The first thing to remember about the Fairfax Hunt's point-to-point races this weekend is that for much of the crowd the horses were almost, but not quite, beside the point.
Saturday was the last hurrah on the annual nine-weekend circuit of amateur steeplechasing known as point-to-point. Hosted each spring by Northern Virginia's fox-hunting clubs, the races are a chance for the clubs to raise money, and a time when suburbanites are welcome, even sought after, in the land of manure and money.
"We've been bringing the kids since they were in diapers," said Jane Sutton, of Reston. "We like to come see how the other half lives."
"They can come and see how we live, too," added Sutton's neighbor, John Stone, as the Suttons and their friends perched around a cloth-covered folding table and on lawn chairs, eating fried chicken and potato chips beside the family car in a grassy field on Belmont Plantation near Leesburg.
The other half, however, quite oblivious, spread its silver and flower bedecked feast well on the other side of the plantation driveway, under tents pitched between rows of glossy Jaguars and and Mercedes. Tweed-sheathed ladies paid $50 for a parking space on the right side of the white picket fence, and local banks and construction companies spent thousands of dollars sponsoring races or catering picnics and potables for a lawn party no April drizzle could dampen.
"We've got roast pig, and all kinds of good stuff," said A.W. Smith III, horseman and member of the Middleburg Hunt. "It's just a day to get out here and have a good time."
There were millionaires pretending to be farmers and farmers dressed like millionaires, bankers acting like gentry and gentry talking like bankers. There was backslapping and bet-making--and a race to the fences whenever the thoroughbreds thundered by.
"I like these point-to-points better than the races for money," said John R. DeBergh, an apple and peach farmer and member of the Rappahannock Hunt. "Everyone knows everyone else, and everyone's horses."
About the horses: Point-to-point, like the professional steeplechasing it precedes in Virginia each spring, consists of riding a very fast horse at a very fast pace around an enormous meadow and dead straight into 4-foot-6-inch jumping hurdles of timber and trees. The sport is said to have begun centuries ago in Ireland as a way for boasting farmers to determine whose horse was fleetest after a winter of fox-hunting. The object is still to finish faster than the other fellow, and in one piece.
At three miles, the course is twice the length of the longest thoroughbred race track, and on a wet day, more treacherous. The shortest distance between two points at Belmont Plantation was astride 2,000 pounds of high-strung horseflesh -- unless of course the horse had other plans, which it sometimes did.
To prepare for the racing, riders gallop their horses, jog and lift weights. Serious injuries and fatal accidents are not unknown, and most fox hunters, being older and heavier than the average jockey, don't even attempt the sport. Those who do often minimize its dangers.
"I don't suspect it's any more dangerous than ski jumping," said millionaire horseman and steeplechaser Randolph Rouse, 65, examining his tiny racing saddle before the fifth race. An ambulance sits at the bottom of the field, however.
"It has nothing to do with being in shape," said A.W. Smith III. "You've got to be crazy."
Point-to-point racing has been called the last great amateur sport; unlike professional steeplechasing, a victory in point-to-point confers no cash upon the winner, and riders compete for what they like to refer to as "pots and pans," the gleaming silver bowls that sat beaded with rain near the finish line. Still, the value of a horse that does well on the point-to-point circuit can skyrocket like a runaway dividend.
"I've seen horses bought off the race track for under $5,000 do well on the circuit and sell for $20,000 or $30,000," DeBergh said.
"There's a man here today who sold his horse and put a down payment on a house," said spectator Kristin Potash, 23.
As in many equestrian sports, money can make the steeplechaser, amateur or no. All the riding skill in the world won't make a slow horse speedy; racing isn't known as the sport of kings for nothing. Charles Fleishman, 29, heir to a margarine fortune and member of the Orange County hunt, rode two of his own horses to victory Saturday.
"He's a very good rider," said Julie Seraphin of Leesburg.
"Plus, tell the truth," her companion urged. "He has the money to buy great horses."
But money is just money to those who have stacks of it; it was glory the riders were racing for, and it was Rouse, Master of the Fairfax Hunt and 1983 Horseman of the Year, who won it with a ride that had even the most jaded socialites raising their binoculars.
After 2 1/2 laps of keeping his 15-year-old chestnut gelding "Cousin Wes" several lengths behind the rest of the field, Rouse let the horse run out, racing it breakneck over the finish line, red and blue racing silks snapping.
"It's experience," Rouse said modestly as he received his silver trophy.
"Oh, Randy," said a woman as she raised her Instamatic, "you're the biggest Virginia ham I ever saw."