The Far Hills Races offer a day like no other

By Nancy Jaffer
October 22, 2017

It had been years since I attended the Far Hills Race Meeting, once a “must” stop for me, but now off my calendar because it often conflicted with the Dutta Corp. Fair Hill (don’t confuse the names) International Three-Day Event in Maryland. This year, though, Fair Hill was last weekend, leaving me free yesterday to head back to the races a few miles from my home in New Jersey.

For those unfamiliar with the Far Hills phenomenon, I should explain that it is a day when everything seems to stop (including the traffic) in this tiny Somerset County town, where as many as 40,000 racegoers have descended on it in previous years.

The whole day is about the steeplechase races. Stores close, trains to the Far Hills station are packed, sidewalks are jammed and caterers stay up all night to prepare the feasts served at coveted tailgate spots on the hill at Moorland Farm. Want to buy a ticket at the gate? That’ll cost you $200.

I could go by car only so far on the road to the races, because the traffic was overwhelming. So my husband dropped me off and I started walking, carrying a couple of cameras and other gear. A woman in an SUV obviously felt sorry for me and kindly asked if I’d like to ride with her. I didn’t see the point, since the line of cars had been proceeding even more slowly than I was, and she agreed that we’d probably arrive at the same time. She was right. We ran into each other near the first turn on the race course and caught part of the first race, the Gladstone, together.

Menacing Dennis, second from the lead here, was the winner of the $50,000 Gladstone, the first race at Far Hills. (Photo by Nancy Jaffer)

Turned out she was Laura Traphagen, a former show ring competitor and friend of the family with whom I used to board my horses in New Vernon (about 20 minutes from Far Hills). That’s how it is on race day at Moorland; you’ll see people who have some connection with you that has nothing to do with racing.

I noticed that eventer Holly Payne-Caravella had sent out a tweet Friday saying she would be at the races (like me, she had been obligated to go to Fair Hill instead when there was a date conflict.) I found her at a space in the front row that her family has had for 30 years, although she sadly pointed out that since she last attended, a big tent had been erected in front of the their location, so the Paynes’ view of the racing was blocked.

Holly and her brother, Doug, also a successful eventer, had ridden in the pony races that once were a feature at Far Hills, and of course, we started talking about the old days. I had her there, since I can remember going to the races in the 1960s (before she was born), when there may have been about 5,000 people maximum on hand, most of whom were wearing tweed and knew each other. The crowd often used to include Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, who had a home in Peapack and hunted with the Essex Foxhounds.

Long ago, the races were sponsored by the Essex,  so the local hunt could thank farmers across whose property they rode. The races moved to Moorland, then a private estate, in 1916.

A stuffed fox decorating a hillside parking space at Moorland Farm is a reminder that the races were once associated with a hunt, but no longer. (Photo by Nancy Jaffer)

For years, they were called the hunt races by those in the know. Essex hasn’t been involved for decades, however, and the crowds grew after the races were marketed as “Family Day in the Country” during the early 1970s. The races have raised millions of dollars for charity, benefiting Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital Somerset (where the Steeplechase Cancer Center is located) and RWJ Barnabas Health, as well as the Cancer upport Community.

As Holly noted, folks in the know these days call Far Hills “the races.” Those not in the know call it “the hunt,” which annoys me (I work in words, after all) since the steeplechasing has nothing to do with a hunt anymore. But those folks often don’t even know what the occasion is about anyway; they’re just there to eat, drink and be merry.

They also make fun side bets. Although it was hoped that pari-mutuel betting would be in place for this year’s races, it didn’t work out and 2018 should be the first time it is in effect.

Michael Manasia of New York, who is looking forward to parimutuel betting at Far Hills and Virginia Ranger of New Vernon show they are into the partying with their lampshade hats and good humor. (Photo by Nancy Jaffer)

Under-age and excessive drinking had become a problem at the races, so this year there was a real crackdown and increased presence of law enforcement. There also was an initiative between Lyft and Beam Suntory (Makers Mark) to offer some free rides home from the event.

I have only anecdotal evidence of how the initiative worked from what I experienced, but walking out of Moorland in the past, I’d often run into stumbling, falling-down drunks. I encountered none of that this year, and the young people with whom I spoke seemed fine. I did wonder, however, why so many people searching for the Far Hills train station to return home were walking in the direction of Peapack instead. I gave out directions to a good number folks to get them back on track, so to speak.

Conditions were optimum both for the horses and the spectators, while the autumn colors of the trees added just the right artistic note to the incredibly scenic picture as spectators spread across not only the hillside, but the infield as well..

“It’s a beautiful day, the racecourse is in perfect shape and I’m tickled pink,” said Guy Torsilieri, president of the National Steeplechase Association, who chairs the race meeting with Ron Kennedy. He noted sales were “a little off because we really aggressively launched that campaign against underage drinking and I’m okay with that. If they figured out they couldn’t come here and drink, it’s fine with with me.”

Non-racing sport horse competition is my mainstay.  I used to cover racing (most notably, I wrote about Secretariat’s Belmont victory that secured the Triple Crown in 1973, the first time in 25 years that a horse had taken that honor.) But I’ve been away from racing for a long time, so I was looking for a sport horse link—and I found it.

That first race, the $50,000 Gladstone for three-year-olds, was won by Menacing Dennis, after Snuggling, first across the finish line, was disqualified for interference and placed third. Dennis is trained by Julie Gomena, who was a winner at the 1994 Rolex Kentucky Three-Day Event.

The feature at Far Hills is the $400,000 Grand National Steeplechase, which dates back to 1899 and has been run in various locations, including Saratoga and Belmont. It’s the richest steeplechase in the U.S.

The honors went to Mr. Hot Stuff, an 11-year-old son of Tiznow who had an undistinguished performance in the Kentucky Derby as a three-year-old. He’s owned by Gil Johnston, who also owns show jumper Leslie Burr Howard’s top ride, Gentille van Spieveld. See, there’s that connection. Gil also gave me a little scoop when she told me that a new mount, Flo, has been purchased for Leslie.

Mr. Hot Stuff was third going over the final fence in the $400,000 Grade I Grand National, the Far Hills feature. (Photo by Nancy Jaffer)

As the horses headed to the finish line, where a solid mass of people watched along the fence, Mr. Hot Stuff showed his class by passing the battling Modem and All the Way Jose to win by a nose.

But heading toward the finish line, Mr. Hot Stuff (right) put on a surge to overcome Modem (center) and All the Way Jose, winning the Grand National. (Photo by Nancy Jaffer)

Although Mr. Hot Stuff has had some soundness issues, and often needs to go back to Gil’s Tennessee farm for a year or so to recuperate, she believes in him and her patience has paid off. Mr. Hot Stuff appears likely to be the National Steeplechase Association’s leading earner of 2017.

“He’s a cool horse,” said trainer Jack Fisher, who pays off the thoroughbred in his favorite mints.

Gil bought him as a five-year-old at auction, without knowing whether he could jump. But she had confidence, since he was “an athletic-looking horse.”  At the moment, she has no plans to retire him, but when they hang up his saddle for good, he’ll be living at her Tennessee farm along with 20 or so other retired horses.

The last race, the 3 and ¼-mile New Jersey Hunt Cup over timber, brought me together with people from the eventing world. Nina and Tim Gardner, who own Jennie Brannigan’s best-known eventer, Cambalda, were in the winner’s circle after their 9-year-old gray, Where’s the Beef, took charge of the seven-horse field.

Nina and Tim Gardner, familiar faces at three-day eventing, with Ivan Dowling who trained their New Jersey Hunt Cup winner, Where’s the Beef. (Photo by Nancy Jaffer)

Jennie reconditioned the gelding by Rockport and rode him in several eventing competitions “to get him going and relaxed,” Nina said. The rider made her debut as a jockey in March 2015 with the horse, finishing fourth in an allowance race on the turf at the Aiken Spring Steeplechase. He was ridden at Far Hills by Mark Beecher. The Gardners, residents of Maryland, are now looking to have their horse start in the Maryland Hunt Cup.

The trophies at Far Hills have great meaning beyond being souvenirs of a win.

In the second race, 2 and 1/8 miles on the turf, Whitman’s Poetry scored the victory. The race is named in memory of trainer Harry E. Harris, whose daughter, Diane, presented the trophy. Diane’s late mother, Muriel Harris, was the secretary of many of our local horse shows in the Somerset Hills several decades ago, and Diane was quite a rider herself. She had a top pony named Little Bronze Wing, but isn’t involved with horses these days. Still, seeing her brought back memories.

The trophy for the Peapack race, a two and 1/8 mile competition for fillies and mares that was won easily by Lady Blanco, is particularly special. It is a new one in memory of Betty Merck, a great lady who was a former master of Essex and an avid steeplechase owner whose horses won at Far Hills. The beautiful silver cup was bought a few years ago, before she passed away, and now has been pressed into service as a special memento.

Lady Blanco opens up a huge lead in the Peapack against the backdrop of the hillside and tower. I saw her in the post parade and sensed she would win. “She’s all business. She’s very sweet, but she’ll run over top of you if you’re not careful,,” said owner Amy Taylor Rowe, noting it was only her second start. (Photo by Nancy Jaffer)

The races, sponsored by the Open Road Auto Group and Peapack-Gladstone Bank, really have become an extravaganza with many moving parts, including a vendor village and giant viewing screens. Those tweedy folks who attended in the 1960s and before wouldn’t recognize their event.

Ron Kennedy, who co-chairs the races, said he got up at 5:30 a.m. Saturday after a few hours of sleep to make sure everything was on target at Moorland. He keeps a pad of paper and a pencil by his bed to keep track of thoughts he has during the night about what has to be done.

The race meeting, he pointed out with a good-natured smile, “is so explosive. It’s like a cannon—there’s no chance to get ahead of it.”  But the organizers do an excellent job in managing their once-a-year-day.

If Moorland sounds familiar to you, maybe it’s because you identify it as the home of the Essex Horse Trials, which was reinstituted in June after a 19-year absence from the scene. It will host the trials again June 23-24 2018, offering another chance to spend time at one of the most beautiful locations in New Jersey.

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