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On Strawberry Hill

The search for meaning at one of Richmond's oldest and most important rites of spring.

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The big irony, as a couple from Cleveland in town to visit family discovers, is that there's no gambling on the horses. During the racing season, Colonial Downs indulges its habit, but because the Strawberry Hill Races are run by SFVA, the nonprofit behind the State Fair and the Richmond Highland Games, and because it's not financially worth it to SFVA to set up all the logistics of on-track betting, nobody lays odds on the day. Not officially, anyway — in the black market pulsing beneath the canvas pavilions of this Southern Casablanca, with its multiple Rick's Cafe Americans and occasional fezzes, it's possible to find a hand to take your money.

So here's a horse race with no betting, which seems just surreal, because as the man from Cleveland asks, “What are all these people doing here?”

“The more that come to the races, the better,” says Mignon C. Smith, an Alabama textile heiress with 70 horses, high above the racetrack in the owners' suites.

Smith loves to talk about Callisto, the yearling filly she first saw at a show in Dublin in 1953. She was still in college when she fell in love with her, found her trainer in a nearby town, and had Callisto shipped to her home in Alabama. It's a love that's spanned 56 years, long after college and her 30-year career as a Washington correspondent for the Alabama Radio Network. Callisto's bloodline still surges through Smith's racehorses, and today she has three running.

Smith, in many respects, is horse-racing royalty — a beloved millionaire heiress free of pretension, who established a $10 million scholarship fund at the University of Alabama for underprivileged students. Sure, she loves her horses and travels far and wide to see them race, but she knows full well that beyond the glass, down below and out of sight, Strawberry Hill Races isn't about thoroughbreds. It's about the celebration and connection. People come to see old friends and find new ones, to commiserate in a relentless economy, to intermingle and to watch the event's great extremes.

Still, Smith adds, “It's not as much mayhem as Foxfield.”

The Foxfield Races in Albemarle County attract nearly twice as many spectators, and is primarily one big University of Virginia frat party — floppy hairdos, khakis and flip-flops, sundresses and seersuckers. Strawberry Hill has a large prep contingent, but it's only one rung in the broader socio-economic strata.

Hundreds of slots around the track fill up, some passed down 40 years in a family. Attending is a cultural ritual — the races date to 1895 when the Deep Run Hunt Club held its first race at Chantilly on Broad Street — but it's morphed from being an upper-crust social event into something more inclusive. There are celebrants from all backgrounds and drinks of all proofs, horses and people who have never been near one another, the prancing thoroughbred and the dancing frat guy.

At the fourth turn, a flatbed truck rolls in, its bed laid with what looks like industrial carpet. Once it's docked in its berth, a stripper pole rises to full mast, weird and Iwo Jima-like, the multicolored parasol perched at its top like a beacon. Young men with pastel shirts and bow ties, ironic or not, begin the courtship of young women in the first bloom of sundresses, small against the cold gray skies, willing the spring through the sheer force of bright-painted toenails and dubious tans.

This is the New Old South, dressing up for this pilgrimage. There are guys with tall-gelled hair and too-tight tees with too-pretty girls, and people driving big trucks with big accents and legitimate tans. There are college kids playing Cornhole, a game of physics like the horses, only with beanbags. One guy grills two whole chickens on a Weber!

There's something mythical about an event that can descend on an otherwise vacant tract of land off Interstate 64 in New Kent County, amid the golf courses and freshly seeded suburban lawns, and instantly turn into a party with more than 15,000 guests.

Charcoal smoke snakes through the crowd, seeping behind the tents and rolled-down windows of giant pickup trucks — a black one, in particular, with huge mud-tread tires, has a pretty blonde puffing on a cigarette inside the cabin, peering out from a perch that seems to be 15 feet off the ground. It's a logical place to be, safe from the wind and the sporadic rain with a great view of the track. At any given moment she'll glance down at the horses galloping through the Bermuda grass and see Class Deputy, one of millionaire Smith's horses, who places second in the maiden hurdles, the third race of the day, and for a brief moment they'll be connected.

But the connection isn't fleeting. Because it's the revelers that help prop up and keep running a largely bygone sporting event. Unlike the tailgating at college football games or NASCAR races, where the sport is still the main attraction, the Strawberry Hill Races are purposefully disconnected — and no one complains, especially not the horse enthusiasts.

“Racing has lost favor with people,” says Randolph Rouse, chairman of the equine campaign for the Meadow Event Park, the historic horse farm in Caroline County where the State Fair of Virginia moves later this year.

Rouse got his start as an amateur rider in the 1950s. From the owners' suites he scans the landscape and acknowledges that the tradition of celebration has managed to keep horseracing alive long past its social relevance. He pauses briefly to ponder some meaning to it all: “I guess it's a good reason to have a party.”

Not that it's always easy. On the ground working the event are 72 sworn police officers from all across Central Virginia, from New Kent, Charles City, West Point, King William, King and Queen, Middlesex, Sussex, Southampton, Henrico, Hanover, and of course, the Virginia State Police. They circle the track on bikes, in golf carts — they stop and have hamburgers with drunken strangers, politely break up brewing fights, try to stave off potential drunken-driving and assault charges.

They laugh and joke about the crazy antics — like the time a few years ago when a man stripped off his clothes, charged the infield and jumped into the pond. “Police chased him in a golf cart,” says Bill Messer, a service technician from Sandston who sets up shop along the fourth turn. Many people are here to see just that, he says — that “random naked guy jump in the pond.”

There's a collegiality in the odd juxtapositions. About four years ago, Jeremy Carignan, a welder from Mechanicsville, says race officials grabbed his cooler of beer and ice and poured it on an overheated horse that had stumbled on the track. It was perhaps the first time he realized there was a broader point to all of this — you know, horse racing. This year, times are tough, the economy has just about everyone pinching pennies, but forgoing the races was never an option, Carignan says: “I wouldn't miss it for nothing.”
Others are here for seemingly no better reason than to see the spectacle and relative civility of it all. Jeremy Meeks from Lancaster, Penn., says Strawberry Hill is a mild-mannered affair compared with other races.

“I went to the Preakness last year and it was horrible,” Meeks says, recalling an incident in which a girl was struck in the face with a flying, unopened beer can at the famous May race in Maryland. “Even though everybody is hammered as hell,” he says, “there is some semblance of order” at Colonial Downs.

There is order in all rituals, pageantry in the unexpected. A storm comes up not at day's beginning or end, but right before the first race. The umbrella at the top of the stripper pole turns inside-out. The temperature drops 10 or 15 degrees, and the police on the fifth floor perhaps relax, just a little, knowing that the cold stems some of the more outrageous behavior. The horses run. Contrary to all logic, No. 1 wins a race. The man from Cleveland and his family grab a table inside, out of the rain. He's still in a good mood. Good. As the day wears on, people claim their prizes: A couple of perfectly grilled chickens; a good run; a bunch of crazy dancing; a moment of respite, huddling in a car, watching the world outside disappear in your own fog.

If there were no party, it's a good bet all these people would be somewhere else. But they're here around the track and the owners are in their suites. It's a marriage of convenience, but one that works for just about everybody. And it's all held together by the centrifugal force of the horses themselves, rolling around the track like roulette balls. S

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