Sex and Race
In 1939, women challenged men in a steeplechase. And the winner was...
In April 1939, The Potomac Hunt staged its third annual point-to-point races over the rolling acres of Paul Brower’s farm, just off Bradley Boulevard on Seven Locks Road in Bethesda. Three races made up the day’s card, with a total of 26 horses galloping over a five-mile course that sported more than 20 fences.
One race was open to members of any area fox hunting club. Another featured pairs of riders, at least one of whom had to be a woman. The marquee race, though, was the Dunboyne Challenge Cup, open only to members of The Potomac Hunt, with women competing against men—one of the only sports at the time in which the sexes battled head-to-head.
At day’s end, the women had completely dominated. “It was a case of let’s join the ladies,” The Washington Post reported.
Robin Riddick, the 17-year-old daughter of Mrs. Brower, scored the most surprising victory of the day on her little chestnut mare, Cheyenne. In the Dunboyne Challenge, she bested Potomac’s Brig. Gen. Harry Semmes, who was a master of the fox hounds, a decorated war hero and close friend of Gen. George Patton, another Potomac Hunt club member. Semmes placed third, coming in behind the equally surprising second-place finisher, 16-year-old Margaret Sanderson.
Point-to-point racing—better known as steeplechase—had been a Montgomery County sport since the 19th century. It didn’t, however, gain local prominence until 1912, with the formation of the Washington Riding and Hunt Club—an amalgamation of the older Washington Riding Club and the Rock Creek Club, which President Theodore Roosevelt used to join in the 1900s for fox chases up the creek valley. The clubhouse and stables were at 22nd and P streets in Washington, but the hunts themselves took place in Bethesda and the still-rural countryside of Montgomery County.
By 1936, the Washington Riding and Hunt Club had dissolved. Many members would join Montgomery County’s Riding and Hunt Club Hounds, which was founded in 1931 and which changed its name to The Potomac Hunt in 1938.
Its annual point-to-point races rotated through various farms until 1945, when the club bought an expansive stretch of land on Glen Road in Potomac. Races were suspended during World War II, and didn’t resume until 1952.
The Potomac Hunt Races have continued since, with this year’s races held May 19 over the rolling Seneca fields of Austin Kiplinger, noted Washington publisher. For the past four years, the races have benefited the Yellow Ribbon Fund, which assists wounded service members during recovery and reintroduction to the community. Attended by thousands, the day’s festivities include tailgating parties, activities for kids, vendors and more. But the races remain the centerpiece, with men still competing against women—and the hooves still thundering over the Montgomery County countryside.
Mark Walston is an author and historian raised in Bethesda and now living in Olney. For tickets or more information about the races, visit www.potomachuntraces.com. For more information on the Yellow Ribbon Fund, which the races benefit, visit www.yellowribbonfund.org.