A Brief History of the Delaware Valley’s Steeplechase Races

The spectacular history of steeplechase racing continues this year.

In these parts, steeplechase racing is the galloping herald of spring, leaping from the Point-to-Point at Winterthur on May 5 to the Willowdale Steeplechase on May 11 and crossing the finish line at the Radnor Hunt Races on May 18.

A day at the races sparkles like the crystal at a sublimely civilized tailgate. The air is filled with the sounds of jingling bits and bridles, the thunder of hooves, and the greetings of friends who are reuniting for another race season. Even folks who’ve never ridden (or perhaps even petted) a horse think of point-to-point racing as part of their personal history—the day they chill the bubbly, get dressed up, and commune with friends and family at the ultimate picnic.

A late-1940s running of the Radnor Hunt Races. Courtesy of Radnor Hunt Archives and The 1883 Foundation.
Winterthur Point-to-Point in 1983.
Winterthur Point-to-Point in 1983. Photo by Ron Dubick.

May marks the 93rd running of the Radnor Hunt Races, which were first held in 1928 at Chesterbrook, the estate where A.J. Cassatt, president of the Pennsylvania Railroad and brother of Impressionist painter Mary Cassatt, bred thoroughbreds. Through the Great Depression and, more recently, the Great Recession, faithful fans have proven that steeplechase racing is more about can-do than canapes. Since 1980, the event has benefited the Brandywine Conservancy in its mission of preserving open space.

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A 1999 tailgate competitor at Winterthur.
A 1999 tailgate competitor at Winterthur. Photo by Pat Crane.

Winterthur’s Point-to-Point debuted in 1979, when founder Greta “Greets” Layton suggested steeplechase racing as a way to attract people to Winterthur’s museum and gardens while enjoying the beauty of the former du Pont estate.

An undated photo of Ellen Mary Cassatt, niece of Pennsylvania Railroad magnate A.J. Cassatt, competing in one of the first Radnor Hunt Races.
An undated photo of Ellen Mary Cassatt, niece of Pennsylvania Railroad magnate A.J. Cassatt, competing in one of the first Radnor Hunt Races. Courtesy of Radnor Hunt Archives and The 1883 Foundation.
Jamie Wyeth at Winterthur Point-to-Point in 1987.
Jamie Wyeth at Winterthur Point-to-Point in 1987. Photo by John Newell.

Rounding out the season, the Willowdale Steeplechase was born in 1993, when esteemed horseman and community champion Dixon Stroud Jr. set his cap on a natural amphitheater, building a stunning racecourse on the site of a 160-acre dairy farm in Kennett Square.

Willowdale Steeplechase founder Dixon Stroud Jr. (left) rides in a Maryland race in the 1980s.
Willowdale Steeplechase founder Dixon Stroud Jr. (left) rides in a Maryland race in the 1980s. Courtesy of Willowdale Steeplechase.
Enjoying summer-like weather at the 1985 Radnor Hunt Races.
Enjoying summer-like weather at the 1985 Radnor Hunt Races. Courtesy of Radnor Hunt Races.
Gold Guardian on the way to winning Willowdale’s 1996 Amateur Training Flat Race.
Gold Guardian on the way to winning Willowdale’s 1996 Amateur Training Flat Race. Courtesy of Willowdale Steeplechase.

Rain or shine, ladies put on fancy hats while gentlemen dust off recipes for Pimm’s Cup and head to the races. At Malvern’s Radnor Hunt Club, where the event moved after a brief hiatus during World War II, racegoers are reminded of the incomparable beauty of the Chester County countryside. Willowdale has become a Mother’s Day tradition, known for classic cars, Jack Russell terrier and pony races, and games for children. Winterthur is celebrated for its spectacular Parade of Carriages, initiated by the late George A. “Frolic” Weymouth. There are stick horse races, ladies riding sidesaddle, pony races and a parade of River Hills foxhounds.

This year, like any other, racegoers will make plenty of new memories.

Bagpipers entertain the crowd at the 2008 Point-to-Point.
Bagpipers entertain the crowd at the 2008 Point-to-Point. Photo by Pat Crane.
Race action at the 1988 Radnor Hunt Races.
Race action at the 1988 Radnor Hunt Races. Courtesy of Radnor Hunt Races.
Belfast Valley, winner of the 1996 Willowdale Steeplechase.
Belfast Valley, winner of the 1996 Willowdale Steeplechase. Courtesy of Willowdale Steeplechase.

Related: Learn the Lingo for All Things Steeplechase This Racing Season

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