The popular marsh tacky horse races on Hilton Head Island have been canceled following arguments between some native-island horse owners and a group that organizes the event.
The Carolina Marsh Tacky Association says it has canceled its annual horse run on the beach, part of the island's monthlong Gullah celebration in February, because of a "disgruntled group" trying "to enter unregistered horses in the race."
The event's sponsors, however, say the races are ending because of concerns about liability and safety.
The association began the beach races in 2009 at the request of the Coastal Discovery Museum and the Native Island Business and Community Affairs Association, which runs the Gullah celebration.
All three agreed only purebred marsh tackies could participate, that horses be registered in the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy's Marsh Tacky Studbook and checked for vaccinations. Riders also must complete entry forms by a deadline.
"Yet each year, a disgruntled group appeared in the staging area on race day expecting to enter unregistered horses into the race," according to the marsh tacky association's website. "Although it was stated that the group did not follow the rules, (local news articles and editorial) supporting a multi-breed race eroded support for a marsh tacky race."
Association secretary Jackie McFadden said the marsh tacky association also lost support from the Coastal Discovery Museum and NIBCAA.
"They are our sponsors, and we can't do the race without them," McFadden said.
Museum CEO and president Michael Marks said the event became too large to manage and too much of a liability for the nonprofit museum to handle.
"The only thing separating 7,000 to 8,000 spectators, including small children, and 1,200- to 1,400-pound horses running down the beach was a rope," Marks said. "In some cases, the horses had difficulty pulling up, and ran through the rope at the end. ... We had a horse take off on its own in the first year. Luckily, no one was hurt and there weren't as many people.
"But should a horse veer off into the crowd and injure someone, the museum just couldn't live with that."
Gullah celebration chairman Charles Young III declined to comment.
Native islander Michael Cohen says he and others were unfairly excluded from the annual marsh tacky run. He and his son were threatened with arrest in March when they tried to enter horses into the races. The marsh tacky association says Cohen's horses weren't eligible because he has not proven they are purebred.
Cohen, who says he owns five purebred marsh tackies, was allowed to race in 2010 after arguing with organizers. He said he has submitted samples of his horses' hair for genetic testing to the marsh tacky group and the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy to prove they are purebred.
Jeannette Beranger of the conservancy said Cohen submitted one sample in 2010 for his horse Sonny, but it was determined not to be a marsh tacky. Cohen also submitted a sample for a horse named Little Man. That horse was determined to be a marsh tacky, but it was not clear who owned it, Beranger said.
Marsh tackies, a breed left on the South Carolina coast about 500 years ago by Spanish explorers, were integral to Gullah culture for work, transportation and entertainment. Cohen grew up watching his father race for local bragging rights on Mitchelville Beach.
McFadden said the association attempted to compromise, but its offers were rejected.
"We offered to have their horses DNA tested for free, and they did not send us samples," McFadden said. "We also offered to have two races, one with a mixed breed of horses before the marsh tacky race, but they did not want to do that, nor did they want to ride registered marsh tackies provided by the association."
The association said it will not support a multi-breed race, as it would "not be the best representation to promote the Marsh Tacky, South Carolina's State Heritage horse."
Cohen contends the association never contacted him. He also said he has put the issue behind him, and he and his son are attempting to organize their own race.
Follow reporter Tom Barton at twitter.com/EyeOnHiltonHead.