Strawberry Hill and Camptown
Essayist Brooks Smith, rediscovering Richmond's sports history, tells about two distinctively different horse races.
Brooks Smith has been rediscovering Richmond’s sport’s history, and Brooks, the 78th running of the Strawberry Hill Races recently occurred, and tell us about the history of this event which has become quite a social event as well as a sporting event in the Richmond area.
Smith: Well, you’re absolutely right about that, it is both a sporting and social tradition for Richmonders. Dates back far more than 78 years, actually goes back all the way to November 30th 1895. It’s bounced around from track to track over time, the first races occurred at a place called Chantilly on Broad Street, moved up to River and Ridge, out where U of R is, then out into the country to Curles Neck Farm in the 1920’s, and ultimately to Strawberry Hill as part of the Atlantic Rural Exposition, now known as the State Fair of Virginia, back in 1947. I think in that mid-Century period, like many things in Richmond, it was a big deal, and it’s fun to look back at the history of Strawberry Hill at that time. The races were broadcast on the radio on WRVA, the organizers would hold a special luncheon for the owners and trainers, and then a formal ball after the race, and this may be peculiar to horse racing, but men at the racing ball were required to dress in evening pink, and in effect, out dress their dates.
Farrar: And as I said, it became quite a social event. I remember at one point they had carriage rides down Monument Avenue on race day, and lots of people dress up, as you indicated, and have tail gate parties with fine picnic lunches, and maybe don’t even pay attention to the races sometimes.
Smith: That’s right, and I should acknowledge its new chapter at Colonial Downs, like you mentioned, its 78th race just took place, the 78th running of the race just took place on May 15th. Some seventeen thousand people came out for the event.
Farrar: And then, there for awhile, was a sort of country race counterpart to the more formal Strawberry Hill Rrace, the Camptown Races. Tell us about that.
Smith: Well, it’s just a Richmond memory, but it’s a dear one. Just as Strawberry Hill was hitting its stride back in the late 40’s, this Camptown race took the fore. Began May 28th, 1953, at Meadow Farm, out where Secretariat was born, and the idea was to revive the old tradition of country racing. Harkening back to a time when Ashland was a summer resort for Richmond with a famous track, and a jockey club, and a betting saloon. After a few years of running it out at Meadow Farm they moved it over to Manheim, just a few miles north of Ashland. During its heyday it drew up to 35 thousand people for the annual spring running of the horses. Even spawned a country racing circuit with Varina and Goochland that at the time was affectionately known as “TheLittle Triple Crown.” There’s a few choice artifacts from old Camptown Races, and I thought I’d share a few now. During the very first running of the race in ’53, a Miss Nancy Jones reigned supreme. She won two races on a chestnut mare named Symphonic. She won both the Lady’s Race and also the more elite Hunter’s Race. Of course Camptown was not all speed and grace, for many years they also held a mule race. Back in ’53 it was won by a donkey named Kitt, and the newspaper reported the day after it was a “start and stop affair” with a lot of weaving thrown in for good measure.
Thanks to Brooks Smith for filling us in on the history of those two racing events in the Richmond area.
Song: Camptown Races