Bull Run Hunt: A day for the fun of it

It was almost like stepping back in time Sunday at Culpeper’s Brandywine Park. At the Bull Run Hunt Point-to-Point, six well-filled races comprised a busy race card, but there wasn’t a set of silks to be found on the course.

No Virginia – or national – champions suited up. Few registered Thoroughbreds, even, faced the starter’s flag. The day may have been cold and gray but the collective mood on and around the oval racecourse was festive and jolly.

“This is how it’s supposed to be in Virginia racing,” said former Bull Run Hunt master Joe Kincheloe. “This is how it started. We’re just going back to the roots of the sport.”

Long the Bull Run Hunt fought to find their place on the spring circuit. Relatively late to the game, the new meet languished at the “end” of the season in mid-May for a decade, failing to attract many runners because it ran a full three weeks after the other spring point-to-points concluded. The hunt had a little better luck swapping to mid-March a couple years ago, yet once the National Steeplechase Association circuit gets underway a week earlier, steeplechase horses and horsemen are tugged in different directions with multiple choices each weekend, so entries in “regular” series and open hurdle and timber races remained low.

What the hunt needed, as a cap to the hunt season and a fun way to entertain friends and neighbors, was a return to the old days of “real” point-to-point competition, joint-master Rosie Campbell said.

She was right: this year’s races were an unqualified success. Though unseasonably cold temperatures and the threat of an early spring snowstorm kept the gate fairly light, hundreds attended the meet, and dozens of horses and hunt members lived their dream of racing on a real racecourse in real horse races. The program included junior and senior field masters’ ‘chases on the flat and over timber, as well as a Quarter Horse dash and a draft horse race.

The meet benefited the Culpeper Regional Hospital.

Junior field masters’ chase winner Caroline Shipe, 15, said she was “hooked” on horse racing, after the easy victory aboard SR Easter Lily. “She was great,” Shipe exuded about the mile-long jumping circuit in which competitors played “follow the leader” with an adult field master before being released to race to the wire. “I think she loved getting to ‘pass the master’.” It was especially fun, Shipe explained, because “passing the master” is verboten in the actual hunt field.

Shipe lives in Remington, and she rides with the Hunter Horse 4-H club and trainer Rosie Thomas at Summerduck Run Farm.

“I think it was a heck of a good time,” said Kincheloe. “I think maybe the only thing that might make it even better would be to push the race date back another week or two. You’re likely to get better weather then, and that way the foxhunters have a week off from hunting to prep for the day of racing.”

In addition to the horse races, Brandywine Park took on the feeling of an old-fashioned carnival, with kids’ games, a stick horse race, a dog show, various vendors, a parade of the Bull Run Hunt foxhounds, a carriage parade, reining demonstration and pony rides. “That’s the whole point,” said hospital volunteer Kristi Harcum of the festive atmosphere. “That everybody comes down here and has a really great time supporting a really good cause.”

Rappahannock Hunt members Melanie Mervis and Robin Bolt pressed up against the inner rail right at the finish line. “This is the way it should be,” said Mervis, taking a sip from a steaming cup of coffee to warm her toes, she said, on the frigid afternoon. “Hunters having fun, kids running around. This is great.”

More information on the Bull Run Hunt, including complete results, is online at www.BullRunHunt.com.