As long as they race steeplechase horses, stories will be swapped about Joe Aitcheson, Jr. With steely determination, stellar balance and wonderful hands, Aitcheson had an uncanny knack for finding the shortest way home.
Fresh out of the Navy in 1957, he landed a job with legendary trainer D. M. "Mickey" Smithwick. He launched his career as a professional rider at 28, an age when some jump jockeys are hanging up their boots. In an era of natural hurdles and brush, Aitcheson set new standards in the steeplechase sphere. He set the marks for all-time victories (44o) and single season wins (40) during a career that spanned more than two decades.
Aitcheson probably owns the record for most spills. He broke his collarbone nine times, fractured his skull and busted up plenty of ribs. A study in courage, he had an iron will to bounce back quickly from injury. Aitcheson just wanted to get back and ride.
He loved the horses, and the horses responded in kind. One of his best mounts was Tuscalee whose racing record of 37 hurdle/steeplechase wins still stands. Tuscalee scored four victories in the National Hunt Cup at Radnor with Aitcheson-- the last time as a 12-year old. That day in 1973 Skip Achuff thought he was home free aboard Dula Mare.
"We were in mid-pack going left-handed along the course," Achuff recalled. "I took the lead at the second to last fence then after clearing the final one we opened up three or four lengths. Joe kept coming and just nipped us at the wire. He simply refused to give up."
A multiple winner of steeplechasing's most competitive races, among Aitchenson's victories were eight Virginia Gold Cups, seven Carolina Cups, and a pair of Colonial Cups. He was the nation's leading steeplechase rider for seven seasons and was inducted in the Hall of Fame in 1978. It's a safe bet that his 440 victories over fences will never be eclipsed.
Don Clippinger caught Aitchenson's riding prowess at the tail end of the jockey's career. An Eclipse Award-winning writer, Clippinger was formerly the racing writer for the Philadelphia Inquirer and retired as editorial director of Thoroughbred Times Co. at the end of 2009,
"Many of my early lessons in racing were at the elbow of steeplechase horsemen such as Jonathan Sheppard, Dr. John Fisher, Bruce Miller, Burley Cocks, and Morris Dixon," noted Clippinger, currently the communications consultant for the National Steeplechase Association.
"Their high standards have always have been my yardstick for how racing should be conducted. As for Radnor, those were the first horse races I ever attended back in 1978. It's what got me hooked into the sport."
This year marks the 80th running of the Radnor Races scheduled for Saturday, May 15. Held on the grounds of the Radnor Hunt in Willistown Township, Chester County, an estimated crowd of 20,000 is expected to turn up. The National Hunt Cup with a $50,000 purse and the Radnor Hunt Cup ($40,000) headline the day's six races.
The Radnor Hunt stands alone as the only uninterrupted hunting club in America stretching over one hundred twenty six years. A backward glance takes you right back through two world wars, the Great Depression, encroaching suburbia, the automobile, disease, political squabbles, and financial crises. The Radnor Hunt survived and persevered.
Radnor Hunt's foundation was a pack of hounds kept by Quaker farmer Thomas Mather at the intersection of Lancaster Pike and the Radnor-Chester Road. Sportsmen James Rawle and the brothers Horace and Archibald Montgomery took a liking to Mather and began to bring their friends to the area to around 1880. They purchased a modest farm that housed the original kennels and clubhouse.
Years later, because of the expanding suburbs and growth of the membership, efforts were made to find a new location. A committee headed by Francis R. Strawbridge proposed the purchase of the Gallagher farm, consisting of approximately 96 acres on Boot Road (now known as Providence Road). The Club moved from its old quarters in 1931 to the site of the present property. The move and re-organization of the Club were effected by Thomas Stokes, President, and M. Roy Jackson, Master of Foxhounds.
The first Radnor Hunt Spring Race Meet (Radnor Hunt Races) was held in 1928 at Chesterbrook, PA, the former estate of A.J. Cassatt, then owned by Mrs. Laird. William J. Clothier's Bay Boy won the Radnor Hunt Cup that year.
Bill Hunneman, Jr., first Chairman of the Radnor Hunt Race Committee, was the man largely responsible for its successful beginning. When he accepted the chairmanship Committee in 1929, Hunneman set his sights on increasing the purses, building a modern racecourse, and championing the cause of amateur jockeys. It was Hunneman who spearheaded the relocation of the famed National Hunt Cup from Brookline, Mass. to Radnor.
His inspiration and foresight are very much alive today. The William C. Hunneman, Jr., Perpetual Trophy annually recognizes the winner of the Radnor Hunt Cup Race.
A foxhunter at Radnor since 1912, Thomas Stokes served with distinction as sixth president of Radnor Hunt from 1930-46. A resident of nearby White Horse and owner of a string of steeplechase horses, Stokes was an active member of the Race Committee.
War Suspends Racing
The Races were run annually until racing was suspended during the war years of 1943-1945. The following year George Brooke, III took over as Chairman of the Race Committee. With the aid of Morris Dixon, Thomas McCoy, Jr., and George Strawbridge, Sr., he supervised construction of a new course on the present Club property.
George Strawbridge Sr., of Happy Hollow Farm in Malvern, was a gentleman rider, competing successfully in all major timber races in the late 1930s. He scored victories in such prestigious events as the New Jersey Hunt Cup, Monmouth Hunt Cup and Radnor Hunt Cup. His favorite horse – his father's gallant grey hunter, Coq-Bruyere- won many races including the Maryland Hunt Cup.
Throughout his life, Strawbridge served as a steward, secretary and president of the National Steeplechase & Hunt Association from 1969-77.
Cortright Wetherill, horse breeder and painter, was a much-loved chairman of the Race Committee and also served as president of the Radnor Hunt from 1970-1988.
At age thirty-two "Cortie" became one of the youngest members ever elected to the Jockey Club. He called Happy Hill Farm in Newtown Square home for more than forty years and bred seventy stakes winners including Raise a Native who sired Majestic Prince, winner of the Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes.
His personal loyalty and sensitivity to tradition were balanced by a willingness to accommodate change. Cortwright brought people together and strengthened both the club and race meeting.
Since that time, the Radnor Hunt Races have continued to attract the country's finest steeplechase horses, owners, trainers and riders. Purses climbed to $190,000 and spectator attendance soared to 20,000 for the races held the third Saturday in May.
A landowner's greatest legacy
For the past 31 years the Brandywine Conservancy has been the sole beneficiary of the Radnor Hunt Races. With nearly $3 million raised, those funds have fueled the Conservancy's vital efforts to protect open space and water resources in southeastern Pennsylvania and northern Delaware. To date more than 43,000 acres are permanently protected including the Radnor Hunt racecourse itself and the surrounding lands.
The catalyst for all this land conservation was the protection of the 5,400-acre Buck and Doe Run Valley farm property just north of the village of Unionville. Owned at the time by—and known locally as—the King Ranch, it was the largest privately owned contiguous property in Chester County, Pa.
Known for their brick-red coats and upswept longhorns, the Santa Gertrudis cattle grew so hefty on the rich, native bluegrass that Buck and Doe was soon dubbed "the best finishing school for cattle in the East." Robert Klegberg, Jr., then CEO of the King Ranch, purchased the Buck and Doe Run Valley Farmlands in the late 1940s.
Today, Klegberg's granddaughter D. D. lives in the main farmhouse on the property with her husband, thoroughbred trainer Michael Matz. In 1985 the King Ranch property was sold to the Brandywine Conservancy, thanks to the untiring efforts of horseman George "Frolic" Weymouth. The sale helped spark a spectacular land conservation movement in the region and all across the country.
Betty Moran's Brushwood Stable garners headlines for the thoroughbred stars it has bred, raised, raced or sold at auction. One of the best in recent years was Hard Spun who is considered the second best three-year old in 2007. She has been the chairman of the Radnor Races for 35 years. In addition to being a Brandywine Conservancy board member, Moran is a supporter of Equine Land Conservation Resource that promotes access to and conservation of land for equestrian use.
Loss of open land has been identified as the greatest threat to the future of all equestrian sports, recreation, and industry. Back in the late 1970's Moran donated 100 acres to the Willistown Conservation Trust. At her farm near Malvern, Pa. the Bryn Clovis section is under land easement and the Brushwood side is pending.
"Betty is very serious about our mission-- preserving the open spaces and clean water," said Carol Griffin, the Radnor Races coordinator for the Brandywine Conservancy. "Betty has taught me to be fierce in our fund-raising efforts. As chairman she leads the way with her spirit and enthusiasm."
Terry Conway, the horseracing writer for Pennsylvania Equestrian, can be contacted at email@example.com