There is something inherently southern about getting together underneath nature’s canopy and celebrating relationships formed with family and friends. Fortunately, things tend to warm up around the month of April in North Georgia, and it just so happens there is an event that allows us to kick off spring in style. Folks, the Atlanta Steeplechase is upon us and the races will, once again, take place at Kingston Downs just east of Rome on Hwy 411.
This year is, indeed, very special. As Steeplechase prepares to celebrate its 50th anniversary on April 18, it is only fitting that we take a stroll through “memory field” and ask some of the founding families about the inception of this much-anticipated running of the horses. The bond among race-goers is organic in every sense of the word – a camaraderie fashioned by men, their mounts and the hunt.
Long before an organized race was founded, a group of fox hunters in Atlanta formed the Shakerag Hunt Club, running the wooded farmland on horseback chasing foxes. A tradition in fox hunting, adopted from the Irish by the English and later transported to North America in 1844, was the challenge of running the horses back to the lodge before the other hunters.
John Wayt III, the eldest son of Atlanta Steeplechase (ASC) co-founder John Wayt Jr., offers some history. “Anytime someone is on anything that moves, they want to race it – from wheelchairs, to cars, to horses,” he laughs. “So, the fox hunters would bet that they were faster than the others in the group. They would say to each other, ‘I’ll race you to the steeple.’ This was hundreds of years ago and the race has grown from an informal activity to a more formal event. It has sort of evolved from picking a course to, now, putting it on a racetrack.”
Of course, there was never a clear path through the forest, so riders would be challenged by stone walls, wooden split-railed fences, small creeks and brush as they galloped toward the church steeples visible above the tree line.
“Since the 1920s and 30s, there has been this growth of steeplechasing through all of these families that have owned steeplechase horses,” John explains. “The nucleus of it has always been these one-day events.”
The late Wayt Jr., former chair of the ASC Board of Stewards, and ASC co-founder George Chase Sr. eventually petitioned the National Steeplechase and Hunt Association to sanction a race here in Georgia. Once they had secured $7,000 in financial backing, they turned their attention to finding a track.
A family farm would be the first field run by the horses.
“The history of ASC began on a piece of our farm off of Holcomb Bridge Road along a curve of the Chattahoochee River,” says Martha Wayt, the wife of Wayt Jr. and one of the matriarchs of the races. As she speaks about the 1966 inaugural chase, her love for the social scene surrounding the track is evident.
“I remember it started as a picnic. People brought their boxes of food and drinks to watch the horses race,” she recalls. “We planned for about 200 of our friends to attend, but we ran out of tickets. That was the first year and I am happy to see how it has grown, and how each year things have been added to the races. The event became so large that we outgrew that farm and, in 1971, had to move to another farm in Cumming, Ga.”
John offers more to his mother’s story. “The size of the crowds was one reason the race was moved from the first location, which was inside the crook of Horseshoe Bend,” he explains. “The track was built on a sandy floodplain area. This made the area really flat and it made a really nice bowl that was suitable for racing, but my grandfather, John Wayt Sr., sold that property. As a result of that, in 1971 we moved the races up to another piece of property we owned off of Bethelview Road in Cumming.
“The track on that piece of property had to be constructed,” John continues. “We ran cattle on that farm pretty much all year, and we moved them, each year, about six weeks before running the races. The funny thing is that area was actually smaller than the first. It would only hold around 15 to 20 thousand people and we had to really pack them in there, too.”
Little did they know, the ASC would, once again, be on the move in 1997 and, this time, the growing city of Atlanta would claim the grounds.
“The Georgia Department of Transportation decided they would like to build a highway through the property with plans for an outer loop, which they never built,” John chuckles, remembering their second race home. “So, they came in and bought the property from us, threw everyone out and never did anything to the property. As a matter of fact, we still cut the grass and maintain the property.”
So after an extensive search to find the ASC a new home, founders signed a lease with landowner Carl Bouckaert, making Kingston Downs the new (and current) home of the annual event.
Sitting at a white linen-covered table, peering at high-rise buildings as traffic buzzes by on Peachtree Road, Jim Wayt, the youngest son of Wayt Jr., provides interesting insight into the history of the Buckhead area where we are gathered for this interview.
“It is interesting that we are sitting here talking about riding because this was the area used by the Saddle and Sirloin Club,” he says. “It was the 1920s, when riders rode through the country, right here in Buckhead. About three miles as the crow flies from here, is Chastain Park where hunter trials were first held.
“It’s through that history of equestrian connection that the different hunt clubs organized the Atlanta Steeplechase,” Jim continues. “This is the reason why Chastain Park still has an equestrian center and, nearby, there was a farm on a floodplain near Nancy Creek called Moccasin Hollow. This is where the first foxhounds were cast. All of this area was considered the countryside. It’s crazy to think it was less than three miles from here.”
Current ASC chairman George Chase Jr. also remembers growing up with his father’s love for steeplechasing outings.
“When Jim and I were 15, we got with a few of our friends and decided to build a treehouse right on the steeplechase course,” Chase laughs. “So during Christmas break, we went up to the local lumber yard and loaded up Mr. Wayt’s 1969 pick-up truck with lumber. We had so much in it that the front wheels would come off the ground on the way home. John Wayt, III, but we all call him Gus, had to put the brakes on just to steer. I think he was the only one of us old enough to drive.
“I think we really got the social aspect of the steeplechase through osmosis from the adults,” he continues. “The treehouse became the party center for our friends. We grew it and formed, what we called, the Treehouse Party.”
As Chase decants his story, the others around the table uncork their bottles of tales, releasing the tannins and sweet flavors of their early times at the farms.
Mrs. Wayt then pours out her mind’s offerings about some of the not-so-formal times of steeplechases past. “There was the year of the streakers,” Martha recalls with a laugh. “Yeah, there was one year where someone took their clothes off and ran through the race. And then there was the mud. We would sometimes find as many as 150 of one little fancy slipper – no pairs – that were just stuckin the mud.
“We have had every kind of weather,” she continues. “We’ve had snow, sleet and tornadoes … pretty much every type of weather. One year, the wind was so strong, it blew all of the tents down the day before the races. I told them to not let the photographers out there. That was the main thing.”
Her tale inspires Jim to fill the conversation’s cups with another candid recollection. “One year, I think it was in early March, we had a lot of accounting firms right next to each other a big tent,” he recalls. “There was a mud hole between these two tents and, before we knew it, the secretaries from these accounting firms starting mud wrestling in front of everyone. Some people would lose their keys in the mud and, after the races, we kids would find the keys to the cars they left on site and drive them around the pasture.”
His brother, John, gets a hearty chuckle from the table after mentioning an area slightly removed from the normal ring of tents. “The area Jim is referring to was called the Pines,” he says. “It was on our second course and it was back behind these pine trees. So, Lanie Rogers decided to get all the really good parties and put them over in the Pines so that no one could see what was going on. There was a bar called Elan, which was a big disco bar, and they brought a couple of buses full of people. Their tent was in with all of the corporate tents, and they created a big mud hole where they were all dancing. It was crazy!”
Chase adds to the stories of mishaps and mischief. “There used to be a Friday night party,” he recalls. “They would print the tickets on Friday to sell on Saturday, which was race day. The gentleman in charge of the tickets came to the party with the tickets in his car. But when he left the party on Friday night, his car was gone. The powers-that-be panicked and had the printer get his crew together at midnight to reprint the tickets. The police called him the next morning and told him they had found his car in the bushes. He’d forgotten to put the parking brake on and his car had rolled away! So, he found it in the bushes with all of the tickets still inside.”
And to top it all off, John adds, “The guy who lost the tickets was also the printer, so he left the party and had to print more tickets before the race that was scheduled for the next day.”
Soon, the table is tipsy with smiles and laughter after drinking in the extraordinarily entertaining times they have all shared together at the ASC. Although there have been some wild moments in the event’s 50-year history, current leadership has polished the event in hopes of promoting family fun with plenty of room for making memories.
“I think the thing you have to take away from some of these stories is that the Atlanta Steeplechase has evolved from a highly social experience to more of a family experience,” John says with a lighthearted grin. “I don’t anticipate us having very much of those types of [crazy] things happening again.”
Of course, Steeplechase is always held with charity at the forefront of its purpose. In 1966, proceeds from the race were donated to help fight multiple sclerosis and this year, monies collected will go to Bert’s Big Adventure, a non-profit aimed at giving chronically and terminally ill children and their families an all-expense paid trip to Disney World. This charity was founded by Bert Weiss (popular radio personality of “The Bert Show” on 99.7 FM or Q100) and his wife Stacey who serves as Chairman of the foundation. Bert, Stacey and the Bert’s Big Adventure board members have also invited the children to attend the races, once more living up to the family-centered environment ASC organizers hope to foster moving forward.
“There has always been a charitable and social dimension to the Atlanta Steeplechase but at the heart of it is the National Steeplechase Association,” Martha says. “The national organization provides a really solid, honest, fair and safe racing environment. They also provide the integrity that is essential to the race, which is mixed with the people who love to go fox hunting. All of the other things make the event a really fun festival.”
Join Northwest Georgia’s biggest lawn party on April 18 and raise a glass in honor of what has become a true southern tradition.
For more information about race-day activities, please visit atlantasteeplchase.org.