For more than 50 years, spectators have lined the picturesque lane at Oatlands on the second Sunday in April for the Loudoun Hunt’s annual point-to point races. The event is a cherished tradition, one of the county’s best-loved social events and an important fundraiser for the hunt. But COVID is shaking things up for the races in a big way. After a first-ever cancellation in 2020, this year’s 54th running will happen at a new location for the first time.
Organizers say they’ve outgrown the beloved Oatlands venue, especially with social distancing requirements in place. The races make a permanent move to Morven Park on the other side of Leesburg starting with this year’s event Sunday, April 18.
The move was precipitated by COVID restrictions, but organizers have been feeling a space crunch for years, said Mary Sell and Carroll Galvin, Masters of Foxhounds for the Loudoun Hunt.
“They’re lovely grounds and we’ve been honored to be [at Oatlands] for at least 50 years now, and it’s served our race community very well. Part of the challenge is that there’s limited rail space,” Galvin said.
The move has sparked frustration, confusion and more than a little heartbreak from some longtime patrons. But organizers say they’re working to improve communication and offer a fresh start in 2022. The Loudoun Hunt, which celebrated its 125th anniversary in 2019 and is one of the oldest hunts in North America, has found keeping up with demand for rail space in a growing Loudoun to be a challenge in recent years.
“We’re here to preserve and enhance equestrian and hunting sports. [The point-to-point] is our biggest fundraiser and outreach to the community,” Sell said
The Oatlands point-to-point was launched in 1966 by a small group of equestrians and hunt members. As the event grew into one of the biggest meets in the region, coveted patron spaces on the rail became hot ticket items, with spaces often passing from generation to generation, even included in wills. Patrons include octogenarians who have never missed a race. But many of those spots are now in the hands of GenXers who have grown up with the races as an annual holiday of sorts—whether or not the second Sunday in April falls on Easter.
For patrons like Rebekah White, it’s a once a year chance to catch up with lifelong friends, and the experience on Oatlands’ gorgeous shaded lane will be hard to match.
White’s late stepmother Anita Graf White was an early organizer of the races, a former Master of Foxhounds for the Loudoun Hunt and a longtime board member at Oatlands. Anita White worked with fellow equestrian luminaries including Dr. Joe Rogers, Harry Wight, Morris Fox and Silas D. “Sonny” Phillips to start the first races 55 years ago. Rebekah White’s father, Elijah B. White III, served as rector at the Anglican Church of Our Saviour Oatlands and the landscape and annual races have been part of her life since childhood. White has kept the rail spot she inherited from her parents, starting new traditions with her own children and friends. But the races, like Loudoun itself, have changed.
“Oatlands itself was a big part of growing up in Loudoun County,” she said. “You have an emotional tie to the grounds there, and that’s one of the things that made Oatlands special—the graciousness of the lane with the big trees.”
Like many longtime patrons, White remains close to her family’s 55-year “neighbors” on the rail. Over the years, neighboring picnics have intertwined, essentially creating one big tailgate. And that sense of community is a big part of the draw. Like many longtime patrons, White is planning to hang onto her spot and is taking a wait-and-see approach for 2022.
“I’m curious to see what happens,” she said.
Sell and Galvin say they understand concerns from longtime patrons and are hoping to preserve and grow that sense of community at the new location.
“We understand and feel for the people who have a tie to Oatlands,” Sell said. “We’ve also had a lot of patrons that are somewhat excited about something new.”
Galvin said COVID-related uncertainty kept organizers from communicating news about the change in venue earlier in the year. With quickly evolving public health guidelines, organizers weren’t sure until early March that they could run the races, which delayed getting the message out to patrons and the public.
“We had a very short runway,” Galvin said.
The hunt’s point-to-point committee is now working on dual tracks to run the 2021 races under one-time protocols while planning for a new normal at Morven Park in 2022, with an emphasis on keeping longtime patrons in priority spots while adding new rail spots.
Morven Park’s 1,000-acre grounds north of Leesburg are home to world-renowned equestrian facilities. The Morven Park nonprofit ran its own point-to-point races for 32 years but stopped in 2011 to focus on renovations to the equestrian center, which were completed in 2019. The renovations include upgrades to the racecourse and several new riding arenas.
“The return of racing is just one of the benefits of the renovation of our international equestrian center,” said Morven Park Executive Director Stacey Metcalfe. “The course is absolutely beautiful, … The views are spectacular.”
And like organizers with the Loudoun Hunt, Metcalfe has her eyes on 2022.
“This is going to be that interim year, but the year after that should go back to it’s grand splendor,” she said.
Sell and Galvin say the setup at Morven Park with a permanent designated course, will benefit riders, trainers and spectators. The course at Oatlands was historically outlined with long stretches of temporary plastic safety fencing, which took days for volunteers to install, Galvin said, while Morven has a permanent rail. The setup at Morven is also laid out so that it’s easier for jockeys and trainers to move from van areas to the paddock and course.
“Ultimately in that respect, it’s much safer for the jockeys, the horses and for the public,” Galvin said.
But organizers are also up front about the fact that part of the motivation for the move involves keeping the event as viable as a fundraiser for the hunt, which means adding patrons, vendors and room for sponsors.
Sell and Galvin say the hunt wants to stay on good terms with Oatlands leadership and look for opportunities to hold other events on the property.
Oatlands CEO Caleb Schutz said he was hoping for a solution that would have allowed the races to stay at Oatlands and suggested raising ticket prices as part of a new business model during early meetings with the hunt. Schutz, who was hired to run the Oatlands nonprofit in late 2018, visited his first pre-COVID point-to-point in 2019 and spent time walking the lane talking with patrons.
“It was a marvelous event. I definitely would have wanted to keep it, but it was their decision,” Schutz said. He adds that despite some crossed connections, relations with the hunt remain cordial. But he shares a sense of disappointment with longtime race fans.
“Some programs start at a point in time in history, and it would be very hard to ever duplicate it,” he said. “Having met the people on that road, I had the feeling that this was such a rare event that it would be sad if there was no way to work out a way to continue.”
With new ticketing and COVID protocols in place for 2021 and a change in date for the races, organizers are expecting some patrons to skip this year’s event but say they’re hoping longtime patrons will return in 2022 with a more traditional setup and a focus on keeping longtime rail neighbors together in the new location.
“We’re not moving the community experience. … I think there’s going to be a new tradition,” Sell said. “We’re inviting people to continue their traditions in a new way.”
Limited general admission tickets are available for the Loudoun Hunt Point-to-Point on Sunday, April 18 at the Morven Park International Equestrian Center. Gates open at 10 a.m. Tickets are $100 per person with children 12 and under admitted free of charge. Advance reservations are required by April 17, and COVID protocols will be in place on race day. For tickets and information, go to loudounraces.com.