There's not much left of the horsey life except faith these days. But the Middleburg Spring Meeting is a chapel in the wilderness.
Every year as many as 15,000 faithful desend upon this aristocratic Virginia retreat for about 20 minutes of horse racing, spread out over four hours of partying. From the tailgates and trunks of Mercedes and BMWs, they dine on chicken legs, country ham and biscuits, cold shrimp and sliced vegetables washed down with whole cases of liquor.
The boxes are quietly labeled with some of the oldest and nouveau-richest names in the area: Sorenson, Corcoran, Symington, DuPont, Meredyth (as in Vineyard). They meet and greet in a kind of quadrille, nodding and circling, clinking glasses and retreating.
Here's what to drink in Middleburg these days: Perrier, Italian red win, French champagne, Kentucky bourbon. Beer in glasses only, and not low calorie.
Here's what to wear in Middleburg: Green, Kelly green -- skirts, slacks, sweaters, blazers, socks, even Topsiders. Madras jackets and plaid ties. A smattering of designer denim, and more khaki than since the British Army was mustered in 1914.
Izod pullovers are uniform; a handful of daring men wore Polo shirts, and one a Rolling Rock Premium Beer pullover.
Men's headgear, in order of preference: straw boaters, slouchy English motoring caps, baseball hats and lidless visors, with cowboy hats and the fedora way back in the field.
The women all look as if they shopped from the same catalog -- Lilly Pulitzer -- but they didn't seem to notice.
Here's what dogs to buy: Afghans, Old English Sheepdogs, Labs, Cairns. Greyhounds must be out.
There is an increasing desire for speed these days, even at the higher levels. There was one spotless white Bentley parked behind the judges' stand, one black limo and a couple of subtly exorbitant antiques; but they were outnumbered by Porches and the slightly more sedate but still ritzy Audios and Volvos. For parties of five or more, a woody-sided Country Squire station wagon is tolerated. There were no Beetles allowed above general-addmission parking.
Scenes from the stands: a perfectly dressed lady moves toward the paddock to guage the horse flesh, but turns back laughing. "Oh, I can't go down there without a drink in my hand -- it wouldn't be chic."
As the wind buffets the patrons' luncheon tent, a young Spartan in his regimental Izod grasps the tent pole while wistfully reading the entry list for the first race.
Weighed down by a bulgining camera bag, a 5-foot coed tries to focus a 120-millimeter lens on her family standing 10 feet away.
Behind the blinding splendor of a green-and-pink-striped tablecoth, two solemn bartenders in immaculate black suits pour whiskey in the unbroken rhythm of a newly tuned piston engine.
A two-foot Spanky wearing a Sylmar Farm hat chases himself tirelessly around a tree, and a squalling infant is handed his bottle on the running board of an ancient Packard.
Two gray-haired couples, gossiping along the fence: "I only read the papers on Sunday, anyway. Since I left Washington . . ."
Steeplechasing has a curious informality about it, unfamilar to followers of so-called flat racing. There is no starting gate: the horses mill around together behind a stretched-out elastic web, sidling toward it at the starter's command and then taking off at the flag. It means that occasionally inattentive horses don't get off at all -- may, in fact, be facing the wrong direction -- but it lends the entire proceeding the air of a gentleman's agreement.
The course is an irregular oval of gently rolling terrain the size of several football fields and barred from place-to-place by hedges or fences. There are several tracks running inside and alongside one another, which can be organized into different courses in something like the way a toy railroad can be run. It is deceptively wide; the spectators in the infield are dwarfed and the half-dozen porto-potties look like large tombstones.
There is a fairly brisk betting business getting -- unsanctioned by the state, of course -- with a minimum $2 bet but apparently no minimum age. Entries and odds are scribbled on small chalkboards, the odds having been agreed to by the bookies themselves: chance-by-committee.
The one peculiar accessory of Middleburg chic is a broke leg. There are crutches everywhere, carried as casually as an evening cane.
There is not much British influence left around here, except for the Bentley and a few trackside sitting sticks. There are no hounds, few "pinks," no hunt music (the loudspeaker plays Frank Sinatra) and winner's champagne is Mumm's but nonvintage.
Still they have a fondness for foreigners. "Yves!" waves a dapper spectator, saying over his shoulder, "Yves's French, you know."