Horses aren’t the only creatures that run, jump and compete at Willowdale. Jack Russell terriers also vie to cross the finish line first in a popular prelude to steeplechase racing. “Most people think of dog racing as greyhounds, not little Jack Russells jumping over fences,” says Chris Halpin, who organizes the event with his wife, Ava.
Running as fast as they can comes naturally to the members of this rugged, energetic breed, developed in England in the mid-1800s and introduced to the United States in the 1930s. Parson John Russell, the clergyman and hunting enthusiast from whom the breed takes its name, was intent on creating compact and determined working terriers that could flush foxes from their dens so the hounds could chase them.
Jack Russells are small, weighing around 15 pounds and standing about 15 inches tall at the withers. Although they seldom flush foxes from their dens these days, they have a strong drive to “go to ground” or dig for prey, an instinct that’s often translated into holes dug in yards and gardens.
At Willowdale, the Halpins hold practice sessions for dogs that haven’t raced before so they can get the hang of it. The terriers start from a box that measures eight dogs wide. Experienced racers bound from the box, much like thoroughbreds out of a starting gate. But dogs that aren’t accustomed to competition often “look kind of confused,” notes Halpin.
The terriers chase a faux fox tail attached to several hundred yards of sturdy string drawn by a self-winder powered by a car battery. They leap over foot-tall fences made from PVC pipe. That’s where two centuries of breeding come into play. “It’s natural for a Jack Russell to chase a foxtail,” Halpin says. “It’s what they were born to do.”
Halpin attended his first terrier trial at age 3 and grew up going to events every other weekend in spring and summer. Dogs competed in speed, agility, conformation and other disciplines. In go-to-ground contests, Jack Russells scurry through tunnels and mazes, vying to be the first to reach caged rats.
For years, terrier trials were a popular pastime, with organized groups that presented trophies at awards banquets. Then teens discovered cars, football and dating. Although the trials are still held, there are far fewer events.
Willowdale is maintaining the tradition with its races. Dogs typically compete by category: male, female, short, tall, puppies and seniors (over age 12). Many owners enter more than one dog. As loyal to the breed as their dogs are to them, Jack Russell owners frequently have multiple pooches. “I don’t know why anyone ever gets just one dog,” says Halpin. “They need a friend,”
Halpin’s mother, Jacquelyn Robinson, has raced terriers at Willowdale for more than 20 years. She was first smitten by Jack Russells when her mother took her and her sister to the Devon Horse Show. “They’d be the dogs who’d be following the owners, unleashed, around the stables,” she recalls. “I thought, ‘I have to have one of these dogs.’”
By virtue of their boundless energy and relentless playfulness, Jack Russells have earned a devoted following. They’re exceptionally bright and easy to train. Robinson also notes that terriers don’t drool or shed much.
That said, Jack Russells are attention hounds and get into mischief if they’re left alone. They bark a lot and like to chase cats, squirrels, skunks and other moving objects. They require lots of exercise and usually don’t fare well in apartments. “They don’t take an inch— they take a mile,” Robinson says. “They definitely have high energy. They want to fetch a ball, run around. Don’t get a Jack Russell if you’re a couch potato.”
She was 22 when she brought home Jessica, her first Jack Russell, a faithful companion who lived to be 18. Her relationship with Jessica was so rewarding, she’s never been without a terrier since. Today, she owns two, 5-year-old Stella and 4-year-old Dylan. Both compete at Willowdale.
Over the years, Robinson has had two winners at the event—Penny and Sammy, talented terriers who were mother and son. “They got their pictures in the paper,” she recalls.
Unlike their equine counterparts, the dogs don’t get purses for win, place or show. Their reward is the glory they receive from cheering spectators—and perhaps a treat when they join their owners at tailgate celebrations. Some years, terriers who finish first are bestowed with small chalices just big enough to hold a dog biscuit.
Robinson has high hopes for Stella in this year’s races. Dylan will take part for the fun of it. “Stella is a bossy-boss and determined to be first,” she says. “Dylan is a chunky little guy and out there to have fun.”
Related: All There Is to Know About the Races in Delaware and Pennsylvania