An overview of racing history in and around Delaware
Photo by Jim Graham
For more than 40 years, Delaware has celebrated its own version of the Kentucky Derby every May. Here’s a look at the beginnings of this beloved tradition.
Point to point in Winterthur
In 1978, Greta “Greets” Layton, administrator of Winterthur, wanted to introduce the museum and the garden to the community. When fellow administrator Julian Boyd suggested an obstacle course, Layton considered it a perfect fit.
The first race was held on May 6, 1979. It was a small, casual affair with no cash prizes, only silver trophies modeled after American silver from the Winterthur collection. Today, Point-to-Point in Winterthur is known for its grand hatchback picnics, horse-drawn carriages and elegant Rolls-Royces.
When the Delaware legislature passed a law in 2006 that allowed Winterthur to offer cash scholarships, Point-to-Point was sanctioned by the National Steeplechase Association. Today the course is a challenging 1.5 mile figure eight over 17 wooden fences. Races include the Isabella du Pont Sharp Memorial ($20,000 prize), the Winterthur Bowl ($25,000 prize), the Vicmead Plate in Honor of Louis “Paddy” Neilson III ($15,000 prize), and the Middletown Cup.
Located on beautiful Kennett Pike outside of Wilmington, Del., Winterthur Museum, Garden & Library encompasses over 900 acres of typical Brandywine Valley landscape, 70 acres of world-class gardens and a magnificent mansion showcasing the most important collection of American decorative arts in the world. From the middle of the 18th century to the middle of the 19th century, Winterthur was home to three generations of the du Pont family.
The museum was founded by collector and horticulturist Henry Francis du Pont on the estate which had been his home since childhood. His 175-room home includes furniture, home accessories, and artwork made or used in America from 1640 to 1860.
With harmonious colors and successive blooms all year round, the 70-acre Winterthur Garden was designed by Henry Francis du Pont and is one of the oldest working naturalist gardens in North America. It is also a resource for academics, landscape architects and horticulturists.
The Winterthur Library provides staff, students, and the general public with research materials on the American decorative arts. It is open to the public for free. In partnership with the University of Delaware, Winterthur also offers two graduate programs focused on the study of conservation of American art and material culture.
Winterthur also hosts films, musical performances, lectures for academics and the general public, and decorative arts study programs. Among its popular family programs are annual events like Enchanted Summer Day in June and Truck and Tractor Day in October. Winterthur is also home to the Delaware Antiques Show, a top-rated, weekend-long fall event. A beloved tradition of the Brandywine Valley, Yuletide tours in Winterthur depict American holiday celebrations of the past, as well as the holiday rituals of the du Ponts.
Visitors are always free to explore the estate. All outdoor spaces are available to members throughout the year. The store offers books, clothing accessories, home and garden decor, children’s gifts, and more.
The largest one-day fundraiser in Winterthur, Point-to-Point supports the maintenance and preservation of the gardens and grounds. The annual event was led in 1978 by Greta “Greets” Layton, who grew up around horses and the steeplechase. Drawing on the knowledge of Russell B. Jones Jr., Louis “Paddy” Neilson III, and other local riders, Layton spearheaded the organizing effort. The first weekend in May seemed like the perfect time for the race, as it didn’t conflict with the Radnor Hunt races and other equestrian events in the area which were already high on the sporting and social calendars. . He also completed a series of competitions hosted by the Delaware Valley Point to Point Association.
For the first point-to-point in 1979, the spectators were mainly hardcore sports enthusiasts. They wore country clothes and sat on blankets, or they stood on the hills to watch the action. Over 1,000 people attended the event, a far cry from the 16,000 the event attracts today.
In the early years, the winners of the five races received trophies inspired by the remarkable silver coins from the Winterthur collection. The races were named after people and organizations familiar to Winterthur fans and locals: 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 out purses to winning owners. Now sanctioned by the National Steeplechase Association, Point-to-Point is Delaware’s second professional sporting event – and it’s now a highly anticipated event. For many, it’s the start of spring and summer outdoor activities. Several generations of families have participated in the organization of Point-to-Point, and they also participate in the races. Preparations take place all year round and involve all departments of 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 an agricultural and rural destination. For generations, much of the racecourse was used as pasture, first for sheep, then for dairy cows. Today, motorists benefit throughout the year from a breathtaking view of the meadows and the racecourse. In May, everything undergoes a transformation for one of the premier sporting events in the Delaware Valley, drawing families from across the region.
Radnor Hunt Races
Celebrating 91 years in May, the Radnor Hunt Races are a centuries-old tradition in Chester County, Pennsylvania. With roots stretching back over 250 years in 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 overseas, while also reflecting land conservation efforts.
As one of the oldest regional show jumping races, the event is an annual rite of spring that dates back to 1930. This tradition continues in 2022 on the third Saturday in May, featuring professional jockeys and purebred horses. blood who compete in five obstacle courses for their chance at precious scholarships.
Radnor Hunt Races will follow all CDC and Pennsylvania Department of Health guidelines on COVID-19. The event takes place rain or shine, so there are no refunds offered.
The Radnor Hunt races and many of the annual obstacle course events that take place in southeastern Pennsylvania and northern Delaware take place on lands permanently protected by the Brandywine Conservancy and its partners. The legacy of protecting open spaces has allowed the sport of obstacle course racing to thrive in this region. Over 30% of Chester County alone is protected open space, totaling over 140,000 acres.
Although the connection between open space preservation and obstacle racing has always been part of Radnor Hunt’s legacy, 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 led by the late Mrs. J. Maxwell “Betty” Moran and the late Conservancy co-founder George A. “Frolic” Weymouth, which has since raised more than 5 millions of dollars.
The Brandywine Conservancy is a leader in protecting water and preserving the breathtaking scenery, rich history, and active farmlands of southeastern Pennsylvania and northern Delaware. Since 1967, the organization has protected over 69,000 acres of open space, including Radnor Hunt Racecourse itself and surrounding land. 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 want to see their land protected forever, and it also provides innovative land use and environmental planning services to municipalities and other government agencies.
Willowdale Obstacle Course
The excitement continues with the 29th Annual Willowdale Steeplechase on Saturday May 14th. This much-loved Chestershire tradition resumes this year at full spectator capacity with six thrilling steeplechase races.
What started as a vision of community leader WB Dixon Stroud Jr. is now a premier running event and a perfect day of fun activities for the whole family. Willowdale’s first Steeplechase came about when Dixon, who had competed at the highest level in steeplechase and polo competition, decided it was time to stage a premier steeplechase event in the heart of the Cheshire Hunt Country of Chester County. Combining his love for the sport and his commitment to the community, Stroud enlisted the help of many others for the inaugural Willowdale Steeplechase race in 1993. Since then, the event has raised over $1 million. for local charities.
Willowdale offers a world-class obstacle course in a community known for its top jockeys, trainers and owners. For the 29th edition, Willowdale is once again home to pony racing, Jack Russell Terrier racing, shopping, food vendors and the fun and educational Kids’ Alley. Family and friends can pack their picnics, put on their best hats and racing outfits, and enjoy the fun of tailgate, hat and best-dressed competitions.
In response to the pandemic, Willowdale will follow all national and local COVID-19 guidelines while returning to its traditional spectator model, with the addition of a limited number of private paddocks from last year. Available on a first-come, first-served basis, this exclusive tailgating opportunity includes parking for one car, a 10-foot by 10-foot tent, table, and entrance for up to 10 people. Each area will be designated 12 feet from neighboring paddocks. This year, Willowdale is also introducing something new: the stylish Willowdale Jockey Club, where tables are available for purchase.
From general admission to tailgate parking to private paddocks, your options are plentiful.
As a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization, Willowdale Steeplechase raises funds for clean water and veterinary excellence through donations to the School’s Stroud Water Research Center and New Bolton Center of Veterinary Medicine from the University of Pennsylvania.
Related: Jack Russell Terrier races are an adorable prequel to Steeplechase