FAR HILLS, NJ – A massive crowd of at least 40,000 tailgaters and horse enthusiasts, young and old alike, swarmed the small town of Far Hills yet again for the 97th annual Far Hills Race Meeting. The race fans and party goers arrived Saturday at Moorland Farms adorned in their best fall attire.
The day's action started long before the races. As the sun began to peek over the colorful trees, families, friends and coworkers, many of whom have been regulars at the race for years, set up their elaborate tailgate displays. The expansive rows of cars quickly transformed into set-ups consisting of foods, games, family wagers—and plenty of alcohol.
Organizers in past years have worked to evolve the event from a drinking free-for-all to a tamer state of affairs and create an event more centralized around horse racing and families.
But no one has ever attempted to make the Far Hills fundraising event—which is always held in October and often attracts glorious fall weather—into a dry affair.
While some displays featured catered food, ice sculptures, champagne glasses and fine liquor, other racegoers grilled their own steaks or snacked on homemade foods. The idyllic view over the track from the hill stood in stark contrast to the ruckus on the inside.
“It’s rowdy in there,” one man said to another. “Definitely rowdy,” the other confirmed. They seemed more content with being on the outside looking in—enjoying the afternoon lounging on hay bales and sipping bubbly.
The infield featured its usual crowd of college students in a scene that resembled a football tailgate more than a horse race.
But, other than those who tossed footballs back and forth from the bed of their pickup truck, there was no football game—and most hardly seemed to notice the sport going on around them. Music blared as the young throng played games of beer pong, danced on hay bales and socialized with friends on the roof of their cars.
On the track, it was all business. And despite the rowdy environment in the infield and the focus on dining on the hill, the races provided an exciting show.
Cameras positioned throughout the field live-streamed the races and interviews with owners and jockeys. Displayed on large screens and streamed online, the presence of the horse race has become more prevalent at the event.
This year's event initiated the use of wristbands to identify patrons over the age of 21.
“It is our goal that by working collaboratively with law enforcement and FHRMA, each patron who visits will be offered a safe, friendly atmosphere in which to enjoy themselves,” said Far Hills Mayor Paul Vallone in regard to the partnership with law enforcement and race organizers.
The Far Hills Race Meeting Association also announced its partnership with ride-sharing service “Lyft” to curb drunk driving and provide safe transportation for attendees.
Among the many efforts to limit excessive alcohol consumption, the Race Association has also worked to bring a stronger focus to the races. With a purse totaling $800,000—the largest of any steeplechase in America—racing enthusiasts already know the esteem of this race. But the event has also sought to obtain a more global focus.
"To be over here and to be able to win the American National is fantastic, and hopefully we might be bringing jump racing to more of a global stage," said Jack Doyle, who jockeyed “Mr. Hot Stuff” to a victory in The Grand National. “Hopefully, some more of the European ambassadors will start to travel… and maybe in the future, some more American marshals might start coming to Ireland as well.”
Event is a fundraiser
The race has raised over $18 million at the local level since the 1950s to benefit the Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital in Somerset, much of which has gone to the Steeplechase Cancer Center.
Anthony Cava, president of Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital Somerset, praised the event's fundraising for allowing the hospital to advance stating, “This year we’re putting in a piece of an experiment that goes into our radiology center that enables us to detect heart and brain anomalies very quickly. And two years ago we were able to purchase two ambulances that actually serve the Far Hills/Bedminster area.”
Governor Chris Christie in September 2016 signed into law a bill that gave permission for pari-mutuel betting at the Far Hills Race Meeting to be implemented. Due to logistical issues with setting up the technology for betting in the 230-acre open field, it was not a part of this year's event.
Nonetheless, you can count on the thousands of attendees to return next year, looking to continue long traditions and also to create new ones at the richest day of steeplechase racing in the country.