Annual race marks start of the season

Flying horses

When Jim Pierce first came from North Carolina for the Aiken Spring Steeplechase in 1983, he wasn't necessarily coming for the horses.


"It's to meet people and have fun," he said.

Something about it -- the steeplechase's sense of excitement, the parties, the excuse to dress up -- persuaded him to come back every year.

Since that first trip 28 years ago, he hasn't missed a race. Each spring he comes back, this year convincing friends and friends of friends to join his group, hitting the largest count yet at 35 people.

"I fell in love with it the first time," said Pierce, a retired prison warden. "We didn't really plan it to become a tradition. It sort of developed that way."

As the Aiken Spring Steeplechase ran its 45th renewal Saturday, an estimated 30,000 people came to see the horses fly across the track.

When the gates opened Saturday morning, a dark sky hovered over the college students hauling beer coolers to tailgate tents and ticket holders lounging in the VIP tent.

When the sky finally broke before the second race, it didn't stop much outside the track.

"It didn't bother us," said Byron Bush, 25, of Aiken. "Life is good. You got to go with the flow."

Bush and his friends popped the trunk door of his Lincoln Navigator and huddled beneath the door and umbrellas.

"We weren't going to go home at all," he said.

At least in the memories of the track's longest patrons, it was the first time in 45 years that lighting and thunder threatened to shut down a race day.

"Maybe a little sprinkle here and there, but nothing like this," said Cecil Atchley, an Aiken Steeplechase volunteer.

Atchley has returned to the track for 35 years, ever since he first worked the Steeplechase for an Aiken radio station in 1976.

Backstage, away from the ladies in billowing hats and the music playing under the VIP tent, jockeys and trainers bounced between the holding paddock and the barns.

For those not on the sidelines, the event breaks the winter pause in steeplechase racing and marks the first race on the National Steeplechase Association circuit.

"Every race counts, certainly," said Hall of Fame trainer Jonathan Sheppard.

Sheppard trained six horses running in Saturday's races, with his 5-year-old bay gelding One Giant Step winning the $25,000 Charlie S. Bird III race.

It was just the beginning of a year of traveling up and down the coast for Sheppard, who also trained Breeders Cup winners in 2008 and 2009.

Sheppard said he appreciated the crowds who come to support steeplechase racing, although there is a different kind of pressure on those with their livelihoods in the races.

"It's our job, but it's fun too. It's the first race of the year, so it gets tougher later in the season."

As she leaned against the track's railing in a laced pink hat and sundress, Debbie Conaway felt pressure of her own. She joined the friendly betting with her group that traveled from North Carolina for the first time to see the races. Her methodology was simple -- choose the horse with the best look, and it helps if they have a good name, too.

The horse she picked in the first race, 5-year-old Chill Wind, ended with an easy win. Conaway cheered and jumped in her dress heels as the bay gelding crossed the finish line -- a good end to her first weekend in Aiken.

"We've watched the Kentucky Derby on TV and we've been to some races but nothing like this," Conaway said. "The party and the camaraderie, it was above and beyond what I was expecting."

Aiken Spring Steeplechase winners
1Chill WindAthene Noctura Stables, Darren NagleAllison FulmerDarren Nagle
2Class MarkDebra E. KachelRicky HendriksBrian Crowley
3Golden SlammerDave WasherDave WasherBernard Dalton
4One Giant StepJonathan SheppardJonathan SheppardDanielle Hodsdon
5Country CousinOakwood StableJulie GomenaCarl Rafter
6Dispute ThisChrist is King StableRicky HendriksBrian Crowley