Excitement Builds For Point-to-Point Races

Annual event sponsored by Blue Ridge Hunt nears one hundredth anniversary.

By Betsy Arnet

Although billed as the 69th annual running of the Blue Ridge Hunt Point-to-Point Races at Woodley, the event actually dates back almost 100 years. The first “race meet” sponsored by the Blue Ridge Hunt was held in 1921 at Annfield, the home of William Bell Watkins. Watkins was Master of Foxhounds (MFH) of the Blue Ridge Hunt at the time. The races were moved to Woodley in 1949, when then-MFH Alexander Mackay-Smith owned the property.
The Blue Ridge Hunt Races are part of the Virginia Point-to-Point Circuit, held each spring from early March to early May. In the past, the Blue Ridge Hunt Races have been one of the earliest meets in the season. However, according to current Joint MFH Anne McIntosh, frequent postponements and cancellations over the years due to inclement weather led the Hunt to move the races to later in the season.
Undoubtedly, one of the reasons that the races have been held at Woodley for the past 68 years is the beauty of the racecourse. Ranging over a series of ridges and swales, Woodley is considered the best point-to-point course for spectators in the Virginia circuit. A ridge above the racecourse allows spectators to see every jump on the course.
Several years ago, professional jockey and trainer Jeff Murphy assisted the Blue Ridge Hunt in making modifications to the course and the placement of the jumps to improve safety for horses and riders.
“The main difference between a course like the one at Woodley and a sanctioned steeplechase course, like the Gold Cup, is that a sanctioned course is only a racecourse,’ explains Murphy. “The sanctioned courses are groomed all year for racing. Courses like the one at Woodley are often cultivated during the off-season.”
In fact, Joseph Henderson, owner of Chapel Hill Farm across Route 340 from Woodley, grows timothy and alfalfa hay on the Woodley property for his herd of Randall Lineback beef cattle.
This year, the Blue Ridge Hunt Point-to-Point will feature nine to eleven races, a combination of flat, hurdle and timber. Flat races involve no jumps, hurdle races have jumps over fences that mimic hedgerows, and timber races have jumps over higher wooden rail fences. The races vary in length, depending on the age and experience level of both horses and riders. The course is about one mile. The longer timber races, run by the most experienced horses and riders, make three circuits of the course.
“The younger horses run the flat races,” says Murphy. “They need to get fit first, before they can go the distance in hurdle and timber races.”
Only one race has a monetary prize, a modest $2,000 purse, so the Blue Ridge Hunt Races are mostly for fun.  Murphy describes the races primarily as a venue for trainers to evaluate young horses and for novice riders to gain experience.
“We don’t go too fast,” he says with a laugh. The races are still a thrilling sight
for spectators.
The 69th annual running of the Blue Ridge Hunt Point-to-Point Races begins at noon on Sunday, April 22, 2018. Admission is $25 per car. Prior to the races, at 11:00 a.m., children ages 3 to 8 can compete in the Stick Horse Races. For more information, visit www.blueridgeraces.org.

Blue Ridge Hunt 

The Blue Ridge Hunt was founded in 1888, organized by Archibald Bevan, an Englishman who had settled in Clarke County. 130 years later, today’s members of the Blue Ridge Hunt carry on the fox hunting tradition.  Some things, of course, have changed. Foxes are run to ground, not captured or killed.
Anne McIntosh, one of three current masters of the hunt, has been foxhunting with the Blue Ridge Hunt since 1989 and has been a Master since 2006. She and her fellow Masters coordinate with the landowners within the Hunt’s territory, which includes most of Clarke County, parts of Warren County to the south, and parts of Jefferson County, West Virginia, to the north.
The Blue Ridge Hunt meets are held from September 1st to March 1st each year. The hunting season ends in early spring to avoid causing harm to livestock during calving and foaling seasons.
“We couldn’t do what we do if the landowners didn’t allow us to cross their lands, and so we are very respectful of their property,” Anne says. “We are fortunate here in Clarke County, that due to land conservation efforts, hunting hasn’t changed much over the years.”
 One opportunity that the public has to see the Hunt in action is the annual Thanksgiving meet at Long Branch. On Thanksgiving morning, Hunt members and foxhounds gather on the lawn at Long Branch and enjoy refreshments before the hounds move off. Visitors are welcome.
The Blue Ridge Hunt currently owns about 70 foxhounds, trained and cared for by huntsman Graham Buston. Nearly every morning, Buston walks the hounds near the Blue Ridge Hunt kennel. It’s an amazing sight to see, seventy hounds walking along the road as politely as can be, following behind their huntsman.
Following the end of the American Revolution, sons of many Tidewater gentry families moved into the area that is now Clarke County. Woodley was originally part of the Llewellyn estate and was owned by Warner Washington, a cousin of George Washington. Warner Washington died in 1829, and the Llewellyn estate was divided among his heirs. In 1833, his son Fairfax Washington sold more than 300 acres to Daniel Sowers, another transplant from the Tidewater region.
In 1835, Sowers built a house on his new property. Woodley is a fine example of Federal style architecture, virtually unchanged in appearance since it was constructed. The two-story, five-bay house is built of brick laid in Flemish bond, has a side-gable roof with three gabled dormers, and interior-end parapet chimneys on both ends of the house. A one-story portico with paired Ionic columns accents the front door with its elliptical fanlight, a hallmark of the Federal style. A two-story addition on the back of the house was originally a single story, as evidenced by the change in brick color midway up the walls.
While the front of the house faces Route 340 and overlooks the racecourse, the back of the house enjoys stunning views of the Blue Ridge.
In 1990, Woodley’s 383 acres were placed into conservation easement with the Virginia Outdoors Foundation, ensuring the property’s protection from subdivision and development. It is located with the Chapel Rural Historic District, one of nine National Register of Historic Places districts in Clarke County. The Chapel Rural Historic District is characterized by large estates like Woodley and its neighbors, Chapel Hill and Llewellyn.
When it was owned by Alexander Mackay-Smith, the Blue Ridge Hunt often held meets at Woodley. The undated photo shows the hunt on the front lawn of Woodley, probably in the 1950s.