By Susan Frampton
It is a spring Saturday in Aiken, SC, and young and old gather at the Aiken Horse Park for a day at the races. Though the image might seem to harken an earlier time in Aiken's history, in reality, it is an annual tradition celebrating one of the city's ,most renowned events, The Aiken Steeplechase.
A steeplechase is a form of horse racing thought to have originated in Ireland, in which competitors were required to jump fence and ditch obstacles as they raced through the countryside. Church steeples served as landmarks to mark the start and finish of the route, and the symbols eventually came to represent the stye of racing itself.
The length of a modern steeplechase, governed by the National Steeplechase Association, is generally two to three mies, which requires speed and endurance from the animals to maintain stride and they navigate course obstacles. Unlike horses trained for flat racing, steeplechase horses generally spend more time outdoors, making the mild winters of Aiken ideal conditions for training.
At present-day races in Aiken, spectators from all across the state are the real winners.
This environment was a huge factor for attracting the equine community beginning in the late 1800s, when Charles and Louise Hitchcock relocated to the Aiken area and began to spread the word to their northern friends regarding the area's advantage for training horses and hunting.
According to Elliot Levy, the former executive director of the Aiken County History Museum, "In 1899, a railroad station with private cars providing direct service from New York's Penn station was built. The rich and famous began to arrive, and with them, their horses. Dukes, Duchesses, and ambassadors, and names such as Vanderbilt, Mellon, and Roosevelt became commonplace in the town.
Hitchcock and William C. Whitney, the secretary of the navy at that time, jointly purchased 8,000 acres of pine forest they named "Hitchcock Woods." He went on to train horses and race them to incredible success. In addition, he is said to have introduced fox hunting to South Carolina at Hitchcock Woods, and it was the corporate interest of his hunting and equestrian peers that led to the formation of The Aiken Hounds, not the oldest continuous hunting hounds organization in the country.
Along with Temple Gwalthmey and Harry Worchester-Smith, Hitchcock is thought of as one of the fathers of the American steeplechase. The first race was hosted in Hitchcock Woods, but the Aiken Steeplechase Association, on March 14 1930. More than 1,000 attendees came to watch, and local residents spectated alongside elite debutants and socialists, industrialists and businessmen from the north. A huge success, the race continued annually until WWII and civic development interfered for a period of 25 years.
The non-profit Aiken Steeplechase Association reinstated the event in 1967 and March of 2016 marked the 50th renewal of the Aiken Spring Steeplechase and the race of ownership of the The Imperial Cup; the second leg of the Aiken Triple Crown. October 2016 heralded the 25th running of the Aiken Fall Steeplechase for The Holiday Cup. Both races are sanctioned by the National Steeplechase Association.
Though the face of horseracing has changed over the years in the Aiken community, it is still an expensive endeavor, and it is doubtful that owning a steeplechase horse will ever be within the reach of an "average Joe." Owners, trainers, and jockeys receive designated shares of the total purse (prize) money, the prize is not guaranteed and most will not earn their living racing.
At present-day races in Aiken, spectators from all across the state are the real winners. All that is required to enjoy watching the horses fly is the price of admission. A folding char, binoculars, comfortable shoes, and sunscreen are suggested accessories, but pets are not allowed. Children 10 and under are admitted free with a paid adult.
Both spring and fall events are held rain or shine, and each are the social event of their season, bringing friends together to cheer for carts, carriages, and drivers participating in the Carriage Parade - a perennial favorite, along with stick horse races, hat contests, tailgate competitions, tent parties, and an entire village of shops. And the main event, an outdoor race fueled by genuine horsepower.