Stands stood empty and strange echoes rang out throughout the day at Glenwood Park in Middleburg, Virginia, on June 13, but racing participants rejoiced. The spring steeplechasing season was finally underway after being decimated by COVID-19. Northern Virginia moved into Phase 2 last week, and the rescheduled Middleburg Spring Races were able to run without spectators.
Tod Marks spent his day serving as the official National Steeplechase Association photographer at the Middleburg meet.
“You get this kind of ghost town vibe; you could hear echoes the way that park is situated with the big mountain behind the tower,” Marks said. “The sound reverberates, and I could detect this kind of hollow emptiness that you don’t get when there are a lot of people filling the space. It was really weird.”
Marks was the only photographer allowed on the grounds, and he documented the day, which was full with 11 races on the card. This year marked the 100th running of the races at Glenwood Park. Normally the venue would be packed with throngs of spectators and tailgaters wearing fancy hats and sipping cocktails as they cheered on their favorite horses.
“Despite all these tremendous efforts by people in the NSA working with local and state channels, I think they held out optimism, but it was a very tough thing to pull off,” Marks said. “When it happened, I think the mood was that, ‘If we’re going to be able to pull this off, we have to do everything right by the book, extremely careful.’ ”
Only essential personnel such as the race director, NSA officials, trainers and grooms were allowed at Glenwood Park.
“Everything was scheduled where the van would come in at a certain time, the jockeys would come in at a certain time,” said Marks. “[Race chairman] Doug Fout built these new barns. It was the largest number of nominees that they’ve ever had. There were well over 200 horses originally nominated because people have been chomping at the bit to race. Every NSA event this year has been canceled, and they stuck in there and really wanted to do something as a big morale boost for the horsemen, the trainers and the owners who have stuck it out and kept their horses in training and wanted to be able to pay them back in some way and give a positive vibe for the future. It took a lot of work.”
Attendees had to fill out a health screening questionnaire ahead of time, and officials conducted a temperature check upon arrival. The jockey meeting before the races was socially distanced.
“The jocks were kept separated from the horses, and when they were called in they would get on the horse immediately and go right out to the track,” said Marks. “They had to have their masks on the whole time except when they actually started warming up on the course. As soon as the race was over and they were jogging back, they had to put the masks back on. We did a quick win photo on the course, not a traditional photo in the winner’s enclosure with a trophy.”
A field of eight contested the feature race, the $50,000 Grade 3 Temple Gwathmey Sport Of Kings Hurdle Stakes, which was won by Moscato, owned by Bruton-Street US, trained by Jack Fisher, and ridden by Michael Mitchell.
The event was livestreamed, but Marks wondered about the future of the sport without its two biggest revenue streams—betting and admission.
“Unlike flat racing, which relies on gambling dollars to sustain the sport, steeplechase racing depends heavily on admission revenues and sponsorship to put on the races and pay for purses,” said Marks. “With only a couple of exceptions, there is no parimutuel wagering on the steeplechase circuit. So gambling dollars are irrelevant to the success of jump racing. When you don’t allow people onto the course, you’re basically changing the whole economic model. Can you even sustain the sport? That’s a very big question that people are going to have to think about going forward.”
Even without spectators, Marks reported that people were happy to be out, and everyone is looking forward to the rescheduled Virginia Gold Cup, which will be held without spectators on June 27 at Great Meadow in The Plains, Virginia.
“I think it was probably the biggest card you’ve ever seen at a steeplechase race,” said Marks. “There were so many races and so many horses entered because they wanted to give the horsemen every opportunity to get purse money. The vibe I got was that people were pretty happy with the way it came off. I think everyone was really thrilled to have the races. There was really a sense of giddy joy.”