"And they're off," barks an announcer over the loud speakers giving a play-by-play as they round the corner. The crowds watch the corner and yell at the first sign of the six horses as they head for the straightaway and towards a wall to the edge of the track. For a quick second, everyone holds their breath as the horses fly over the wall and burst into more applause as the horses clear the wall and race by and disappear around another corner.
After the horses pass, the crowd listens closely to the announcer and follow in their program as they wait for a chance to see the racers once more. After circling the track three times and passing over nine jumps, the race is over. Some cheer after their favorite horse wins while others laugh and look at the next race in the program.
Every year for 43 years Aiken has been home to the Aiken Spring Steeplechase. The day long event usually attracts about 30,000 visitors from across the southeast who attend as much for the racing as they do for tailgating and socializing.
The steeplechase itself dates back about 250 years when noblemen would race each other from one town to another. Since the steeples of churches were the most prominent landmarks, riders raced from one church to the other, hence the name steeplechase. The sport came to America in the 1800s and many of the original races in Maryland and Pennsylvania are still run.
The racing season begins in early March and continues through November as participants travel a circuit racing in 12 states from New York to Florida.
The steeplechase is as much about dressing up and socializing as it is about racing.
Women wear large colorful hats and sun dresses while the men dress in bowties and khakis. Some sit along the track sipping wine under the shade of tents and umbrellas while others jump from party to party. Large buffet tables filled with food sit at some tents as grills crank out the barbeque at another tent.
Some shopped at a small village of shops inside the track for, of all things, hats.
As Frank Liberatore of Aiken explained, the steeplechase is the one place to see everybody. People look forward to the event every year so they can dress up and see all of their friends. Liberatore, who has been attending the race for four years, described the event as a smaller version of the Kentucky Derby-- bright dresses and big hats
As one guy blurted out,"We are cooped up all winter, this is a chance to see pretty girls in the spring."
The tailgating at the steeplechase can only be compared to those before a college football game except no one has to leave the party to see the game. Throughout the day, the only stoppage in socializing takes place during the races. At that point, race-goers place friendly wagers on their favorite horses and watch the race.
Susan Huff of Aiken has been coming to the steeplechase for 25 years and loves to place silly non-monetary wagers with family members before each race. She loves horses, enjoys watching the races and seeing old friends and family who come to the track.
Huff knows everyone one on either side of her because her family has rented the same space along the track for 25 years. Spots along the track are sacred and rarely available. Patrons rent the same space every year and the spots only become available if they don't renew. Those without a spot can pay extra to dine and dance at the Guarantor tent located at the finish line or find bleachers at spots along the track.
The steeplechase is much like flat track racing except the horses have to clear jumps throughout the race. The racers circle the track three times and jump nine times before completing the two-mile race.
The jockeys are much bigger compared to flat track jockeys since they need the extra length to hang on while jumping. The horses are older than those used on a flat track. The legs have to be given time to fully develop so they can jump without hurting themselves.
As Huff explained, thoroughbreds not fast enough for flat track are given time to grow and race in the steeplechase.
The steeplechase is a very demanding and sometimes dangerous race for both the horse and jockey. A veteran photographer of this event explained that horses can get tangled up or not clear the jumps and can hurt themselves and the riders. An interesting sight was a trailer fitted with lights called the horse ambulance sitting next to a regular ambulance.
The steeplechase is part of the Aiken Triple Crown, a three-weekend event. The Aiken Trials, flat track racing, take place the first weekend followed by the steeplechase. The Pacer and Polo tournament takes place the final weekend.
The steeplechase is the largest of the events Huff calls a 3-weekend ring circus.
After six races and a carriage ride, the day was over. Some continued to tailgate while others packed up tents and headed home.
Normally I don't leave the Lowcountry for this blog but I had to see the steeplechase. For those who love horses or a good reason to dress up and party, a visit to Aiken next year might be a good idea.
Paul Zoeller is a freelance photographer new to the area. Do you have an idea for a new blog or a question about a current blog? If you do contact Zoeller at firstname.lastname@example.org.