My friend Hugh Wilson once described the Atlanta Steeplechase as an event where a large crowd of well-dressed people stand in a pasture and get drunk while horses jump over bushes.
The Atlanta Steeplechase celebrated its 50th anniversary this past weekend. A lot of people dressed up in clothes they probably wouldn’t wear to work or church, women wore fancy hats, the good china came out for elaborate tailgating, alcohol was consumed in abundance, and there was some pretty darn exciting horse racing.
There were also terrier races, a demonstration by some really cool bird dogs, and camel riding for the kids. (You expected less?)
The Atlanta Steeplechase is an annual event that raises a significant amount of money for charity. This year it was Bert’s Big Adventure, a nonprofit organization that provides an all-expenses-paid, five-day journey to Walt Disney World for children with chronic and terminal illnesses and their families.
People go all out. Elaborate feasts are side by side with chicken nuggets. Vintage Cadillac’s snuggle up next to rented busses. Depending on the color of your all-important wristband, you can dine on catered food in the fancy tents on the hill, or pitch your own tent on the infield and lay out a spread from home.
Fancy Derby headgear is the order of the day for women, men show up in seersucker, Madras or khaki, and just about everything else. Cigars are smoked, dogs bark, children play, compliments on clothing fly around like a drunken game of darts, and a good time is had by all.
As my mother would have said, it is all very “swell.”
There were five steeplechase races, all sanctioned, all very exciting. The purses were enough to make it interesting, and the jockeys and the horses were playing for keeps.
The Budweiser Clydesdales were there in all of their massive glory and remain, without fail, one hell of a thing to see.
It’s easy to dismiss something like the Atlanta Steeplechase as another case of Atlanta society talking to itself, and there was certainly enough society there to keep the conversation going for a while. But the people there weren’t unaware of the good that this event does and the money it raises for things that matter. There are kids and families going to Walt Disney World for the trip of a lifetime because of the Atlanta Steeplechase, and that is a very fine thing.
It was a good day.