20th Willowdale Steeplechase could be best yet

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Horse racing just a part of popular event held Sunday in Unionville

Brands Hatch, with Jeff Murphy up, pulls ahead of Fieldview, ridden by Darren Nagle, in the Landhope Cup, in last year's event, during the Willowdale Steeplechase.

EAST MARLBOROUGH — Horse racing, fun, food and the legendary tailgate competition and yes, the best hats this side of the Kentucky Derby are just a little of what makes the Willowdale Steeplechase arguably one of the most anticipated events on the local calendar.

Back this Sunday for its 20th running, this year’s event has a full slate of horse races, pony races, dog events, antique cars, a carriage parade and more. And as always, the Steeplechase raises money for local charities including the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine, Quest Therapeutic Riding Services, Inc., and The Stroud Water Research Center. All told in two decades, the Willowdale Steeplechase has raised more than $300,000 for local charities.

With a nearly perfect weather forecast for Sunday and the event returning to its usual Mothers’ Day slot, the 20th running might be the biggest one yet.

The gates open at 10 a.m.

The tailgate competition runs all day, as will the “antique and unique” car display. For dog lovers, the annual Jack Russell races have become an annual favorite and those kick off at 11 a.m. The pony races are slated to start at 12:15.

The main Steeplechase races — taking place on one of North America’s top courses — are scheduled to start at 1:30, with the last race ending around 4:30.

General Admission tickets can be purchased at $25 per person prior to race day and $30 per person at the gate.

In just over two decades, the Willowdale Steeplechase has gone from a dream to one of the most prestigious races in the northeast and for many, the event of the year in the Unionville area.

The founding father of the Willowdale Steeplechase is W.B. Dixon Stroud, Jr. Stroud is a passionate equestrian who has ridden all his life and won the prestigious Maryland Hunt Cup in 1984.

After a number of years of competition at the top levels in steeplechase as well as polo, he started work on a project to bring a world-class steeplechase course right in the heart of Unionville. Stroud and a team of dedicated people started the difficult work of making the Willowdale Steeplechase a reality.

So combining his love of steeplechasing and his commitment to this community, he, with the help of many others, founded The Willowdale Steeplechase.

The project began in earnest in 1991, when Stroud began construction on the course, enlisting the aid of Hugh Morshead, a native Irishman now residing in Canada. Carved out of a former 160-acre dairy farm, the Willowdale site is a natural amphitheater, allowing for 80% to 95% viewing from any location. It is styled after a combination of European and American race courses. The broad turf course features a spectacular water jump, hedges and post and rail jumps.

The course features an uphill approach to the fences, which encourages less speed and more jumping. This causes less wear and tear on the horses, according to Morshead.

“Footing, not fences, injure the horse,” said Morshead. “A lot of thought had to go into the drainage of this field.” he added. “Dixon has taken great care to develop this surface with a horse’s safety in mind.” The length of the course is a little over 1.2 miles.

The water jump is the only one of its kind in North America. Because it has a 12-foot span with an 18-inch drop in elevation, jockeys have to ride “California Surfing” style — which refers to the method of sitting on the horse, not plowing through the water.

With each passing year since the inaugural race on May 22, 1993 attendance, interest and support have become stronger and stronger. For many attendance has become a must-do event, whether it’s for the racing, the people watching, the great food and fun at the various tailgating events, the Willowdale Steeplechase has become one of the marquee events every year in greater Unionville.

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