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The Grandeur of Steeplechase Season in the Main Line Region

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For more than 90 years, steeplechase racing has been cherished spring ritual in Southeastern Pennsylvania and Delaware.

Willowdale Steeplechase

Willowdale features a world-class steeplechase course in a community known for its top jockeys, trainers and owners. After competing at the highest levels in steeplechase and polo, W.B. Dixon Stroud Jr. decided it was time for a top-notch steeplechase event in the heart of Cheshire Hunt Country. Combining his love for the sport and his commitment to the community, Stroud enlisted the help of many others for the first running of the Willowdale Steeplechase in 1993. Since then, the event has raised over $1,000,000 for local charities.

A community tradition for more than 28 years, the event kicks of Mother’s Day weekend with six exciting world-class steeplechase races. In response to the pandemic, Willowdale will feature a completely new spectator model that follows all state and local COVID-19 guidelines. Organizers are offering a limited number of Private Party Paddocks. Available on a first-come, first-served basis, this exclusive tailgating opportunity includes parking for one car, a 10-by-10-foot tent, a table, and admission for up to six. You decide how many people to bring in your car. Each area will be a designated 12 feet from neighboring paddocks.

In 2022, Willowdale will welcome back the pony and Jack Russell Terrier races, boutique shopping, the tailgate competition, food vendors, and their fun and educational Kid’s Alley.

Radnor Hunt Races

Celebrating 90 years in May 2021, the Radnor Hunt Races is a time-honored tradition in Chester County, Pa. With roots that go back over 250 years to Ireland and England, steeplechase has a rich history and tradition in the Mid-Atlantic. The beautiful pastoral landscapes that make up this region mimic the ideal conditions of the sport’s origins abroad, while also reflecting land-conservation efforts.

“The legacy of protecting open space has allowed the sport of steeplechase racing to flourish in this region. In Chester County alone, more than 30 percent of the county is protected open space—totaling over 140,000 acres.

As one of the oldest regional steeplechases, the Radnor Hunt Races is an annual rite of spring that dates back to 1930. They continue in 2021 on the third Saturday in May, with professional jockeys and thoroughbred horses competing in six jump races for their chance at valuable purse money. At this year’s event, COVID-19 safety protocols will be observed through limited capacity, social distancing and other measures.

Call (610) 388-8383 or visit radnorhuntraces.org.

Point-to-point at Winterthur

For more than 40 years, Delaware has celebrated its own version of the Kentucky Derby each May. In 1978, Greta “Greets” Layton, a Winterthur trustee, wanted to make the community more aware of the museum and garden. When fellow trustee Julian Boyd suggested a steeplechase race, Layton saw it as a perfect fit.

The first race was held on May 6, 1979. It was a small, casual afair with no cash prizes, only silver trophies modeled after early American silver in the Winterthur collection. Today, Point-to-Point at Winterthur is known for its grand tailgate picnics, high-stepping carriage horses and stylish Rolls-Royces.

When the Delaware Legislature passed a law in 2006 that allowed Winterthur to offer cash purses, Point-to-Point became sanctioned by the National Steeplechase Association. Today the course is a challenging 1.5-mile figure-eight run twice over 17 timber fences. Races include the Isabella du Pont Sharp Memorial ($10,000 purse), the Winterthur Bowl ($20,000 purse), the Vicmead Plate ($10,000 purse) and the Middletown Cup.

Dr. Maia Aitken of Penn Vet’s New Bolton Center.

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Willowdale Steeplechase

Lafte—aka Flip Flop—and his owner, Liza Horan, were having a great round at Fair Hill International when an accident mid-course led to a strange chain of events and potentially life-threatening injuries for the 12-year-old warm-blood gelding. “Something very bizarre happened,” recalls Horan, who trains at Ironwood Ranch in Lompoc, Calif., and made the trip to Maryland with three horses. “The jump was pretty straightforward, and I thought I had a good shot as far as my approach and distance. It seemed that Flip Flop would jump it quite easily. But when he started to leave the ground, he grabbed his left front shoe in a way that felt like it nailed his leg to the floor. His front leg didn’t come off the ground, and he hit the rail of the jump really hard.”

The horse succeeded in not falling, but Horan was unseated during the accident. Medics attended to her while Flip Flop galloped away, seemingly unfazed. Horse and rider reconnected about five minutes later in the stables. “He looked like he’d been hit by a semi truck,” says Horan. “He had multiple wounds and lacerations inconsistent with the accident. A few people saw him on the Fair Hill grounds. We know at one point he was in the parking lot and hit a parked car. But we don’t have a full picture of those minutes after the accident.”

Flip Flop needed immediate medical attention, leaving no time for Horan to retrace his steps. Dr. Bernadette Smith of Equine Veterinary Care at Fair Hill

Training Center examined him and found wounds on all four legs. Several were in areas that, if infected, could’ve meant a poor prognosis for the animal. “The locations of his lacerations were a big red flag,” Smith says. “Some of Flip Flop’s cuts were near joints—a terrible location—and he needed immediate specialty care.”

Smith referred him to Penn Vet’s New Bolton Center, where his case would have the full attention of dedicated specialists in one location. “In cases like these, having New Bolton Center as a referring facility can mean the difference between death or life,” says Smith. “It’s always in the best interest of the horse to be cared for in a hospital that has a full team of specialists on site, where they can do everything needed in good time and as a team.”

At New Bolton Center, Dr. Maia Aitken met Flip Flop and Horan. She immediately assessed the full extent of his injuries and checked all his vitals. “He was walking well, but with trauma, there can be a lot of adrenaline that masks underlying damage,” says Aitken, who’s double board-certified in surgery and emergency and critical care. “So we took several radiographs to look for signs of fractures and found none. Then we systematically looked carefully at each joint, each wound and the joints close to each wound.”

Flip Flop arrived at New Bolton Center in the window of time where, with specialized and aggressive emergency care, his wounds were treatable. A board-certified anesthesiologist placed him under general anesthesia, and Aitken and her team got to work. All of his repaired lacerations were then bandaged and he was moved to a padded recovery stall. “He recovered uneventfully from the anesthesia and was an absolutely perfect patient while he was with us,” Aitken says.

In the postoperative period, Flip Flop was treated aggressively with systemic and local antimicrobials, pain medication, wound care, and bandaging. “Flip Flop was in the best hands at New Bolton Center,” Horan says. “He was recovering nicely, and had there been any complications, he would’ve received immediate, amazing care.”

Electrofishing in White Clay Creek.

Now home in California, Horan remains haunted by what happened in the missing minutes after Flip Flop’s accident. The horse, however, doesn’t appear too concerned. “It looks like he’s going to make a full recovery and won’t miss any part of the competition season,” she says. “It’s amazing—and it’s thanks to Penn Vet.”
Visit vet.upenn.edu.

Flowing through the hills of Chester County, White Clay Creek gathers water from fields, forests and towns before joining the Christina River and finally the Delaware River near Wilmington. The East Branch of White Clay Creek is classified by Pennsylvania as an Exceptional Value stream, the highest classification in the state. This affords the watershed special protection against disturbance and pollution, even while it carries a legacy of past abuse.

Tanks to the Stroud Water Research Center, the East Branch is the subject of a restoration study on a time scale rarely applied to streams or rivers anywhere in the world. Under its stewardship, trees have been planted next to White Clay Creek in a meadow where cows once roamed. These growing woodlands have been tended, so invasive species like multiflora rose remain in check.

With cutting-edge technology and teams of scientists, Stroud is measuring how the stream’s plant and animal communities are benefiting from cooling summer shade and the sustenance that autumn leaves provide for aquatic insects and fish. Funded by the National Science Foundation, the center has been monitoring the restoration since 1989. It’s comparing the recovery with an older forested segment upstream and a segment bordered by a meadow downstream that mirrors what the landscape looked like in the mid 20th century. As the insects, fish and chemistry of the recovering stream segment slowly approach the same measurements of the older forested segment and diverge from the meadow, scientists and watershed restoration experts are learning how streams naturally heal themselves when the trees that protect them are returned.

Since 1967, Stroud Water Research Center has focused on one thing—fresh water. It seeks to advance knowledge and stewardship of freshwater systems through global research, education and watershed restoration.

Visit stroudcenter.org.

Radnor Hunt Races

The Radnor Hunt Races and many of the annual steeplechase events that take place in southeastern Pennsylvania and northern Delaware are held on land permanently protected by the Brandywine Conservancy and its partners. The legacy of protecting open space has allowed the sport of steeplechase racing to flourish in this region. In Chester County alone, more than 30 percent of the county is protected open space—totaling over 140,000 acres.

While the connection between open space preservation and steeplechase racing has always been part of Radnor Hunt’s heritage, it wasn’t until the fundraising partnership with the Brandywine Conservancy began that the event became associated with “Racing for Open Space.” The two joined forces over 40 years ago in a partnership spearheaded by the late Mrs. J. Maxwell “Betty” Moran and the conservancy’s late cofounder, George A. “Frolic” Weymouth, that has since raised over $5 million.

The Brandywine Conservancy is a leader in protecting water and preserving the breathtaking landscapes, rich history and active farmland in southeastern Pennsylvania and northern Delaware. Since 1967, the organization has protected over 68,000 acres of open space, including the Radnor Hunt racecourse itself and surrounding lands. It continues to improve and safeguard water quality, land protection, outdoor recreation and historic preservation throughout the region. It works closely with private landowners who wish to see their lands protected forever, and it also provides innovative land use and environmental planning services to municipalities and other governmental agencies.

Call (610) 388-2700 or visit brandywine.org/conservancy.

Radnor Hunt icons Mrs. J. Maxwell “Betty” Moran and George A. “Frolic” Weymouth.

Point-to-Point at Winterthur

Located on beautiful Kennett Pike outside Wilmington, Del., Winterthur Museum, Garden & Library encompasses more than 900 acres of quintessential Brandywine Valley landscape, 70 acres of world-class gardens, and a stunning mansion featuring the most significant collection of American decorative arts in the world.

From the mid-18th century until the mid-19th century, Winterthur was home to three generations of the du Pont family. The museum was founded by collector and horticulturalist Henry Francis du Pont on the estate that had been his home since childhood. His 175-room house features furniture, home accessories and works of art made or used in America from 1640 to 1860.

With harmonious color and successive blooms year round, the 70-acre Winterthur Garden was designed by Henry Francis du Pont and is one of the oldest continually operating naturalistic gardens in North America. It’s also a resource for scholars, landscape architects and horticulturists.

Winterthur Library provides staff, students and the general public with research materials about American decorative arts. It’s open to the public free of charge. In partnership with the University of Delaware, Winterthur also offers two graduate programs focused on the study of art conservation and American material culture.

Winterthur in full bloom.

Winterthur also hosts films, musical performances, lectures for scholars and the general public, and study programs on decorative arts. Among its popular family programs are annual events like June’s Enchanted Summer Day and October’s Truck and Tractor Day. A beloved Brandywine Valley tradition, Yuletide at Winterthur tours depict American holiday celebrations of the past, along with the holiday rituals of the du Ponts. Walkers are always free to explore the estate. All outdoor areas are available to members year round. The retail store offers books, clothing accessories, decorative items for home and garden, children’s gifts, and more.

Winterthur’s largest single-day fundraiser, Point-to-Point supports maintenance and preservation of the gardens and estate. The annual event was spearheaded in 1978 by Greta “Greets” Layton, who grew up around horses and steeplechasing. Drawing on the knowledge of Russell B. Jones Jr., Lewis “Paddy” Neilson III and other local horsemen, Layton launched the organizational effort. The first weekend in May seemed an ideal time for the race, as it didn’t conflict with the Radnor Hunt Races and other area equestrian events that already featured prominently in sporting and social calendars. It also rounded out a series of race meets hosted by the Delaware Valley Point to Point Association.

For the first Point-to-Point in 1979, spectators were mainly hardcore enthusiasts of the sport. They dressed in country clothes and sat on blankets, or they stood on hillsides to watch the action. More than 1,000 attended—a far cry from the 20,000 the event draws today.

Winterthur’s “Needle’s Eye Folly.”

In the early years, winners of the five races were awarded trophies modeled after notable pieces of silver in the Winterthur collection. Races were named after people and organizations familiar to Winterthur supporters and area residents: the Isabella du Pont Sharp Memorial, the Vicmead Plate, the Middletown Cup, the Winterthur Bowl, the Crowninshield Plate, and the Greta Brown Layton. The latter, a trophy in honor of Greets Layton, was awarded to the owner, trainer or rider who accumulated the most points.

A historic change in the event occurred in 2006, when the Delaware Legislature passed a law allowing Winterthur to pay purse monies to winning owners. Now sanctioned by the National Steeplechase Association, Point-to-Point is the second professional sporting event in Delaware.

Point-to-Point is now a highly anticipated event. For many, it signals the start of spring and summer outdoor activities. Several generations of families have helped organize Point-to-Point, and they also compete in the races. Preparations take place year-round and involve all departments at Winterthur. The course is fertilized and mowed; jumps are maintained; hedges and border plants are trimmed.

The event is a celebration of Winterthur’s long history as a farm and country destination. For generations, much of the racecourse served as pastureland—first for sheep, then for dairy cows. Today, motorists enjoy sweeping views of the meadows and the racecourse throughout the year. In May, it all undergoes a transformation for one of the Delaware Valley’s premier sporting events, drawing families from around the region.

Visit winterthur.org.