What’s in a Name? The Hunt and The Steeplechase
Some call it the Steeplechase, some the Far Hills Race Meeting, and some prefer to call it simply ‘The Hunt‘. Whichever name you choose, you’re all partially correct. While the name is officially called the Far Hills Race Meeting and is hosted by the Far Hills Race Meeting Association (FHRMA) each year typically on the last Saturday of October. The event benefits the Steeplechase Cancer Center in nearby Somerville. While the grounds and the event are now owned by the Far Hills Meeting Association, the horses keep coming back to Far Hills for one of America’s most exciting premiere equestrian events.
The township of Far Hills swells to somewhere around 40 times its normal size, from approximately 857 to almost 40,000, making it the most populated area in Somerset County on this day each year. The event peaked in attendence at almost 50,000 in the mid 2010’s. John Von Stade, longtime organizer and support of the Race Meeting quoted a former Far Hills official: “Fifty percent of the people come to see; 50 percent come to be seen.” Based on the elaborate tailgates seen while walking the grounds on race day, you’ll see what he means.
What Exactly is a Steeplechase?
Steeple chasing includes the thrills and speed of thoroughbred racing at flat tracks. It mixes in the precision of jumping to create a hybrid like hurdle events in track and field where the premium is on speed, but the concern is focused squarely on the jumps. The races are two to four miles in length. The fences are man-made 52-inch hurdles or timber jumps constructed of posts and rails at varying heights. Thoroughbred horses, almost all of them converted flat racers, compete in 12 states at 32 National Steeplechase Association stops and at some of the nation¹s finest racetracks. More than 200 sanctioned steeplechase races worth a combined $5 million occur in the U.S. every year. For more, visit the National Steeplechase Association’s website.
Steeplechase racing started a few centuries ago as part of the hunting tradition of gentrified England. Developed from the English and Irish pastime of fox-hunting, hunters would test the speed of their mounts during the cross-country chase. The first recorded steeplechase took place in County Cook, Ireland in 1752, when two Irish fox hunters, Cornelius O’Callaghan and Edmund Blake, raced about 4 1/2 miles from St. John’s Church at Buttevant to St. Mary’s Church in Doneraile. St. Mary’s steeple was known as St. Leger Steeple. Church steeples being the most prominent landmarks on the landscape, this “chase to the steeple” gave the sport its name.
Cross-country, or point-to-point match racing spread to England, where the first race between more than two horses took place in 1792. As the sport grew in popularity, it moved into the more established tracks.
Organized steeplechase racing began about 1830, and has continued to be a popular sport in England to this day. The world’s most famous steeplechase race is England’s Grand National, held every year at Aintree, near Liverpool, since the track opened in 1839.
From England the popularity of the sport spread across the Atlantic into the American colonies, where it became popular on Long Island, Maryland, Virginia and eastern Pennsylvania, before spreading to the Carolinas, Georgia, Massachusetts, Tennessee and Kentucky.
The first official steeplechase race held in this country took place in 1834, and was hosted by the Washington Jockey Club. In 1844, Hoboken racetrack owner C.S. Browning organized a jumping race in heats over 4-foot hurdles. By the 1880’s the sport was especially popular at the country hunt meet.
The Maryland Hunt Cup, started in 1894, is among the oldest and most prestigious races in the United States, raced over post-and-rail fences. The National Steeplechase Association was formed the following year, establishing the rules and racing schedules and advancing the cause of steeplechase racing in the years since.
The Somerset Hills and Equestrian Events
The founders of the FHRM are a venerable ‘who’s who in the area’ that dates back into the late 1890’s. Familiar names like Pfizer, Schley, and Turnbull blanket the area with as street names, each was an integral part of the FHRM’s inception. The Essex Hunt, originally sponsored by the Essex Hunt Club, was founded in 1870 in Montclair, New Jersey (Essex County). Known for being what’s called a drag hunt (where the scent of the fox was dragged over the course), the event was
In 1890, Charles Pfizer , son of the co-founder of the Pfizer company, bought the Essex Hunt Club of Montclair and moved it first to his friend George Schley’s estate, which was next to his Yademos estate (Someday spelled backwards) in nearby Bernardsville later moving the next year over to a new location in Gladstone.
With the Essex Hunt Club firmly established in Somerset County, in February 1913 the Essex Fox Hounds club was Incorporated with a dedicated purpose to promote fox hunting in Somerset County. Soon after the Essex Hounds Club was incorporated, a new clubhouse was built along with a new set of kennels. Previously known as the old Miller Farm, the Essex Hunt Club is still off Route 206 on Holland Road in Gladstone.
If it Weren’t for Willie, There’d be no Hunt!
In 1893 a man named Willie came to Gladstone with Charles Pfizer and served as huntsman for the Essex Hunt. In 1898 Willie and his wife, Bertha, purchased the Bedminister Hotel, as it was called, for $5,000. The hotel was renamed the “Howard Hotel” and in 1912 the first indoor plumbing was installed. The name was later changed to Willie’s Tavern and is now Delicious Heights….where you can still grab a sandwich and a pint today!
The 13 From The Original 1913 Races
The original 13 organizers of the Essex Fox Hounds in 1913 included:
- Frederick Bull (Bedminster),
- Arthur A. Fowler (Bedminster)
- Seymour L. Cromwell,(Mendham)
- William A. Larned (Summit)
- Joseph Larocque (Bernards Twp)
- Clarence Blair Mitchell (Bernards Twp)
- Benjamin Nicholl (Morristown)
- Charles Pfizer ( Bernards Twp)
- Percy R. Pyne (Bernards Twp)
- Kenneth B. Schley (Bernards Twp)
- Arthur Turnbull (Bernards Twp)
*Note: Residents of Bernards Twp are actually Bernardsville and Far Hills today.
Honorary Chairman of The Far Hills Race Meeting, Lewis C. Murdock said ” Steeplechasing’s history dates back hundreds of autumns to the British tradition of the fox hunt. Often after a hunt, the riders challenged each other to race toward a distant church steeple. They would ride the most direct course, regardless of the obstacles, in this ‘steeple chase.’ Eventually, this cross-country, pell-mell dash evolved into the distinct sporting event of steeplechasing. To this day, the two sports – riding to the hounds and steeple chasing are linked.”
Newark Star Ledger Reports on the Far Hills Race – Oct 16, 2003
The history of the steeplechase, a horse-rider obstacle course complete with metal fences, brick walls, shrubbery and water crossings of varied lengths and heights, dates to 1752 in County Cork, Ireland. Legend has it that two fox hunters challenged each other to a cross-country race toward a distant church steeple, taking the most direct route regardless of the obstacles encountered along the way.
The race was well-received, and a sport was born.
The sport soon evolved into a social event, and the tradition was brought over to America by English and Irish settlers in the early 19th century.
The Far Hills Race Meeting’s own history traces back to the Essex Hunt, a fox hunting event founded in Montclair in 1870, according to the Far Hills Race Meeting Association. The organizers of the Essex Hunt, led by “joint masters” Grant Schley and William Larned, incorporated as the Essex Fox Hounds in 1913 and purchased a farm near Peapack at which they would build a clubhouse, stables and kennels.
To thank the farmers and landowners on whose property club members hunted, the Essex Fox Hounds started a picnic and steeplechase race, called the Farmers’ Day Race Meeting. It was patterned after English agricultural shows, with strolling families, livestock, four-in-hand carriages, tempting displays of produce and pies and a minstrel show performed on a stage in front of the grandstand.
Although there was never any hunting on Farmer’s Race Day, locals soon began calling the affair “The Hunt,” because of its association with the Essex Fox Hounds and the New Jersey Hunt Cup steeplechase, the premier race that remains on the Far Hills Race Meeting’s race card, said von Stade.
In 1916 the setting was moved to its current site on the Schley estate (now called Moorland Farms) nestled at the foot of Schley Mountain in both Far Hills and Bedminster, which had larger fairgrounds and abundant stables, and remains the race site to this day.
The race continued year after year, with a brief interruption during World War II, but attracted few spectators until 1954, when Somerset Medical Center stepped in to help run it.
The 2017 Far Hills Race Meeting
2017 Races- Total Purse: $800,000
1- 1:00pm –The Gladstone – 2 1/8 mile turf hurdles, 3 year olds . Purse $50,000.
2- 1:40pm – The Harry E. Harris 2 1/8 – Maidens 4 year olds and older. Purse $50,000.
3- 2:20pm- The Foxbrook Champion Hurdle – 2 1/2 mile. 4 year olds and older. Purse $125,000.
4- 3:00pm- The Grand National – 2 5/8 mile. 4 year olds and older. Purse $400,000 (Largest in history).
5- 3:40pm – The Appleton – 2 5/8 miles, 4 year olds and upward rate 130 or lower. Purse $50,000.
6- 4:20pm – The Peapack – 2 1/8 miles, Fillies and Mares 4 year olds and upward. Purse $75,000.
7- 5:00pm – The New Jersey Hunt Cup – 3 1/4 miles, 4 year olds and upward. Purse $50,000.
The Grand National Race
Typically the 4th Race at the Far Hills Race Meeting, this race was formerly know as the Breeders Cup Steeplechase. It is the largest and most grand race of the National Steeplechase Association. Hurdle Stakes. 2-5/8 Miles over National Fences. It’s a 2 5/8 mile race for 4 year olds and older. The 2017 purse was $400,000 (Largest in history).
2017 – Purse $400,000 THE GRAND NATIONAL(GI). Hurdle Stakes. 2-5/8 Miles over National Fences.
2016 – Purse $350,000. THE GRAND NATIONAL(GI). Hurdle Stakes. 2-5/8 Miles over National Fences.
2015 – Purse $300,000. 4th Race – THE GRAND NATIONAL (Grade I). Hurdle Stakes. 2-5/8 Miles over National Fences.
2014- Purse $250,000. THE GRAND NATIONAL (Grade I). Hurdle Stakes. 2-5/8 Miles over National Fences.
Year, Horse, Jockey, Owner, Prize/Purse, Margin, Time
2016 – RAWNAQ (IRE), Jockey Ruby Walsh, Owner Irvin S. Naylor, $210,000 prize Time: 4.50
2015 – DAWALAN (FR), Ross Geraghty, Owner Irvin S. Naylor, $180,000, WINNING MARGIN: 1 TIME: 4:57:1/5
2014 – DEMONSTRATIVE Robert Walsh Mrs. George L. Ohrstrom, Jr., $150,000 of $250k,
2013 – DIVINE FORTUNE Darren Nagle, William L. Pape, $ 150,000 of $250k, WINNING MARGIN: 5 1/2 TIME: 5:15
2012 – PIERROT LUNAIRE Bernard Dalton, Mrs. Calvin Houghland, $150,000 of $250k, WINNING MARGIN: 3/4 TIME: 5:40
2011 – BLACK JACK BLUES (IRE) Ross Geraghty, Irvin S. Naylor, $150,000 of $250k, WINNING MARGIN: 7 TIME: 5:29:4/5
2010 – Percussionist(9), James O’Farrell
2009- Your Sum Man (7), Rider/Geraghty
2008- Good Night Shirt, Dowling
2007- McDynamo (10), Rider/Petty
2006- McDynamo (9) Rider/Petty
2005- McDyanmo (8) Petty
Year, Horse, 2nd, 3rd
2004 McDynamo (7) Thornton ,Hirapour (Ire) (8) 156 Sur La Tete (6)
2003 McDynamo (6) Thornton 156 Pelagos (FR) (8) 156 Mullahen
2002 Flat Top (9) Massey 156 Tres Touche (5) 156 All Gong (GB) (8)
2001 Quel Senor (Fr) (6) Murphy 156 Lord Zada (8) 156 Praise The Prince (6)
2000 All Gong (GB) (6) B. Miller 156 Popular Gigalo (6) 156 Allgrit (5)
1993 Lonesome Glory (5) B. Miller 156 Highland Bud (8) 156 Mistico (7)
1992 Highland Bud (7) Dunwoody 156 Mistico (6) 156 Sassello (5)
1991 Morley Street (7) Frost 156 Declare Your Wish (5) 156 Cheering News (4)
1990 Morley Street (6) Frost 156 Summer Colony (7) 156 Moonstruck (7)
1989 Highland Bud (4) Dunwoody 146 Polar Pleasure (7) 156 Victorian Hill (4)
1988 Jimmy Lorenzo (6) McCourt 156 Kalankoe (7) 153 Polar Pleasure (6)
1987 Gacko (6) Duchene 156 Inlander (6) 156 Gateshead (8)
1986 Census (8) Teter,Kesslin (6) 156 Pont du Loup (6)
The New Jersey Hunt Cup Race
For history fans, The New Jersey Hunt Cup race is oldest continuous horse race in the area, running since 1915. It is typically the 6th Race at the Far Hills Race Meeting. It’s 3-1/4 Miles over Timber which is the longest race of the FHRM. Typically the horse is is 8-10 pounds heavier then those in the Grand National but both need to be 4 years old or older.
- 2016 – LE CHEVALIER, 165, Mark Beecher, Otter Racing, $30,000 WINNING MARGIN: 11 TIME: 7:22
- 2015 – EBANOUR (IRE). 165 ,Gustav Dahl, Irvin S. Naylor, $30,000 of 50k, WINNING MARGIN: 1/2 TIME: 7:01:3/5
- 2014 – HOT RIZE 165, Willie McCarthy, Holston Hall , $30,000 of $50k, WINNING MARGIN: 1/2 TIME: 7:47:1/5
- 2013 – CHESS BOARD (GB) 165 Willie McCarthy Irvin S. Naylor, $15,000 of $25k, WINNING MARGIN: 1 3/4 TIME: 07:19:1/5
- 2012 – STRAIGHT TO IT 165, Darren Nagle, Sheila J. Williams, Jack Fisher, $30,000 of $50k, WINNING MARGIN: 3 1/2 TIME: 8:12
- 2011 – DELTA PARK 165, Joey Elliott, Arcadia Stable, $30,000 of $50k, WINNING MARGIN: 3 TIME: 8:03:1/5
- 2008 – Erin Go Bragh (9), 7:04:1/5
- 2007 – Irish Prince (8), Petty 165, 7:39: 2/5
- 2006 – Mr. Bombastic (GER) (7), Walsh 165, 8:122
- 2005 – Thari (8) S. Strawbridge 174, 7:482
- 2004 – Secret Impression (9) Waterman 165
- 2003 – Charlie’s Dewan (11) C. Miller 165
- 2002 – Maipo (9) Kingsley 165
- 2001 – Bredesen Moe (8), Brown 171
- 2000 – Iron Fist (7), Horgan 174
- 1999 – Atomistic (7) Clancy 165
Available in the Anne O’Brien Research Room at the Clarence Dillon Library, Bedminster
- Recollections of the Essex Hunt by Frederick Jones ( 1870-to 1912 events). Ref 799.259JON
- Early Times by James Jones of Far Hills, (Covers 1913-1935)
For comparison: 2006 Far Hills Race Meeting ($600,000 total purse)- Click Here
The American Grand National in Far Hills started in 1899? Quoted…
National Museum of Racing – Former Chair – John T. von Stade of Bernardsville, NJ
Far Hills Race Meeting phone 908-685-2885
See the complete historic timeline – Click Here
by Brooks Betz, Basking Ridge resident and ameteur historian.
Originally posted back in 2006. Updated October 17, 2017.