Just off the beaten path in western Georgia, loyal fans come together once a year to carry on a beloved tradition.

The Steeplechase at Callaway Gardens has been held each year since 1984 and benefits five local arts organizations in Columbus, Georgia.
Brown W. Cannon III

Every year on the first Saturday of November, while football stadiums across the South fill up shoulder to shoulder with fans, another kind of spectator sport is gearing up near Columbus, Georgia. Quieter and more genteel, the atmosphere of The Steeplechase at Callaway Gardens is where Downton Abbey meets a down-home Southern game day.

The event is a nearly 35-year tradition. Enthusiasts from across the region arrive wearing tweed jackets and tailored dresses, eager to spend the day sipping cocktails between thunderous horse races around a grassy course.

Statement-making hats are a key part of the day's "country hunt casual" attire.
Brown W. Cannon III

The spectators, hats on, spread out on a hillside overlooking the racecourse, where a wide, green track disappears into a forest of pine trees before winding its way back toward the crowd. Along the hill, tidy rows of folding chairs lead up to tall, white tents, where tables are decorated with proper linens and full flower arrangements. The day is part garden party and part tailgate. It's a swanky cocktail hour, but it offers a pastoral view.

The Atholl Highlanders Pipes and Drums USA perform before the races start.
Brown W. Cannon III

Aside from the horse races that come rumbling by at 30-minute intervals, the itinerary is dotted with other must-sees: Bagpipes and drums kick off the day about an hour after the gates open (just enough time to grab a Bloody Mary). Then the Midland Foxhounds—a pack of excited, gangly dogs corralled by men in red coats—parade by on the track. And before the horses gear up, attendees can catch a competition of another kind, as Jack Russell terriers scurry down their own racecourse in the infield. Later in the day, ladies and gentlemen will line up for the hat contest, where you'll see both handmade and store-bought, wacky and classy, over-the-top and totally subdued ensembles go down the red carpet. It's a day for all ages, with kids scampering off to the infield entertainment, like inflatables or stick-pony races, and parents lingering under the shade of tents with cocktails and ham biscuits in hand.

The Midland Foxhounds make an appearance.
Brown W. Cannon III

The event was started in 1984 by Mason Houghland Lampton, and the race is just one of many that make up a steeplechasing circuit across the eastern half of the U.S. The schedule begins in the spring in South Carolina and then makes its way north to Pennsylvania and New York before coming back down to the South again for races in Virginia, South Carolina, and Georgia in the fall.

Mason Hardaway Lampton leads young riders across the track.
Brown W. Cannon III

The sport itself is an 18th-century tradition from Ireland and England, an outgrowth of foxhunting and less formal races to local landmarks. Now, Thoroughbred horses race up to 4 miles across rural tracks, hurdling fences at high speeds before reaching the finish line. And though many steeplechase horses come from racing on flat tracks (like those used for the Kentucky Derby or Belmont Stakes), the event is quite unlike any other. "It's a totally different sport than show jumping or dressage or any other kind of competition," says Lampton. "It's an extreme sport."

Most jockeys, like Bernie Dalton, compete as professional riders and travel from all over the globe to participate in races.
Brown W. Cannon III

There's a certain adrenaline rush from watching the horses clear unnervingly tall, rigid obstacles at full speed. That feeling is even greater for the jockeys, who come from all corners of the world to participate in the races. "There is nothing more powerful and exciting than being on a really good, fit horse, rolling into those jumps at 25 or 30 miles per hour," he says. "You are in the moment. That horse's power is amazing, and others are coming in around you—behind and beside you—and you're rolling into that jump, hoping things go well."

At The Steeplechase at Callaway Gardens, Thoroughbreds race across a 3-mile track and hurdle 52-inch-tall "fences."
Brown W. Cannon III

Lampton had to work to sell the town on jump racing though. When he first set out to bring the event to Columbus as a way to raise money for the community, he had some explaining to do.

"I really wanted to do something for the local chamber of commerce that was memorable and would also be new for Columbus—something that I loved. So I began to tell everybody that we were going to have a steeplechase," he says. "And they said, "What is that?" So that's where we started from."

Kids practice before the stick-pony race.
Brown W. Cannon III

Now, the one-day race has grown to benefit five different arts organizations in and around Columbus, from the Historic Columbus Foundation to the Columbus Symphony Orchestra, as well as the Ida Cason Callaway Foundation. Over the years, The Steeplechase at Callaway Gardens has donated over $4 million to the roster of causes.

But the day is neither pure sport nor pure fund-raiser. It's a fixture on social calendars each year, a chance for everyone to get together in one place for a special event. "The real goal of starting it was to give Columbus a jewel—its own thing that was different," Lampton says. "I think we've achieved that, and we've got a lot of folks who have grown up with it over the last 30 or so years. They brought all their college buddies, and now they bring their children. It really continues on as a family tradition."

Jack Russell terriers sprint down a tiny track of their own.
Brown W. Cannon III

Where to Stay

Check into one of Callaway Resort & Gardens' four accommodations—The Lodge and Spa, the Cottages, the Villas, or the Mountain Creek Inn—to be just a few minutes away from all the action (rooms from $119 per night; callawaygardens.com). Or book special race-weekend packages, which include a stay at a Cottage, Villa, or room at the Lodge; event tickets; a shuttle or parking pass; breakfast; and admission to the gardens all weekend long.

What to Do

When the race is over, swap big hats for hiking boots and helmets, and head out to explore the property. With tennis courts, a spa, hiking trails, gardens, golf courses, and 13 lakes for fishing, there's more than enough offered to fill the rest of the weekend. Rates vary by activity.