By Scottie Davis
Special to The Sun City Packet
The Steeplechase is as important to Aiken as golf tournaments are to the Lowcountry. Aiken's love of horses began in the late 1800s when sportsman Thomas Hitchcock brought his friends down from New York to play polo and fox hunt. They built "cottages" (mansions by today's standards) and created a winter colony.
Today, equestrian sports are an integral part of the lifestyle and the beautifully maintained "cottages" line Aiken's Historic District where dirt roads allow horses to clip-clop rhythmically without shoes.
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Through the years, 39 derby winners have trained in the stables of Aiken. Photos of owners, trainers and riders, along with silks and trophies are on display in the Thoroughbred Hall of Fame, located in the carriage house at Hopeland Gardens, a magnificent estate in the middle of Aiken, given to the city of Aiken.
One of the best ways to get an overview of this equestrian community is to join the 90-minute public tours. Docents delve into Aiken's history, and tell stories about the winter colony as they show you the sites and horse training areas.
Visiting Aiken during an equestrian event gives you an insight into the passion, dedication and work that goes into what is seemingly a rich man's sport. They are socially irresistible - even for those who are not into horses.
There are two Steeplechases in Aiken every year - one in the fall and one in the spring. This year's fall Steeplechase will take place on October 27. Races begin at 1 p.m., with gates opening hours earlier. A hat contest, vintage carriage parade, and prize for the best tailgate give this event an exciting social flair. The spring Steeplechase is even more of a fancy dancy bash.
Steeplechase spectators tailgate and watch the races rail side. There are no viewing stands and no official betting, but there are plenty of colorful characters to see and many opportunities to observe the horses and jockeys up close and personal.
If you overnight in Aiken, get up early and go to the track to watch the horses exercise. Racehorses are put through their paces on The Aiken Training Track where Kelso and Summer Squall once ran. Close by, Standardbreds (trotters and pacers) are timed and exercised on The McGhee Mile Track, a turf track for flat racing.
Then, stop at the Trainer's Kitchen for breakfast where you can mingle with the trainers, owners and locals who make up the equestrian world in Aiken, SC.
Accommodations in the historic district range from the luxurious Wilcox Inn to boutique hotels and B&Bs. The shopping downtown is excellent and restaurants, such as Malia's, divine.
Scottie Davis will be at the Steeplechase on Oct 27 with a Weekend Get-Always on Tank of Gas motor coach trip - www.scottiedavis.com or call 681-1900