At New Jersey's historical Far Hills race meeting, the tailgating is almost as competitive as the steeplechase.
The last time most of us witnessed country squires dining on fancy picnics at a horse race was while watching "Downton Abbey." But take away the English accents and you will find a very similar scene in a bucolic patch of New Jersey.
For 96 years, Moorland Farm, in the borough of Far Hills, has hosted the Far Hills Race Meeting every October (except during World War II). One of the most prestigious steeplechase events in the country, with a $550,000 purse and crowds of up to 40,000, the event began as a small get-together at which the Essex Fox Hounds, a local hunting club, thanked the farmers who let the club hunt foxes in their fields.
Far Hills and its surrounding towns have been known as New Jersey's horse country since the early 20th century, when wealthy New Yorkers built country estates and a railroad line -- complete with private cars -- to shuttle them the 45 miles to and from Manhattan. Pharmaceutical magnates with names like Pfizer and Johnson, governors (Christine Todd Whitman, Thomas Kean), and even Jackie O. have lived in the area and regularly attended the races, often referred to as "the hunt" because of its longtime association with the Essex Fox Hounds.
The equine action -- thoroughbreds speeding around a two-mile course, jumping fences along the way -- is obviously the main draw, but the tailgating ritual that has developed over the years is now its own form of competition. Parking spots on the hill overlooking the races and directly on the rail of the track are highly coveted and often passed down through families. Walk the hay-strewn rows between vehicles and you'll be beckoned by strangers to sample from their multicourse spreads -- and fully stocked bars.
"You bring a picnic and some cocktails, and then you look next door and your neighbor has a bigger, fancier picnic," says Guy Torsilieri, cochair of the event. "So it's grown into this elaborate dining experience."
"Elaborate" is a fitting description of the feast that Dave DiSabato, who lives in nearby Gladstone and first attended the races as an 8-year-old, crams into his SUV with help from his wife, Felicia: lobster rolls, a raw bar including three-foot-long Alaskan crab legs, pulled-pork sandwiches, fried chicken, and a Bloody Mary bar. The menu has evolved over the years, but some things never change. "Every year we arrive at our spot and see the same neighbors next to us," says DiSabato. "It's almost like we never left."