American Horse Trail Road Trip, Stop Three: Northern Virginia

American Horse Trail Road Trip: Northern Virginia, steeplechase races

Before Kentucky's Bluegrass region became America's horse headquarters, that distinction belonged to Virginia. What happened? Those early Virginians moved west. Equine activities remain entrenched in the Old Dominion, but evolved differently, with most popular races being steeplechases.

Road Trip Starting Point: Driving the American Horse Trail

Heading east on I-64, you'll take in West Virginia's abundant wild and wonderful foliage on highway that's curvier than your typical stretch of interstate. Once into Virginia, you'll be immersed in the Appalachian Mountain range, cutting across the Alleghenies and then heading north on I-77, up a gauntlet with George Washington National Forest on your left and Shenandoah National Park on the right. Both areas make fine places to hike, bird watch and, yes, go horseback riding.

The National Steeplechase Association sanctions both spring (March through June) and fall (September through November) races in Virginia. Most notable are the Virginia Gold Cup Races, held the first Saturday in May (yes the same day as Derby), and the International Gold Cup Races, on the third Saturday of October. Both are contested at Great Meadow in The Plains, Virginia, 46 miles west of Washington, D.C.

Lower-profile races, like the Middleburg Hunt Point-to-Point offer a more laid-back experience. Reserve a picnic parking space (info for doing so is on its website) and set up your own tailgate spread: they range from ladies in Lilly Pulitzer and men in seersucker nibbling on prosciutto around a giant M ice sculpture to a couple of folks sitting in folding chairs in the back of their pickup, passing a bag of Utz potato chips back and forth. So regardless of whether you're a member of the landed gentry or an itinerant backpacker, don't worry about feeling out of place.

If you decide on food more substantial than a bag 'o chips, visit The Market Salamander in Middleburg. Its "gourmet food to-go" includes prepared tailgates and picnics packages-splurge on the Point to Point Basket ($25 a person) and take in some local flavor via the jumbo lump crab cakes. Its owners (including CEO Sheila Johnson, Black Entertainment Television co-founder and -- full disclosure -- Strategic Advisor for Multicultural and African-American Initiatives at AOL Huffington Post Media Group) are opening the Salamander Resort & Spa in Middleburg this August. The resort's equestrian center will offer horseback riding lessons; courses in dressage, cross country, polo, jumping, and carriage driving; and a mock fox hunt.

Not every steeplechase offers pari-mutuel wagering, like at a thoroughbred race. Look around though and you'll likely find someone willing to take your bet. Hint: It might be worth talking to the guy with a chalkboard in the back of his truck.

American Horse Trail Road Trip, Stop Four: Assateague Island
Previous Stop: Northern Virginia

Looking for more road trip ideas? Visit our Great American Road Trips home page.
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