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Once Mother Nature starts grooming the landscape into vibrant green, it’s time to escape into Virginia’s horse country. If you take that trip on the first Saturday in May, you’ll get the chance to share in a tradition that dates back to 1922. Gentlefolk, bon vivants, and the new-moneyed set crowd into the Great Meadow in The Plains, Va., and against the backdrop of Bull Run Mountain and the Windsor Woods, they cheer for foxhunting horses and thoroughbreds as they compete in a steeplechase race known as the Virginia Gold Cup. While there are three main viewing areas, two offer general admission for mere mortals. The North Rail viewing area is situated closest to Interstate Highway 66, and it is said that the festive crowd on the North Rail gives this area a party atmosphere. The South Rail viewing area, lying alongside Route 17, has the reputation of being family-friendly. Most prestigious is the exclusive Members Hill. This viewing area is centered at the finish line, and special admission badges are required for entry. Admittance into the narrow gate at Members Hill gives you access to the tent parties. These are catered affairs, and the atmosphere varies from billowing tent to tent. Invitations are needed to enter these parties, and security people are usually stationed to keep out intruders. Members Hill access also allows you to see the racehorses with beautifully groomed manes and flaring nostrils being paraded around the paddock. Fifteen minutes before the scheduled post time of each race, the horses and riders are assembled and inspected. The steeplechase course itself is among the world’s largest and most visible to spectators. The day’s events kick off at 11 a.m. with the Jack Russell Terrier race. Despite the breed’s slogan — “Laugh at me and I’ll bite your ankles” — it is terribly amusing to see those short little legs running around the track. Seven horse races follow. The fifth race, known as the Steeplethon, consists of 18 natural hunting obstacles, including brush, timber, a chicken coop, a stream, a bullfinch ditch, a sod-topped stone wall, and a stream bed crossing that is 9 inches deep and 170 feet long. “Not only is this the best of steeplechase racing in terms of the horses and riders, but it is perhaps one of the most spectacular courses — it’s sometimes referred to as the gem,” says Honorary Race President William Allison, who adds, “Of course, there is great pageantry with all the tents and beautifully dressed ladies.” Indeed, there are some interesting outfits. Last year’s Gold Cup boasted men in blue blazers and khaki shorts and women in glorious spring dresses and smart straw hats. “Some of us in the old days used to always have straw hats on. Boaters were always part of the earlier scene, along with seersucker,” says Allison, a dentist in Warrenton, Va. He points out that this year there will be a special hat contest for women. Veterans like Cooley Godward and Hunton & Williams throw grand parties for their attorneys and clients on Members Hill every year. “It’s unique in the sense that it’s outdoors, it’s in the spring, and it lends itself to having a great number of people in an informal setting,” says Tom Cawley, a managing partner at Hunton & Williams. This year, Kilpatrick Stockton is joining in by hosting a tent on Members Hill for their clients and their family members. The Cooley Godward tent is usually packed with the young, beautiful people, and good food and a special baseball cap are available to all invited. Native Virginian Tom Salley, a partner in the business department at Cooley Godward, awarded a trophy to one of the winners last year. That extra responsibility meant he had to wear a tie, “which is contrary to Cooley’s dress code,” he says. Tickets to the Gold Cup and parking passes must be purchased in advance. Information can be obtained online at http://www.vagoldcup.com/. Elisabeth Frater, Legal Times’ “Wine Counsel” columnist, can be reached at [email protected]

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