A windblown Elizabeth Taylor struggled up the hill at Woodley Farm in Berryville, Va., Saturday afternoon as the first raindrops fell. She had just presented a trophy to the winner of the Blue Ridge Ladies three-mile race over timber.
It is a new role for the actress who is now Mrs. John Warner of Middleburg, Va. She's into country tweeds, riding to the hounds and standing around on a hillside in early spring weather to see and be seen at the point-to-point races.
Everywhere was the steamy smell of warm, wet wool worn by the landed gentry who were busy pretending Elizabeth Taylor was just another land owner's wife. It's a game they play with each other, this labored casualness. It is just the kind of excessive subtlety you expect from those who, with a straight face, can call a blazing red hunting coat pink.
Fortunately, at least a few in the crowd of 3,500 had given up gamesmanship for Lent. There were enough gawkers to clear a passage for her, but no one was rude enough to point out the disparity between this entrance and the one she made into Rome as Hollywood's most memorable Cleopatra.
It was as if Elizabeth Taylor had come full circle from a teen-age "discovery" who portrayed a girl jockey bent on making England's Grand National steeplechase in "National Velvet" to matronly retirement handing out trophies in nonsanctioned point-to-point meets.
She knows there's no comparison, but she's, well, game. The Grand National, she said in that familiar faint but clipped voice of hers, "is the toughest race in the world. But I love the informality of this . . . " Her voice trailed off and she gestured vaguely around her at the trappings of her new life: Jaguars and station wagons, horse blankets and wicker picnic baskets, Irish setters and Irish wool walking hats.
Point-to-point races began as informal gatherings held in the early spring to determine the season's swiftest hunter. The race was run from one estate to another and back.It was a private race over open countryside. Any spectators who might tag along could expect to see only the start and the finish of the race.
Things are different now. The land owners, always anxious to nurture the notion of tradition, still gather for the unsanctioned meets. But it's all changed now Old money mingles with new and more. A Rolls Royce parts for the race next to a camper van. Fresh-cut cedar for the brush hurdles has been abandoned by some hunt clubs in favor of plastic hedging.
Of course, everyone connected with the hunt denies that point-to-point was ever exclusive. "It never was," protested Blue Ridge Hunt's Mrs. William Gilbert, just have better courses, better horses and riders and better competition now. So there are more and more people interested in coming to the point-to-point meetings."
"It's getting more important for the clubs to make money and we need it," she said conspiratorially. "It is getting more expensive to keep the hounds."
One person who claimed there was no money in point-to-point racing was a bookie named Herman. Like everything else about point-to-point, book-making was very understated. An not just because it is illegal in Virginia. "Bookies are allowed to stand by and say, 'Here's betting with - ' and his name, but he must say it in a low, subdued but audible tone," one gentleman rider explained. "It never gets out of hand."
Herman was posting odds and claiming poverty. "If I make $80 or $90 a day, I'm doing good," he said, scrawling numbers on a bright orange chit.
The holder of one such winning ticket was Mrs. Alfred Knowles, whose husband rode Mr. Jam of Goshen Hunt two miles over natural brush hurdles." She got even money. "Oh, hell, I was 6-to-2 last week," the middle-aged Knowles laughingly complained, accepting congratulations from his friend, Helen Polinger. The Knowles and the Polingers, from Maryland, were enjoying a moment of dominance over the Virginia clubs.
Helen Polinger explained the trophy presentation that, in keeping with the theme of understatement, is so brief and so far away from the spectators that no one actually witnesses the winner receiving his silver. Most of the trophies are retired to permanent possession after three wins. "But generally a person would just donate it back," she said.
But these owner-riders do not risk life and limb over 17 timber jumps just to add another Paul Revere fruit bowl trophy to the collection. Not for silver plate, at least.
No, it is pride and tradition. Nothing can spoil point-to-point meets for the hunt-country types. If property taxes rise, if the ever-widening ring of suburban shopping malls encroach, if outsiders want to come and watch, it is all right. Landed gentry can adjust.
So now, in the early spring, the hillsides are filled with people watching people race horses - van loads of plain, average, nonhorse-owning people who spread blankets on the group and rip into brown bags filled with peanut butter sandwiches. And those who know who they are, the secure horse people, don't mind as long as it enables the hunts and the steeplechases and the point-to-points to continue.
And is somebody wants to ask Elizabeth Taylor to present a prize or two, well, it is all right with the hunt people. Only call her Mrs. Warner, please. And don't be so crass as to gawk.