Thursday, March 11, 2010

Country Races

Goochland Races, 1974

Country horse races are something of a tradition in central Virginia. They’re a staple of many county fairs and at least used to be the focal point of any number of fire department fundraisers.

The kinds of races I’m thinking about, like the Goochland County Race, shown above, are not to be confused with the snootier Foxfire Races in Charlottesville or Gold Cup in Warrenton. I’ve been to those, too. They’re fun in their own way, but are a different breed. The Goochland Races were the kind of affairs that clean scrubbed families wearing overall came to in their pickups.

Somewhere in the middle of this social spectrum were the annual Camptown Races in Hanover County. Held on a spring Saturday that was always sunny and warm during the years I attended, they drew thousands of people to a farm on the outskirts of the town of Ashland, where the local war memorial association sponsored a day of horse races as a fundraiser.

I have no doubt that Camptown Races made money. The tickets weren’t cheap. Like the Goochland track shown above, the Camptown track was surrounded by gently inclined lawns where you could bring folding chairs or, as most of my friends did, spread blankets out.

I don’t know if the Camptown Races were ever a very genteel event. By the time I got there—I attended for 3-4 years while I was in college—it was known far and wide as one of the best drinking occasions on the spring party calendar.

In retrospect I’m not terribly proud of my behavior at these affairs. But my friends and I were young and durable and knew enough to rent buses to go to and from these parties so that we didn’t risk driving drunk. There was no official sale of alcohol on the Camptown grounds. Most of us were underage anyway. But you could bring coolers full of food and drink. As long as you didn’t draw too much attention to yourself, no one questioned what you were drinking.

The rented buses and drivers were particularly critical to the success of Camptown Races because along with the extreme partying, the Camptown Races were also well known for the ferocity with which the Hanover County sheriff’s department prosecuted people who stopped to urinate in the woods on the way out of the racetrack grounds at the end of the day. It didn’t matter whether you were a foolish college kid or the president of a multinational corporation. (I knew instances of both.) If you ducked into the woods to pee before getting in the car to head back to Richmond you could count on getting arrested, tossed into the county jail and compelled to pay a hefty fee to get out.

The picture above was taken a few years later at the Goochland County Fair. By that time I was well over the hard partying. I haven’t looked at this picture in a few years. But when I do it takes me back as if that day was yesterday. (I know that’s a cliché. But it really does.) I can still feel the sun on my face, smell the manure from the barns and remember what a pain in the neck it was to keep brushing dust off the camera lens.

1 comment:

  1. Great shot! Sounds like fun. Friends of mine always head to the Steeplechase events every year. Of course, I duly have a mint julep in their honor.