The lush landscape of Henry Francis du Pont's former estate in Delaware comes to life Sunday with the sound of thundering hooves, clinking champagne glasses, and the purr of antique Rolls-Royce engines for the 36th running of the Winterthur Point-to-Point races.

Every May, just as the azaleas bloom, 15,000 people - the horsey and not-so-horsey sets - convene in this exquisite corner of the Brandywine Valley to celebrate spring in high style and raise money for the upkeep of Winterthur.

Horses in all shapes, sizes, and speeds may be the event's centerpiece, but there is a wealth of activities planned to suit all ages on the grounds of the 1,000-acre estate.

Break out your straw hat and walking shoes (or Wellies if it's damp) to take it all in.

Tailgating, a focal point of all hunt races, becomes a spectator sport itself at Winterthur as posh participants compete with elaborate displays to win the coveted engraved silver tray.

This year's theme? Why, Downton Abbey, of course.

The theme celebrates the blockbuster exhibit now on view at the Winterthur Museum, "Costumes of Downton Abbey," a look at the fictional world of the hit series on PBS set in England and the world of the du Ponts, the real-life American counterparts who graced the halls of Winterthur in the first half of the 20th century.

Chadds Ford designer Debby Bradley has even created a Point to Point "signature hat" in straw, with bow and ribbons and pearl accent, designed with a Downton touch and available for sale ($185).

Not to be outdone, dogs also get their day at the races.

There will be working K9 demonstrations with bomb- and drug-sniffing dogs, therapy dogs to cuddle, agility events (yes, you can bring your own canine athlete to try out the course), veterinarians, and representatives of Pilots n' Paws, a group of volunteer pilots who fly dogs from high-kill shelters to adoptive homes and rescues in other parts of the country.

Visitors also can stroll through rows of vendors selling specialty goods, crafts, and food.

But the horse racing and the pageantry leading up to the races is the marquee attraction.

On hand will be the Delaware State Police Mounted Patrol Unit, whose equine members include Smarty's Gold, son of 2004 Kentucky Derby winner Smarty Jones, along with foxhunters and hounds and what is believed to be the largest collection of antique carriages in the nation on parade.

(The event also features an impressive collection of horseless carriages in the form of 50 Rolls-Royces and Bentleys.)

First up, the pony races, where young riders dash across the countryside on their mounts.

Then it's on to the pros, where thoroughbred jockeys compete for $45,000 in prize money in four races. Three of the races challenge riders to navigate three miles of rolling terrain with daunting post-and-rail fences approaching 4 feet in height.

The fun of steeplechases, or point-to-point races, is that fans can get close enough to see the sweat on the horses and the expressions on the riders' faces as they gallop by.

Position yourself by a jump and you can capture the thrill of a pack of horses leaping a timber fence close enough to snap a selfie as they gallop past.

Steeplechase races have their origin in Ireland, where horse owners vied for fastest steed by racing to the village steeple.

The races took riders over a natural course, jumping ditches, brush, and fences, anything in their paths. In the United States, the races are rooted in fox hunting tradition, an opportunity for those who participate in the winter hunt to show off their fastest horses in spring by racing across fields and jumping pasture fences.

Winterthur is the first of three back-to-back hunt races in the region. The others are the Willowdale Steeplechase ( on May 11 in Kennett Square and the Radnor Hunt Races ( on May 17 in Malvern.

"This is a big equine weekend with the Kentucky Derby," said Jill Abbott, Winterthur race director. "Visitors here can sit right next to the track. Seeing the races up close takes my breath away."

Abbott described the course as a figure 8 carved into the hillside, where riders must negotiate 17 jumps at top speeds without colliding with each other or the unforgiving fences.

Steeplechase races held up and down the Eastern seaboard each spring and fall provide second careers for thoroughbred race horses, whose days at the track may be over but who can still compete well into their teens in over-fence races.

Retired jockey Anne Hambleton, who won the ladies race at Winterthur in 2005 aboard Ice Bullet, described the course as inviting, "like riding a roller coaster," up long hills and down again.

She said jumps are not as high as some of the other steeplechases', which makes it a good venue for younger horses, but agreed the setting gives spectators a chance to really feel they are in the middle of the action.

"You can see the intensity on the riders' faces and see what it's like to jump at speed and in company," Hambleton said. "Each race has a strategy, you have to make quick decisions."

As in every high-risk, fast-paced sport, danger lurks at every fence, she said.

"Everyone has falls," said Hambleton, who took her share of tumbles over a 15-year racing career but continues to participate in jumping competitions. "It comes with the territory, like playing hockey and losing teeth."

If You Go

What: Winterthur Point-to-Point Steeplechase.

Where: Winterthur Point-to-Point Steeplechase Grounds and Attractions, 5105 Kennett Pike, Wilmington.

When: 11:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. Sunday. Races are held rain or shine.

Admission: $50 general- admission wristband; $15 young adults, 12-20. Under 12 free, but must have a wristband for admission.

No wristband sales on race day. Order wristbands

by 3 p.m. Saturday by phone at 1-800-448-

3883 or 1-302-888-

4994 or by

fax at 1-302-


Advisory: Spectators are urged to bring fold-out chairs and to wear comfortable shoes for walking.

Information: www.winter EndText

717-783-2584 @inkyamy