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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.