Make no mistake: These horses are thoroughbreds.
"A lot of people don't understand that," said Franny Abbott of West Chester, president of the National Steeplechase Association.
The horses at Saturday's annual Radnor Hunt Races can finish a 21/2-mile steeplechase in four minutes. That's a sub-two-minute mile per lap over seven hurdles, each 52 inches high. In most of the races, the horses go around the course 21/2 times and jump 16 times.
Not convinced? For many "chasers," as the horses are known, flying over hurdles such as those along the Radnor Hunt course, near Malvern, is a second career. They once ran flat tracks, said Abbott, racing director for the Radnor Hunt from 1978 through 2003.
Of course, the campaign to win respect for chasers so that flat tracks add more hurdle races, pushing up steeplechase earnings, will mean little to most folks at the 77th annual Radnor Hunt Races. They will be looking for a party, a spectacle, a weekend outing for the family. And thoroughbreds can't carry the show - even the longest of the six races lasts only about eight minutes. Hence, the sideshows.
Steeplechase spectators have elevated tailgating to fine dining, so there is a competition for best costumes and classiest spread. Judges plunge into the crowd seeking the best hats. And between the first and second races, there is a carriage parade.
"This is a sea of people, picnicking and having fun," event spokeswoman Kathleen Brown said as she stood on a hilltop near the Radnor Hunt Clubhouse last Sunday. A rich-green carpet of fescue spread all around. In a dip between hilltops rose the 50-foot-tall Stewards' Tower, which seats the judges. The racecourse, part of the grass carpet, looped the tower.
Spectators line the course and cover the hillsides surrounding it. Last year, they numbered 20,000, Brown said.
The races are scheduled to start at 1:30 p.m., but the gates open at 9 a.m., and by 10:30 a.m. people are already jockeying for position, Brown said.
The best buy, in Brown's opinion, is a tailgate spot, unreserved, in the infield for $100. "The families are out there, all over the place, and between the races the daddies are playing Frisbee with the kids," she said.
But don't be fooled by the frolic. The event, a fund-raiser for the Brandywine Conservancy, is a standout among races sanctioned by the National Steeplechase Association. With purses totaling $210,000, it is among the top 10 races, Abbott said.
Oh, yes, those are thoroughbreds out there.
If You Go
What: Radnor Hunt Races.
When: Gates open at 9 a.m. Saturday Races start at 1:30 p.m.
Where: Radnor Hunt grounds, 826 Providence Rd., just south of Malvern in Willistown Township.
Tickets: Prices range from $50 a carload to $2,500 for a party tent. Purchase deadline is tomorrow.
Information: Call 610-388-8383 or visit www.radnorraces.org.