Sure Bets for Gold Cup
The main purpose of the annual Virginia Gold Cup is seven steeplechase races, but for the majority of Washingtonians who make their way to The Plains on the first Saturday in May, the horses are a reason to dress up and spend a day in the country.
Picnics are welcome, and tailgaters bring coolers full of wine or beer and elaborate lunchtime spreads. Others sip from plastic cups as they stroll through acres of grassy field, watching Jack Russell terrier races, admiring elaborate straw hats or poking through stalls filled with equestrian equipment.
Gold Cup is a social event, and for the 20- and 30-something crowd, it's really about socializing. Groups of singles roam the grounds, exchanging glances and hellos over gin-and-tonics, offering invitations to come back and watch the race from their fully-catered tents -- often sponsored by an employer or another group. Lines for the portajohns buzz like a singles bar.
If you want to go to Gold Cup, what follows is our guide to the various areas of The Plains, how to get to the races, and groups that are organizing those all-inclusive parties with round-trip transportation.
The North and South Rails
These areas along the racecourse offer grassy viewing areas -- bring your own chairs (recommended) or a picnic blanket. These tickets are good for people-watching, and best if you have a group of friends going together. A general admission car pass costs $75 from the Gold Cup Web Site ($85 the week before the race) and includes parking and entrance fees for up to six passengers on either the North or South rail.
This is the old-money area, with prime views of the finish line -- appropriate, because Members Hill is where most of the horse owners hang out. You're more likely to see folks tailgating with lavish spreads set up around their Mercedes SUVs and Land Rovers. Admission to this area is $45 per person, on top of general car/bus fees, or you can purchase a Members Hill Car Pass -- four passes and parking on Members Hill for $525. Just be sure to designate a driver.
Along the race course's North Rail, you'll find rows of white tents reserved by companies, social organizations, charities and other groups. These are essentially private parties overlooking the action, most with fully catered food and drink and -- this is key -- bus transportation to The Plains. Some of them are open to the public, and if you're interested in Gold Cup, they're really the way to go.
One of the biggest and best parties at Gold Cup is University Row, a consortium of 50 alumni groups that shares a whopping 11 tents along the North Rail, each offering an open bar and various food options. A common terrace area runs on both sides of all the tents, so even if you came with the groups from Michigan or Virginia, you can wander over to the Pac-10 or Texas groups to look for friends or scope out the scene -- many 20- and 30-somethings dressed up and looking for a good time.
Tickets are in demand, and usually sell out at least a week in advance. Prices vary by group; As I write this, Michigan is offering admission to its tent and round-trip bus transportation for $125, while Marquette's is $115. If you have ties to any of the participating colleges or universities, it's best to contact the alumni group directly. (There's a full list of schools and fees on UniversityRow.org.) All tickets, no matter whom you buy them from, include a pre-race gathering at Rock Bottom Brewery in Ballston with food and drink specials, and a post-race party at the brewpub with live music and more specials. Note that some groups may have already sold out of bus-and-tent combo tickets, but you can try to purchase a tent-only spot from University Row, then catch a ride on one of Lindy Promotions' buses.
Becky's Fund, which works with smaller domestic violence organizations, has secured a tent on the North Rail. The $100 ticket includes bus transportation from 14th and K streets NW, an open bar and food at Gold Cup, breakfast specials at Lotus Lounge and an after-party at Tattoo. All proceeds go to charity. Tickets are on sale now on the Becky's Fund Web site, and prices rise to $120 on April 28.
If you have ties outside the D.C. area, see if you can jump on a trip organized by a state society, a social organization that promotes its home area's unique culture and offers a tonic for homesick D.C. transplants. Around Gold Cup time, a number of groups offer all-inclusive trips. Georgia and South Carolina are teaming up to sponsor a tent; even New Mexico and Idaho are throwing a party for their members.
The Plains is about an hour west of Washington -- expect it to be 90 minutes to two hours due to Gold Cup traffic. You have to have a parking pass to enter Gold Cup -- and don't even think about parking down the road and walking in. You will be towed.
Leaving the Driving to Bus
Lindy Promotions, a Bethesda-based company best known for its holiday-themed bar crawls, is organizing "The Official Gold Cup Bus Trip" this year, with round-trip shuttle service offered from Tommy Joe's, R.F.D. and Ballston's Front Page. For $40, it's not a bad deal, as pre- and post-parties with food and drink specials are offered at each location. What's not included, however, is admission to any tents at Gold Cup. If you're just looking for a way down and don't want to worry about a designated driver, this is the best deal around.
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