by Carol Curtis
In the annals of posh Fairfield County venues, Fairfield County Hunt Club has a place near the top. On 38 acres along historic Long Lots Road in Westport, the landmark clubhouse, stables and perfectly manicured lawns form a picture of elegance and exclusivity. The 250 members – a mix of older established riders and young families with children – avail themselves of everything you would expect from a top country club, including expansive grounds, gourmet dining, a pool, tennis and paddle tennis in addition to the active riding program.
But there’s a civic aspect to all this exclusivity as well: The club’s Benefit Horse Show, held on the grounds June 19-23, is open to the public free of charge. Parking is also free. Regarded as one of the most prestigious shows in the country, the five-day event offers a $25,000 grand prize and features more than 250 classes in which national and local equestrians of all ages compete.
“Everyone thinks this is a private club, and it is,” says Tracy Harris, co-chair of the show along with Jennifer Ross. “But the June show is a community event. Families are welcome to come and watch top-notch equestrians compete at one of the most beautiful and historic shows in the country.”
The club stables about 80 horses. That rises to more than 500 during the show, including many brought in for the day. Among the features are a live band, Voodoo carnival, exhibitors and shopping at the Paddock Boutique. June 23 is Family Fun Day, with activities like face painting expressly for children.
The show got its start in 1924, when there were just 28 event classes. There was no Interstate 95 back then. The area consisted mostly of open fields dotted with the country and summer residences of New York business executives.The club itself dates from 1923, when Averell Harriman commissioned sculptor Laura Fraser to create a polo medal. In order to understand the game, she borrowed mallets, mounted a horse and started knocking the ball around her Westport property. She was soon joined by others in her neighborhood and before long, informal games were taking place using two stone gateposts as goals. A year later, the interest led to the formation of a club for horse shows, polo matches and hunting. Initially headquartered off Redcoat Road, the club moved to its present location in 1925, with a $75,000 bonding agreement to finance the clubhouse recorded a month later.