If F. Scott Fitzgerald were alive, he might well have been one of the more than 32,000 spectators on hand for Saturday's Virginia Gold Cup races at the new Great Meadow course in The Plains.
The event attracted many in the traditional racegoing set, but it also found its way into the hearts of many newcomers to steeplechasing. "Just watching the people was fun," admitted first-timer Phil Baldus, who owns a photo service in Washington.
Ninety minutes before the seven-race program began, it was obvious that a great deal of the crowd had made a 40-mile trip from the District area. Cars lined up for nearly two miles on I-66, waiting to exit onto the smaller roads that lead to Great Meadow.
This year's advance sales of more than $100,000 almost doubled last year's $56,000 while smashing the attendance record set in the mid-1950s of 18,500.
"The only problem was that I underestimated the crowd by about 20,000," said race chairman Arthur (Nicky) W. Arundel. Arundel had prepared his army of more than 200 volunteers to expect about 15,000 visitors.
Arundel said the course is designed to handle 50,000 people comfortably now and 70,000 in the future.
If Saturday's results are any indication of how the Gold Cup will be run in the future, then there are apt to be few complaints.
Reserved seating sections, priced from $75 to $300 each, sold out months ago. For $600, racegoers could rent one of the 17 party tents that lined the hilltop overlooking the course. The tents came with only a table, a tablecloth and 10 chairs. Catering was, of course, extra, and one tent renter hired strolling violinists to entertain his guests.
But for most railbirds, the 60th running of the demanding four-mile Virginia Gold Cup provided enough excitement. Of the 11 starters, none was as impressive as John R. Neal's Prince Saran, who easily captured his second Gold Cup victory in a fast 8:29 2/5 clocking.
Rider Paul Sloan let the 11-year-old bay gelding go to the front of the pack at the 15th of 23 timber fences, crossing the finish line with 15 lengths to spare despite a late driving effort by second place Private Gary. Back another four lengths for third was Freeman's Hill with Billy Meister in the saddle. Four horses fell, and a fifth pulled up during the race.
Rider of the year D.M. (Speedy) Smithwick Jr. originally was scheduled to ride Private Gary but was replaced by Charles C. Fenwick Jr. after Smithwick fell at the water jump while riding Bar Jacket in the second race. Bar Jacket snapped his leg above the knee and broke his shoulder as he began to jump. The horse was later destroyed and stewards closed the water jump. Smithwick broke a small bone in his left wrist.
The Virginia Gold Cup trophy was retired last year. This year John B. Coleman, owner of the Ritz-Carlton Hotel, donated a $40,000 trophy to be called the Jockey Club Challenge Trophy. The trophy was given to the owners of Prince Saran, John and Linda Neal, by Sen. John W. Warner (R-Va.) and Coleman.