For the past 36 years the Winterthur Museum has hosted Point-to-Point races on the property that surrounds the former home of Henry Francis duPont. For many of those years, at about 1:30pm, a group of “traditionalists” have appeared from the woods that surround Farm Hill Road … almost as if transported there from another time. From another place where instead of cars, people travel in a carriage or coach. Where gentlemen wear top hats and clothing as would fit the occasion. Ladies dress in their finest attire, wearing hats that might outshine anything seen at Ascot. While fashion and style are at premium, skill in the whip’s seat is a must.
Kelly Valdes first came to driving while working with George A. “Frolic” Weymouth at The Big Bend Farm in Chadds Ford. Valdes found that “the elegance of it all, the timelessness and the historic atmosphere,” drew her in. Besides she says, “He’s just so much fun!”
Valdes went on to drive a single, a pair and a coach at Devon and believes she still holds the record there in the time class competition. “The second year I was there we kicked sand up in the stands,” she says about the speed at which she guided her team through the time class cones.
Today Valdes can often be seen looking over the shoulder of Claire Reid and her team of white Welsh Mountain Ponies. These ponies can only be 12 hands 2 in height and still pull a coach as a team. Finding a coach that would match well with the ponies was no easy task.
“Weight is at a premium and ours weigh 1,200 pounds,” Valdes says, “But we do have a bar and an ice chest; that’s important,” she jokes. “I think we all share a love of the horse and of being outdoors.”
Frances Baker started driving in the early 1980s. But it wasn’t until she saw a photograph on the cover of The Hunt magazine that she really became intrigued. “I think it was one of Jack Seabrook’s four-in-hands,” she says. “It so inspired me. I still have that magazine. I just loved everything about it.” The Late Bill Prickett encouraged Baker to continue in driving, and she acquired a matched pair. “It was when I saw Frolic looking at me at a drive, holding up four fingers that I knew I needed a four-in-hand.
“I love coming up to drive at The Big Bend,” says Baker. “It’s much better than driving on the flat. The hills and valleys are challenging and it’s a great prep for the drive to Winterthur.
“I really love the spit and polish of it all. Everything looks so grand.”
Dr. Annie Renzetti has been around horses all of her life. She hadn’t been at all interested in driving until Susie Buchanan pushed the idea during a riding lesson at Mercer Hill Farm. “When are you going to teach that mare to drive?” Susie asked. To which Renzetti replied, “I really have no interest.”
“That’s irrelevant, when are you going to teach that mare to drive?” Susie demanded. Renzetti has been driving now for 13 years. She started with a single and has moved to a pair.
Her first drive to Winterthur was in 2003. “It’s not for the beginner,” says Renzetti. “It’s extremely challenging. Unlike riding, where you might fall from your horse, get up, dust yourself off and move on, driving is completely different. Everything either goes exceedingly well, and animals and people go out and have a wonderful day in the country. Or everything can go exceedingly wrong and someone or an animal could be hurt.
“A horse’s instinct is to run away. And here you’ve hitched something behind them that chases them as they run! You have to get into their heads as you train your team. You have to anticipate, you need to be looking that half-mile down the road and see what is coming, know it’s there and help them around whatever it is that might cause that bad day. It’s a great test.”
The drive from The Big Bend challenges the whips. “You have to bring everything you have. Your turnout has to be elegant and you must have all the correct appointments and have the driving skills to navigate all of the obstacles that Frolic challenges you with,” says Renzetti. “You have to walk the walk and keep a tight rein. It’s a great definition of your skill, it’s extremely challenging.
“Driving is a way to share your passion with others that aren’t riders and drivers. Once upon a time it was a man’s sport, but not any longer; those social barriers are gone,” Renzetti says. “After all, every little girl loves horses.”