I have a plan C and a plan D.”
A week later, on Mother’s Day, race fans at Willowdale can be certain that tents are properly placed. That’s because Leslie White carries a tape measure—and she knows how to use it. “Nothing is too big or too small for a race director. We negotiate the porta-potty contracts and talk with people on the phone about the outfits they’ll wear,” she says. “We offer guidance for preparing tailgates and answer many questions, especially for newcomers. We’re dog friendly, too. Pets must be kept on a leash, however.”
At Radnor Hunt on May 18, Kathy Smith will ensure a lavish repast for fans in the Fox’s Den, a catered event in a tent. The horses get a treat, too. “We have apples and carrots—huge bags of them,” she says.
When It Rains, It Pours
Last year, Radnor’s fences and hedges were nearly eclipsed by another hurdle when monsoon-like rain soaked the course. “We knew by Thursday night that one (entrance) gate was not going to be able to be used,” recalls Smith.
Hundreds of parking hangtags had already been handed out. Guests were directed by email and social media to use one of five other entrances. “Then, the day of the race, two other gates became inaccessible.”
That left three entrances and fields for parking. Mud on a slope was so deep the truck hauling the jumbotron screen got stuck at the top of the hill. “So that’s where it stayed,” says Smith.
More than 13,000 spectators braved the weather. Smith got such positive feedback on the impromptu siting of the jumbotron that it’s going back there this year for Radnor’s 89th running. “No person was hurt, no horse was injured and every car went home,” she says.
Cocktails and Catering
Radnor has a core of avid tailgaters, many of whom have reserved the same spot for generations. Tailgating has evolved over the years, with the option of adding a 10-by-10 tent. “We have 150 of them, and we are selling out every year,” Smith says.
The Fox’s Den—a large tent that offers a seat at a table for $225 or a table for 10 for $2,000—offers guests a catered repast with a signature cocktail. Last year’s libation was the Fox Tail, a vodka-and-orange refresher. “If you want to show up in awesome dress, this is the way to do it,” she says. “You don’t have to pack a picnic hamper. You don’t even have to bring a purse.”
Guests have the option of extending the festivities by watching the Preakness simulcast after Radnor’s races. “You can view the race and enjoy drinks and hors d’oeuvres,” she says.
Volunteers are an integral part of all three meets. For more than 30 years, Willistown Boy Scout Troop 78 has rallied hundreds of volunteers to sell programs, direct parking, collect trash and provide security at track crossings at Radnor. Winterthur’s core team of point people represents various facets of the meet, gathering each month to share insights.
‘I Ask a Lot of Questions’
“Your decisions are only as good as the information that’s in front of you, and I want all the information I can get,” Abbott says. “I ask a lot of questions—and I learn something new every day.”
Point-to-Point is steeped in tradition, yet it still evolves with the times and the desires of its guests. “I look at the trends, how people are entertaining, how they’re spending their money,” she says.
In recent years, Point-to-Point has offered fixed price admission to a tent hosted by Kid Shelleen’s Charcoal House & Saloon, part of the Wilmington, Del.-based Harry’s Hospitality Group. An immediate hit with fans, it sells out every year. “Instead of a corporate tent that’s by invitation only, it’s an opportunity for individuals and groups of friends to buy tickets and meet in the tent,” she says.
Technology also is changing the way things are done. Rather than tailgaters coming to Winterthur to choose their spots, they can now book online.
Sometimes, though, only the personal touch will do. Each year, Abbott walks the course as the meet approaches. “I call it being one with the earth,” she says. “I want to be close to the race track, get a feel for it, get a sense for the conditions. We have great garden people, but I want to be a little part of that, too.”
Each year, a parade of foxhounds and bagpipers ushers in the event. “The hounds come in on a trailer that looks like a horse trailer, only cut in half,” Abbott says. “You can hear them barking as they drive by.”
Weather is a constant concern. Abbott maintains her personal traditions, tacking folded rain ponchos over doorways to ward off showers. “Everyone texts me weather alerts and screenshots of Weather.com,” she says. “They don’t know I’m already glued to every report I can get.”
Three years ago, George A. “Frolic” Weymouth, the conservationist and sportsman who led Point-to-Point’s iconic parade of carriages for 38 years, died unexpectedly only a few weeks before the event.
“It was on a Sunday, and I was in the office when I got the call,” Abbott recalls. “My first thought was, ‘How do we honor him and go on?’”
She contacted Jim Graham, a noted photographer and close friend of Weymouth, to put together “beautiful images and memories.” Joe Dombrowski of Brandywine Electronics provided the technology to broadcast the tribute to Weymouth on the jumbotron.
John Hunt, now the lead whip, stepped up to head what is now known as the George A. “Frolic” Weymouth Carriage Parade. “It all comes together. It’s often miraculous and always transparent for guests, who only see the good stuff,” says Abbott. “They don’t need to know what we go through to create a wonderful experience.”
At Willowdale, White and her team make lots of lists, starting with a list of opportunities for improvement. “We want to keep the meet fresh and exciting,” she says.
In addition to such crowd-pleasers as the Jack Russell Terrier Races, pony races and the Antique Car Display, Willowdale recently debuted a sidesaddle race. “The visual beauty of the ladies’ costumes adds to the pageantry,” says White.
Willowdale is also hosting the newly sanctioned Liam Magee Steeplechase Owners and Trainers Association Apprentice Riders Race. The winner’s circle is getting a new home in the paddock “so it will be easier for everyone to see.”
Jockeys must weigh in before the race and weigh out afterward, so having a reliable scale is essential. After being alerted by another race director to problems with the scale at her event, White called for a backup, just to be sure. “And I was glad I did, because the scale didn’t work,” she recalls.
In the end, Winterthur and Willowdale joined forces to buy a scale and split the cost.
Logistics loom large on race day. To resolve problems with traffic flow due to people coming and going, spectators must now stay for the day at Willowdale. The chute onto the course is now more accessible from the barn. “It’s much faster, more efficient—plus, the spectators are closer. They can see the horses coming on to the course,” says White.
This past year, Willowdale added a beer-and-wine vendor to its lineup of food purveyors. The team is constantly tweaking its offerings to come up with palate pleasers for the fans, who may be looking for cold fare on a hot day or warm fare on a nippy day. “You’re planning a party for 15,000, and you have to prepare for whatever could possibly happen,” White says. “That’s how you have to think of it.”