The 86th Virginia Gold Cup returned to The Plains for an afternoon of horse races with big tents, big hats and even bigger attendance.
By John Arundel
Photos by Cecilie Olaussen

The Virginia Gold Cup races has often been called the “world’s largest tailgate,” and this year was no exception, as the 86th running of the storied steeplechase shattered all records for attendance.

Nearly 55,000 weekend warriors made their yearly trek to Great Meadow in The Plains, VA. last Saturday, arriving in a seemingly endless I-66 procession of Land Rovers and open-top roadsters.

Spilling out of their vintage cars dressed in Laura Ashley and Vineyard Vines, many with tumblers already poured, Saturday’s racegoers took their most comfortable viewing spots on blankets, makeshift seats and car hoods, along the North and South Rails and on clubby Member’s Hill, where a race-day parking spot goes for $450 and a catered tent fetches $10,000.

“Members Hill sold out two weeks ago,” said Great Meadow’s dynamic Executive Director Robert L. Banner. “There’s just so much energy here, especially with Living Social as our new principal sponsor this year.”

Eddie Frederick, Blair Wyatt with son James, & Barbera Noell. Photo by Cecilie Olaussen.

Living Social co-founder and President Eddie Frederick brought about 400 of his employees along with him for a day of revelry and race-watching in the country, pouring out of several party buses that he hired for the ride out and decamping in a huge circus-sized tent on Member’s Hill.

His employees had much to celebrate after recently invested $175 million into the D.C.-based company and Wall Street valued it at $3 billion. Last month, on a quiet Sunday, the D.C,-based daily deals site lit up the Internet with a “half off deal” of Gold Cup ticket packages, selling them for $160 apiece. After 13 hours of frantic selling, Living Social sold 562 of the deals.

As the title sponsor of the $75,000 Living Social Virginia Gold Cup, Frederick was entitled to bring up to 50 of his employees onto the Steward’s Stand to view the four-mile Timber Stakes, won by just a hair this year by Merriefield Farm’s Bon Caddo and jockey Blair Wyatt. Six horses started the grueling, four-mile race over 23 timber fences. Only two finished.

“It’s been a truly amazing day, and we’re so proud to be sponsoring the Gold Cup,” Frederick said after presenting the trophy to Williams, only the third female jockey to win the Gold Cup since 1922.

Before race officials dropped the flag on the title race, a moment of silence was held in honor of the late Arthur W. “Nick” Arundel, Great Meadow’s founder and benefactor, who died in February. Longtime confidante Rob Banner, son Peter W. Arundel of McLean and widow Margaret C. Arundel of The Plains gave stirring tributes to the 83-year-old Arundel, who was race chairman for 25 years, and before that, his father Russell M. Arundel for 24 years.

“This is Nick Arundel’s field of dreams,” Banner said. “And today he is shining down upon all of us with this great weather and a full card of racing.”

As is custom, a few Wall Street traders took the Delta Shuttle down from Manhattan — a ritual they repeat every first Saturday in May — while one longtime racegoer flew in from Monaco, and others from California.

“It’s just the best day out in the country, anywhere,” said Snowden Clarke, a riding instructor from Los Angeles who once trained horses in England for Queen Elizabeth, “I wouldn’t have missed today for anything in the world.”

Barry Dixon, Baby Deselliers, Katheryn Ireland and Snowden Clarke. Photo by Cecilie Olaussen.

The actor Robert Duvall, who lives on a farm neaby in The Plains when not creating movies in Hollywood, strolled Member’s Hill, greeting his horse country neighbors and longtime friends.

Marlena Ramallo Cooke, who lives in Monte Carlo, could be found on Member’s Hill sharing the day with her son Rodrigo Garcia, a D.C. restaurateur who co-founded L2 and now owns Serendipity in Georgetown, and friend Erika P. Guttierrez, the public relations maven of D.C.’s epgPR.

Ramallo Cooke, the spirited Latino widow of billionaire Jack Kent Cooke (former owner of The Washington Redskins) said she secured the spot with her late husband in the late ’80s, and never gave it up.

“I come back everrrry year from Monaco just for this day,” Ramallo Cooke purred in a silky Brazilian accent. “It gives me an excuse to see my son, and some very old friends that I rarely get to see.”

Nearby, Clarke joined his longtime friend the renowned Washington interior designer Barry Dixon for a race day that broke warm and sunny, with a turf that was ready for some heart-pounding steeplechasing.

“The track is thick and lush with an excellent mat,” declared Great Meadow groundskeeper Bobby Hilton of The Plains. “I mowed the course last Saturday so despite about four inches of rain this past week it should be very smooth with excellent compaction.”

Held in Fauquier County every year since 1922, the Gold Cup has come to be known as more than an annual steeplechase. It’s become one of the year’s key social events, a sort of Ascot or Epsom Downs for D.C.’s 20- and 30-something set.

Debra Murphy, winner for Most Outrageous Hat. Photo by Cecilie Olaussen.

Great Meadow on raceday might also be called one of the world’s largest pickup bars, with huge waves of singles and college reunion groups mixing and mingling at hundreds of race day tailgate parties and tents.

Not much to not like about the great weather, beer and drumsticks, and a day of checking out the opposite sex in a relaxed countryside setting.

Ever mindful that the Gold Cup is a society event, most young professionals heeded the call for “appropriate afternoon dress.” If you were unsure of what that means, the official Gold Cup web site recommends “a sportswear look for women and khakis for men.”

Some ignored that advice and went for the Tom Wolfe look: White linen suit, boater hat, black-and-white spats — and a strong dollop of attitude. For the women, it was mostly sun dresses, Gap skirts and flowery hats. There was even a hat competition which rewarded the most stylish and outlandish, judged by 9NewsNow’s Angie Goff.

Other race day highlights included a Terrier Race exhibition, a Steeplethon, a Black Horse Cavalry demonstration and opening ceremony performances by St. Andrew’s Society Color Guard and Angela Knight singing the National Anthem.

This year’s sponsors awarded nearly $200,000 in purses to winning jockeys.

In addition to Living Social, Towers Watson, Audi of North America, M.C. Dean, Infinitive and Rutherfoord Insurance were this year’s sponsors, awarding nearly $200,000 in prizes to owners, jockeys and trainers. BFF’s Bill Dean of M.C. Dean & Co. and Michael Saylor of Microstrategy Corp. pooled resources to sponsor a tent on Member’s Hill, as well as a race.

This year’s University Row was so successful — a fraternity-like celebration of more than 30 D.C. chapters of colleges and universities — that the organizers of it funded their own Maiden Claiming Race.

“It’s the best day out in the history of the world,” effused D.C.’s David Coombes on University Row, “and a championship sized hangover too!”

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