Steeplechase racing returns to its traditional roots when the inaugural Mrs. George C. Everhart Memorial Invitational Side Saddle Chase, the first to be held in America since the 1930s, makes its debut at the 49th annual Loudoun Hunt Point-to-Point Races on Sunday, April 12, at historic Oatlands Plantation.
“This groundbreaking event brings a new dimension to steeplechase racing because it speaks to the foundation of the sport,” said Donna Rogers, Master of Foxhounds of the Loudoun Fairfax Hunt. “We are delighted to host the inaugural race, which I think will become a popular new tradition and do much to spur interest in riding aside, steeplechase racing, foxhunting and land conservation in Virginia.”
Premier race sponsor Greenhill Winery and Vineyards will award ribbons for first through sixth place, provide the signature jump, and sponsor a prize for the Best Turned Out pair (horse and rider). Other sponsors include: the Gable family, who will award a perpetual trophy to the winning rider and horse; Salamander Resort and Spa, who are providing in-kind food sponsorship; and Noel Asmar Equestrian, who have donated an All Weather Jacket, which features apron-like styling popular with women who ride aside, to the winner of the race. The Side Saddle Chase is the first race of the day, and starts promptly at noon.
Side saddle was once the only proper way for a lady to ride, and women did everything aside that men did astride: hunting, racing and showing. However, beginning with the women’s suffrage movement in the early 20th century, more women starting putting a leg on either side of the horse to ride astride, until eventually after World War II women riding “sideways” became a rarity rather than the rule. However, side saddle riding is continually gaining in popularity, thanks in part to social media, the success of period hits like “Downton Abbey,” and England’s annual Dianas of the Chase race.
In fact, race organizers Maggie Johnston and Devon Zebrovious decided to hold the first U.S. race after meeting the Dianas race organizer Philippa Holland during a side-saddle hunting trip to Ireland in 2013.
“This week’s Downton Abbey episode features Lady Mary competing aside in a steeplechase race, and some of the women Devon and I hunted with in Ireland were fashion advisors to Downton Abby and extras in the race scene,” said Johnston, who greeted spectators at last year’s Loudoun races riding aside as a race ambassador. “With our proper side saddle riding habits and the backdrop of Oatlands’ beautiful property, our race will look and feel very similar to what TV viewers see in the episode.”
“We hope to rekindle the excitement and glamour of this traditional discipline for today’s riders and spectators of all ages,” said Zebrovious, who was the United States Equestrian Federation’s Ladies Side Saddle Hunter National Champion in 2013 and 2014, and was awarded 2014 Reserve Champion Virginia Field Hunter while riding aside.
Ten women have committed to participate and the race is still open to interested riders, who must attend a mandatory training session held by Eva Smithwick, one of the leading trainers on the Virginia point-to-point racing circuit, at her Sunnybank Farm in Middleburg in late March.
The Loudoun races are one of the highlights of both the spring racing calendar and the northern Virginia social scene, with thousands of spectators and tailgaters coming out to enjoy a full card of races and tailgating.