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The 48th Running of the Old Dominion Hounds Point-to-Point

The 48th Running of the Old Dominion Hounds Point-to-Point

Written by Carlo Massimo | Photos by Joanne Maisano

For as long as they’ve hunted foxes in Virginia, the point-to-point has marked the closing of the hunt season and the coming of spring. At first it was a matter of friendly competition: After a few months of vigorous hunting, whose mount is fittest? Who can cover a rough couple miles fastest?

At the historic Ben Venue Farm in Washington, Virginia, the Old Dominion Hounds have been running their spring point-to-point for 48 years. Robert Banner, horseman, publisher, and pillar of Virginia’s equestrian sector, is confident that Ben Venue is the perfect course for a point-to-point.

“The course is under a hill,” he explains, “and you can see every step of the race. It’s a fair course, too, a nice footing.”

Sea Mast wins the Amateur/Novice Hurdle race.

A point-to-point, for those new to horse racing, is a race of two or three miles over open country. Traditionally, the riders would jump whatever obstacles presented themselves, from hedges to fences. Today the courses have standardized jumps. These come in two varieties: hurdle and timber. Hurdle jumps are made to look like brush, while timber jumps look like more traditional eventing jumps, but at 3 feet 6 inches, tend to slow the pace of the race. The Ben Venue course has both types. An all-day event, the Old Dominion Hounds Point-to-Point features a staggered start time, with the best riders leaving last.

This year’s race, on April 6, will feature a number of illustrious mounts and riders, many of them flying in from Ireland and the U.K. Banner admits that personally, he’ll have his eye on Snap Decision, a 10-year-old gelding on a winning streak. The Old Dominion Hounds Point-to-Point is a feeder event to bigger races, like the Gold Cup and its $150,000 purse, so the stakes are higher than bragging rights at the stables.

Fits the Jill wins the Filly Maiden Hurdle race.

In fact, they’re considerably higher this year: The 2024 Old Dominion Point-to-Point purse is about $60,000. (Formerly, point-to-points offered silver plate trophies in lieu of cash; they are still known in some quarters as the “pots and pans circuit.”) This year’s race will also be “run under the rules,” or under the sanction of the National Steeplechase Association. This includes drug testing, video reporting for evaluation of the course and riders, and three licensed stewards to adjudicate fouls. This lends the race a certain prestige, too, which ought to translate to an exciting field and crowds bigger than usual.

But the Old Dominion Hounds Point-to-Point never lacked for attraction or spectators. The April 6 date practically guarantees mild weather and beautiful spring blossoms. Then there’s the plantation house at Ben Venue Farm, with its Greek Revival façades and elegant boxwood gardens, listed on the National Register of Historic Places. They alone make the trip well worth the admission, even for the spectators least enthusiastic about spending an entire day trackside. “It just begs you to check it all out,” says Banner. 

Hoffman takes the lead. Owned by Michael Smith, trained by Leslie Young, and ridden by Mikey Hamill.

But that implies that anyone could look away from the spectacle of these horses, in peak condition, thundering over jumps and rough ground at speed. “It’s like getting shot from a cannon, riding like that,” Banner reminisces, an experienced foxhunter and occasional point-to-point rider himself. “It’s hard to describe to someone on the ground.” ML

Published in the March 2024 issue of Middleburg Life.

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