At Radnor Hunt, a scene from the past

The judges' tower and clubhouse at Radnor. The first races were run in 1930 at Chesterbrook Farm, but soon moved here.
The judges' tower and clubhouse at Radnor. The first races were run in 1930 at Chesterbrook Farm, but soon moved here.
Posted: May 18, 2011

The handsome Willistown Township countryside jockey George Hundt traversed Tuesday afternoon as he prepared for Saturday's 81st Radnor Hunt Races was an outdoor museum, one that better than anywhere else reflected the Philadelphia area's horsey, aristocratic past.

The six steeplechase events that make up Saturday's $180,000 race card will be run there, at the Radnor Hunt Club, which moved from Bryn Mawr in 1924 to these rolling grounds just west of the Goshen and Providence Roads intersection.

As the restored blacksmith shop on Goshen Road hinted at, steeplechasing, foxhunting, and thoroughbred breeding have deep roots in the gentleman farms of eastern Chester County. And thanks in large part to money raised by the Radnor Hunt's annual races, this verdant patch of horse history remains little changed from its Philadelphia Story heyday.

"Maybe 20-25 years ago everybody thought Radnor would be long gone by now," said Franny Abbott, a Radnor Hunt member and past president of the National Steeplechase Association. "Now it's probably one of the stronger hunts in the country."

It's located along a lengthy stretch of Goshen Road between Routes 252 and 352 that was once populated by the estates of familiar blue-blood names - DuPonts, Wideners, Strawbridges, even Rockefellers.

Eventually, encroaching development sent many of them - and their horse operations - to southern Chester County. But the remaining families, along with organizations like the Brandywine Conservancy and the Willistown Conservation Trust, have managed to preserve this attractive slice of the past.

On one corner is the farm where Roy Jackson, Barbaro's owner and a Rockefeller heir, grew up - property now owned by film director M. Night Shyamalan.

The hilly acreage across Goshen Road was the Happy Hill Farm estate of Widener family offspring, Ella Anne and Cortright Wetherill, who bred Raise a Native, considered one of the 20th century's greatest thoroughbred sires.

Veteran horsewoman Betty Moran, whose Brushwood Stables bred Belmont Stakes winner Crème Fraiche, still lives a few miles down Providence Road. And it was in fields on or adjacent to Radnor Hunt where many of the riding scenes in Alfred Hitchcock's 1964 movie Marnie were filmed.

"There were a lot of racing people in Philadelphia well into the '80s," Abbott said. "There aren't quite as many now."

The Main Line's link to steeplechasing, which grew out of foxhunting, was most pronounced in the early decades of the 20th Century. It reflected both the passion for horses and the potent Anglophilia that were characteristics of the area's wealthiest residents.

Breeders here and in Long Island, Maryland, Virginia, and the Carolinas pitted their thoroughbreds against each other, not just on flat tracks but on steeplechase courses like Radnor's and Delaware County's Rose Tree. Many of the 35 race meets on today's steeplechase circuit continue to be run at those locales, the most prestigious in Far Hills, N.J.

"The people who lived in this area were members of Radnor Hunt, and they were the ones who spearheaded the drive for a steeplechase meet at Radnor," Abbott said.

"At that point, steeplechasing was a much stronger sport than it is now. And as the area got more developed, much of it began to take place at the hunt clubs. But there also were races at Belmont, Saratoga, and Delaware Park, where Mrs. DuPont built a course."

The first Radnor races were run in 1930 at the Cassatt family's Chesterbrook Farm, but soon moved to the current Willistown location.

While most early steeplechasing was done over natural hurdles - fences, streams, etc. - five of the six races Saturday will use artificial hurdles. Those hurdles travel from meet to meet so that the horses and riders can familiarize themselves with the jumps.

The sixth race, the longest at three miles, will be over "timber," the permanent fences on each course. Proceeds from the event and its related activities support the Brandywine Conservancy, which has saved more than 40,000 acres of local land from development.

As always, the 20,000 fans expected Saturday will include the well-dressed and the well-heeled. They will tailgate, and many will be dressed in keeping with the annual theme, which this year is "The Great American Novel."

"You'll see the same ambience, atmosphere, and traditions that you would have seen 50 or 60 years ago," said Abbott. "However, we've come a long way in terms of safety, not only for participants but for spectators.

"When I took over [as the event's chairman] in '77, '78, a big day would be 3,500 people. There was very little protection between spectator and horse. You could really get close. Fortunately, no one ever got seriously hurt. But it became clear we needed to segregate the racing from the crowd, and now the racecourse is fully fenced."

The jockeys like Hundt, himself a onetime Wall Street financier who ditched his lucrative career to ride and do stonemasonry, are also better padded and protected than in the past.

"But the spectacle itself," said Abbott," is very much the same."

And so is the setting.


Contact staff writer Frank Fitzpatrick at 215-854-5068 or ffitzpatrick@phillynews.com.

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