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The competition at Legacy Chase gets fiercer every year.

And not just for the annual steeplechase races, though they’ve become a premier regional event. It’s tailgating that’s bringing the competitive blood of some of the area’s finest home chefs to a simmer.

Every year, the men and women lucky enough to score one of 60 railside spots (for the princely sum of $300 each) submit their elegant picnics to the scrutiny of tailgating competition judge Judy Brewster. This is tailgating taken seriously— platters of deli sandwiches and store-bought cookies simply won’t do.

“The criteria, of course, is the appearance, the utensils, the food and the theme of the day,” says Brewster, who has presided over the tailgating competition since the Legacy Chase races began at Shawan Downs in 2000. Her daughter, race director Danielle Brewster, gave her the job, saying anyone who gave such elegant parties could surely judge the handiwork of others.

At first, Brewster made up the rules as she went along. But as the competition intensified, the judging has grown more serious— sort of. She judges on a loose scale of one to 10 points and invites two or three friends to do the same, so her own biases don’t rule the day. “Over the years, we have sort of built it up,” she says. “We have a little notebook and the three or four particular things we’re looking for.”

The food must be beautiful and artfully presented, and a horse theme is preferred. Plastic forks, paper cups and cardboard plates are verboten. “If they have a beautiful table but the tablecloth doesn’t go to the ground, and you can see what’s underneath, that’s points off,” Brewster says. Last year, tailgaters obliged with visual vignettes that sparkled in the warm earlyautumn sun. Champagne bubbled in fluted crystal glasses. Strawberries were arranged just so in beautiful silver or ceramic dishes. Homemade dishes including peach tarts, crab-stuffed mushrooms and caviar pie were displayed on hunt-themed tablecloths, alongside fox-shaped salt and pepper shakers, bouquets of autumn-colored flowers and sometimes bales of hay.

At one tailgater’s spot, the opened trunk of a 1947 Plymouth “woody” wagon was covered with a white tablecloth. About 30 people, calling themselves the Guilford Group, nibbled on marinated tenderloin, mushrooms stuffed with crab, a fresh peach pie, smoked salmon, seviche and assorted cheeses.

“It’s almost out of control,” says race organizer Charles C. Fenwick Jr., clearly enjoying the swirl of activity on the morning of the race, when tailgaters began arranging their cutlery and setting out Southside cocktails as early as 10:30 a.m. “It seems to have caught on.”

Of course, the tailgating competition is really just for fun. Prizes are on the order of tote bags and little fox-shaped statues, small potatoes considering purses for the day’s seven races in 2004 exceeded $100,000, including more than $25,000 for the highlighted Legacy Chase race. “I think the incentive for most people is the honor of it, to tell you the truth,” Brewster says.

In 2004, that honor went to Upperco resident Dulany Noble and her friends and family, collectively known as the Carrollton Hounds, who scored big points for their pervasive fox-hunting theme. In front of a table clad in green velvet, a saddle and helmet were propped carefully beside a bale of hay. A ceramic fox formed the table’s centerpiece, and flowers were arranged in fox containers.

The table groaned with a whole country ham and china platters of Smithfield ham biscuits, deviled eggs and spicy steamed shrimp. The piece de resistance, though, was a caviar pie decorated with a fox head in red caviar inside a black caviar border. “We just really went all out,” says Noble.

Sisters Elizabeth Safi and Kimberly Bozel, who won in 2003, took second place in 2004. As in past years, they purchased two slots so they could set up a children’s table at one. The fox-hunting theme, which included fox figurines in hunting dresses and a saddle posed next to a bale of hay, was a natural for this family, since they are all avid riders.

The theme continued with the food. A cake with a picture of 6-year-old Mary Keating Bozel graced one table, while cupcakes decorated with cutout cardboard horses and jockeys provided sugar highs for the kids.

Just a couple of weeks after the event, Safi was already thinking about the 2005 competition, and how she could beat the Carrollton Hounds. “I have a feeling we’ll probably go back and forth,” Safi says. “Maybe we can beat them next year.”

Crab Stuffed Mushrooms (Sue Diedrich)

Summer Vegetable Pie (Elizabeth Safi)

Caviar Pie (Dulany Noble)

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