The Montpelier Hunt Races: A Look Behind the Scenes

A lot goes into preparing for the Montpelier Hunt Races the first Saturday in November.

Montpelier competes with two other sanctioned steeplechase races on the first weekend in November. As there are a limited number of horses who race over fences, we are in competition to attract horses and jockeys (more on jockeys later)

Of prime concern for the trainers and owners is the racing surface. They want to make sure their horses have the best possible surface to race over, i.e. smooth, cushiony and consistent. At this time of year, early summer, we are all about grooming the racecourse. Mowing the 23 acres that compromise the course is done regularly, along with weed control. Aeration and rolling with a specially constructed turf roller imported from England, is on-going to insure a smooth surface. The natural hedges, that are only used for the Noel Laing race, are made of privet and are trimmed and shaped throughout the summer to insure they are shooting up green fluffy shoots for the horses to jump through on race day. Prior to the races the course will be tested several times for moisture content and compaction and these numbers are reported to the National Steeplechase Association which publishes the results so trainers can make a decision. There is a lot of pressure to deliver a safe surface and Montpelier works diligently all year, but particularly in the summer, to create the best course possible.

Another safety component are the racecourse fences, painted the traditional white. These need constant upkeep to keep them looking pristine, to ensure any boards or posts that need replacing are taken care of and that weeds and grass doesn’t grow up under the fence line. There are temporary tower structures that are placed on the course for officials’ viewing and these, along with the directional beacons and parking signs, are checked and freshened or replaced as necessary.

There are a very limited number of licensed steeplechase jockeys in the US, under 40. When there are 6-7 races per day and 2 – 3 race meets on weekend, this stretches the jockey pool tremendously. Montpelier is fortunate in that it is a popular ride with jockeys, but we continue to try to upgrade our amenities for them to encourage them to make the trip to Orange, rather than another race meet. Many steeplechase jockeys hail from England or Ireland, home of jump racing and where it is practically a national sport. One year the number of jockeys was so limited, an owner had to fly a jockey over from England for one weekend to make sure his horse had a rider at Montpelier.

There are a number of horses in training here at Montpelier and any weekday morning, weather permitting, they are working out on the flat track that we use for our first race. Without the ambient noise of a crowd, it is beautiful to hear the horses’ hoofs pounding and their rhythmic breath as they gallop past.

We hope you will make plans to take advantage of our behind-the-scenes preparation and join us on November 2, for the 89th Running of the Montpelier Hunt Races. For 89 years the races have been run over this course and we are looking forward to our 90th anniversary next year planning some special celebrations.