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Gorillas to Gold Cup, Nick Arundel Thought Outside the Box (Literally)

This article was originally published as part of the Temple Gwathmey Steeplechase Foundation’s “Legends of Steeplechase” series.


Meet the newsmaker, innovator and ‘self-styled maverick’ that saved Virginia’s crown jewel by creating a custom course for the races, and so much more.


By Betsy Burke Parker


Everything changes, but nothing really does.


Those were the prescient words of Arthur W. “Nick” Arundel in Bill Myzk’s 1987 book, “Virginia Gold Cup: Official History.”


It’s still true today.


Arundel, who died at 83 in 2011, is widely remembered as a self-styled maverick who actively reviled conventional wisdom to build an ongoing steeplechase storyline. (Douglas Lees photo, right) Arundel conceived and created the Great Meadow racecourse near The Plains, Virginia, carving it out of nothing in the early 1980s when the Gold Cup’s longtime home at Broadview in downtown Warrenton was sold for a housing development.


© Douglas Lees

To this day, what many call the crown jewel of his legacy continues to host what are overflowing days of sport, the Virginia Gold Cup & International Gold Cup.


Nick Arundel is always there, figuratively – in spirit, literally – in bronze, and actually – in the many hands that helped him build the busy field events center still hard at work today.


“In a century of accelerating particles of change, few sporting institutions have more perfectly retained their original character, values and strong traditions than the classic … Virginia Gold Cup,” Arundel wrote. “The course has moved four times. Wars have come and gone. The race has endured every imaginable sort of weather, and weathered every sort of problem on either side of the running rail.

“The Virginia Gold Cup heads into the future in stronger shape today than ever. Most of the challenges facing the Virginia Gold Cup have come up … since its beginning in 1922. Experience, love of the game and the will to win remain its greatest strength.”

“People thought it was a crazy idea to build a steeplechase course, in the first place, on a piece of bankrupt ground in Old Tavern,” maintains longtime course manager Bobby Hilton, who helped Arundel plan nearly every inch of the facility. “I think the Gold Cup people just threw up their hands and said to Mr. Arundel, ‘you want it? You can have it’.”


Gold Cup was already Arundel’s favorite. His father campaigned ’chasers and was a longtime race official. Myzk traces Nick Arundel’s direct involvement to 1949. “An innovation at the meet” that year, Myzk wrote, “was the appointment of Arthur Arundel and Paul Fout, both experienced riders, as junior judges. Both young men were to study the methods used by the older and more experienced officials.”

He was later involved when in 1978 NBC television aired the races the year his dad died; it was a first, something that Arundel retained. He sought his own TV contracts for Gold Cups in the ‘90s and 2000s.


“He wanted to share it,” says Ernie Oare, like Arundel a one-time Virginia Racing Commission member. “Nick loved to promote the sport.”


It was a hell of a run, propelled by a sometimes campy but always infectious enthusiasm, adds Jack Fisher, who, along with Charlie Fenwick and Don Yovanovich (and, in the old days, A.P. Smithwick, Gerald Saunier and J.Arthur Reynolds) trained horses for Arundel. “Nick always wanted to do what was needed,” Fisher said in a Steeplechase Times story. “Look at the Virginia Gold Cup. He made that place when it could have just gone away.”


The man’s influence still unmistakably cloaks the place, from Great Meadow’s raucous July 4 festival (son Tom Arundel says his father was particularly entranced by pyrotechnics) to his habit of donning a top hat and egging on the winners to sip champagne from the invaluable golden Gold Cup goblet each May. These days, race co-chair Will Allison calls the Gold Cup toast, still an enormous honor, but it doesn’t have quite the circus barker style of Nick Arundel.


The lifesized bronze statue of “racegoer” on Member’s Hill – poring over a racecard leaning on a bronze timber replica, is undeniably Arundel, quite literally. He modeled for the handsome piece, and as Hilton puts it, “its almost like he’s still here.”

How it happened


Arthur Windsor Arundel was born in Washington in 1928. He was a 1947 graduate of Sidwell Friends School and a 1951 graduate of Harvard University.


Bobby Kennedy was a Harvard classmate.


Son of multimillionaire Pepsi-Cola bottling magnate Russell Arundel, Nick Arundel chaired his father’s company, PepCom Industries, once the largest East Coast bottler of Pepsi, before the business was sold in 1980.


In addition to the natural business acumen, Arundel was a natural storyteller. His first foray in journalism was at age 8 with “Nicky’s News,” a neighborhood print digest passed around Congress and credited with bringing giraffes to the Washington zoo. As an encore, in 1955, Arundel himself personally donated – and escorted – two baby gorillas to the facility.

Arundel served as a Marine Corps paratroop officer in Korea, earning a Purple Heart as wounded in action. In 1954, Arundel parachuted behind the lines into Hanoi, leading a clandestine team to successfully destroy key power installations there before Ho Chi Minh took over the city after the French loss at Dien Bien Phu. The game of cat-and-mouse was covered in Pete McCloskey’s “The Taking of Hill 610.”

Arundel left the Marines in 1955 with the rank of captain, and was attached to the CIA in the Vietnam conflict. He was wounded there as well, earning a second Purple Heart.

After his military career, Arundel worked as defense department correspondent in the Washington bureau of CBS News. He later wrote for UPI.


After a stint as special assistant to the secretary of commerce, Arundel purchased WARL, a country music radio station. He changed the name to WAVA, and it became what Arundel believed to be the first all-news station in the world. “When I bought it, it was a bankrupt little hillybilly station,” Arundel told Editor and Publisher magazine in 1993.


Arundel sold the radio station in 1977 to focus solely on print. He had purchased his first newspaper, the Loudoun (Virginia) Times-Mirror in 1963. He told Editor and Publisher he found he preferred ink to airwaves. “That print story, that newspaper, that magazine, you can pick it up in your hands and you can crumple it. Whether you just wrap the fish in it or start the fire with it, it still is a hard, little piece of information you can tuck in your drawer for your children and generations to come.”


He created northern Virginia’s Times Community newspapers – formerly Arcom Publishing, today operating under new ownership as Piedmont Media. Arundel owned as many as 17 county newspapers, something he felt critical to retaining a sense of community. He once said that it would be the local newspapers that withstood the building wave of changing news dissemination and social media.

Politically active, Arundel was on a first-name basis with virtually every prominent Virginia politician and many others who walk the national stage.


While still at Harvard, he served in an internship with then-U.S. Sen. Lyndon Johnson. He also ran the Virginia presidential campaign for classmate Kennedy and threw his own hat into the ring for election to the Virginia Senate in the early ’70s as a Democrat.

Pragmatic and more concerned about leadership than party labels, Arundel endorsed a variety of candidates for public office on the editorial pages of his newspapers, including, most recently before his death, Republican John McCain for president in 2008.


He was inducted into the Hall of Fame of Virginia Communications in 2001, and was named 2011 Virginian of the Year by the state General Assembly.

As an NSA board member, Nick Arundel helped create the National Steeplechase Foundation.


As a racehorse owner, Arundel won the nation’s most important timber races. His Sugar Bee, a Virginia-bred trained by Charlie Fenwick, won the Virginia Gold Cup, Maryland Hunt Cup and International Gold Cup. NSA timber champ in 1985, Sugar Bee holds the singular distinction of winning the International Gold Cup twice, once over hurdles before the Rolling Rock meet folded, and once over timber, when the trophy moved to Great Meadow. Sugar Bee was inducted into the Virginia Steeplechase Hall of Fame in 2007.

© Douglas Lees


Nick Arundel married Margaret McElroy – Peggy – in 1957. They had five children.




Conservation-minded


In 1982, Arundel purchased 540 acres of overgrown, boggy former farmland halfway between Marshall and Warrenton in a bankruptcy auction on the steps of the Fauquier County courthouse. The parcel was destined to be split into 500 home plots, a thought Arundel detested.


Nick Arundel in April 1982 in what was known as “the old crayfish field” that became Great Meadow.

He once said he hated the thought of a housing development in farm country, plus, this one cut too close to home – literally. His own beloved Merry Oak Farm and his family’s Wildcat Mountain is just a mile from what eventually became Great Meadow.

The facility was developed first and foremost as a steeplechase course, Arundel once said, but soon after the first meet ran there in 1984, other horse sports naturally followed and, later, community events “designed to involve everybody,” he said.

Today, Great Meadow hosts lively summer twilight polo matches, a Fourth of July fireworks spectacle, a summer jumper series, a three-star event and more.


“It (was) a long, hard and pioneering job to get Great Meadow where it is today,” said Senator John Warner in 1984. “But the vision of those who saw the site as a home for Virginia’s greatest race never faltered.”


Counting Great Meadow and family farms, Arundel has protected nearly 5,000 acres through conservation easements, a legacy about which he was justly proud.


“Growth over the years just ahead here will probably be greater than in all of the combined history of Fauquier County,” Arundel wrote on the front page of the Fauquier Democrat, now the Fauquier Times. He purchased the county flagship in 1974. “Growth must not and shall not happen at the price of destroying this county’s beauty, natural heritage and its vital farm industry.”


Many times Arundel referenced the protection of open space and the nurture of horse and field sports as his living legacy. “In the first part of your life, you learn,” Arundel once said. “In the second, you earn, and in the third, you give it all back.”

“I know he’d be very proud of what he left behind,” says son Tom.


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