W.C. Fields said he had "gone out to the country once, to kick a tree."
A funny man, but with his attitude he never got to horse country during the season, and never knew what he was missing.
Point-to-point racing and steeplechases aren't just for the horsey set, but you should go prepared for fancy:
Well-stocked tailgate bars, complete with fresh flower arrangements, silver ice buckets, ice tongs, stirring spoons and napkins; or, if no tailgate, silver pitcher or bottles of Perrier, or both, on the roof of a car.
Further elegance includes picnic tables set up in the parking area, with silver candelabras, silver-rimmed salad bowls, floral centerpieces in large Paul Revere silver bowls (more Revere silver bowls at point-to-points than in a department store), candles, lace tablecloths, fondue pots, cheese boards, wine baskets, fresh loaves of bread, roast beef, Virginia ham, biscuits and bowls of fresh fruits.
Plus dessert -- a silver tray on four legs, with doilies and fluted white pastry cups holding Napoleons, tarts and petits fours.
Where are the ants? No ants -- they were probably scratched.
But you don't need to polish the silver or bring a lace tablecloth -- you can bring along chicken salad, rye bread and pickles from a delicatessen along the way, or fried chicken from a carryout, or a picnic hamper with checked tablecloth, French bread or crackers, and cheese and wine.
For great guessing games, though, between races, there are the lavish, silver-laden tables at the Casanova point-to-point this Saturday, the season's opener. A competition offers strolling, gasping (quietly) and second-guessing fun -- see if you agree with the judges. The entry fee for the competition is up to the individual, with proceeds going to Children's Hospital, according to Will O'Keefe, racing secretary of the Casanova.
O'Keefe, who'll also be calling the races over the PA system, says:
"The most important thing is to get to the race course by 11:30. Or after 2. If you try after 11:30, you'll be in a very long traffic line, which can mar the day. Arriving after 2 means missing the first four races, but it's still fun. There still are five others. It's much more enjoyable, though, arriving early, because you can get to walk around and see everything."
More eyefuls at the races:
PEOPLE-WATCHING:Curious children atop shoulders for a better view. Farmers. City folk. Local gentry. The riders, especially, their erect walk, strong hands and colorful silks. The men and women who ride constantly are easy to pick out -- the lines at the sides of their eyes are deeper, almost etched there by wind, rain and sun.
WHAT'S WORN: Western hats with feathers, racing caps, sporty straw hats, black felt bowlers; jeans, slacks, riding breeches; lots of tweed jackets, cashmere and wool sweaters.
And, always, one unforgettable person: A man with walking stick, very properly tailored tweed jacket, suede elbow patches, cigarette holder and, on closer examination, even a monocle. From England, or just off the cover of The New Yorker?
OVERHEARD CONVERSATIONS: Just paid my vet $1,500. Think my horse is eating barbed wire!
Understand that if Randy Rouse (king of the point-to-points) is beaten by a horse, he buys that horse.
Is that Senator John Warner on that horse over there? Yes. (He's frequently at the point-to-points as an outrider, leading the horses to the starting point and calming any unruly ones.)
There's another outrider, in scarlet jacket, wearing a black top hat and leaning over, patiently answering a question of a first- grader who's petting his horse. Scarlet jacket? No, that's his "pink." It's called "a pink." says a horseman, "because in England, a tailorby the name of Pink made the riding jacket for visibility in riding across the fields. So the damn thing is named after him."
"No, it's Pink with an 'e' on the end, Pinke."
A look into the program also produces a surprise or two. There's the word "farrier."
"What's that?" you ask a friend.
"How long has that been in use?"
"Oh, for some time" is the polite answer.
Then there's the age of thoroughbred horses. Whether born in March, April, May, June or July (the usual months), the horse is automatically one year old the following January 1. Makes for a terrible sameness in horoscope readings, but it simplifies record- keeping.
The names of the horses in the program are interesting reading, too: Cinzano, Just a Tinch, Daring Mistress, Gray Flannel, Just Teasin, Five after Five, Sgt. Pepper, Machu Pichu, Zoomy, Lazy Condor, Pill Mill, Obiwankenobi, Swiss Bank Account, Timbuktu, Aunt Zoe, Too Far Gone, Me Pistol, Conserje, Better Go, Oh Feathers, Polyester and Preposterous.
Which of the point-to-points is the best to go to?
All, because each has its appeal and because the countryside is beautiful, with its fields, barns, miles of hand-built fences and stone walls, lanes and estates. And horses.
At Casanova, it's the excitement of opening day, seeing great leaps over fences and hedges for the first time of the year, hearing the calling of the races and the betting.
The following Saturday, March 6, the Rappahannock is unique with its hound-dog race. Farmers there go for breeding hounds like city people go for tennis or golf. About 50 hounds run a course of scent laid around the valley. The hound that runs it the fastest wins. Some of the farmers have been hunting hounds in the foothills and up in the mountains since childhood -- boys and girls -- perfecting the art of hunting a pack of hounds.
"Some of the best hounds and the best huntsmen in America come from Rappahannock County, Virginia," says Peter Winants, editor of The Chronicle of the Horse , an international publication with editorial offices in Middleburg.
At some of the other point-to-points:
MIDDLEBURG -- a very visible meet with an elaborate course;
OATLANDS -- beautiful view of the course from hilltop and a tree-shaded lane with picnic tables on either side;
BLUE RIDGE -- in the valley. You'll have your own favorite after a while.
One that draws big crowds is Oatlands (for one reason, the time of year, April). Anita White, master of the Loudoun Hunt, which sponsors Oatlands, says the patron section is already sold out. A patron pays $75 for a parking space, with some of the cars overlooking the race course.
What's a point-to-point?
It's a race from one specified point to another, over fences and hedges, some set up just for the event, following a flagged course. Originally, it was a race over natural country and natural obstacles, stone walls and chicken coops, with the rider taking any route from one point to another.
A steeplechase was originally a race from one point to another, the name deriving, it's said, from riders who picked a steeple in town as the finish point.
Today, a point-to-point is local, informal, just for the pleasure and sport, racing over obstacles on a course from one place to another, mainly for the thrill of winning. There are no purses.
A steeplechase is a meet sanctioned by the National Steeplechase and Hunt Association, doing much the same thing; but the horses and the silks are registered, and there are purses.
The so-called "real fiber of the sport" is evident at every point-to-point or steeplechase: the expertise, the care and grooming of the horses, the training and the danger. Some tips on going to a point-to-point or steeplechase:
* If you leave early enough, you'll have time for browsing in the antique shops along the way bottle of Amaretto, which you can pour, according to taste, into the cider. Paper cups as well.
* If the weather's mild, you may want to bring along an ice bucket filled with cubes from home, or pick up a bag of ice along the way. And remember to fill an empty plastic milk bottle with water and take it along. Water for the drinks and for the children. Maybe some sodas, too.
* You might want to bring along a blanket for sitting on the ground between the races. Maybe binoculars, too.
* Don't forget your wallet: $3 per person, general admission, includes parking as well as unrestricted access to everything at the race course; $2 for a program, and some betting money, if you want to bet.
* Don't worry about a monocle. How much can you see out of one eye, anyway?