Thousands clung tight to the white fences of the Aiken Training Track on Saturday, hoping to catch a glimpse of horse racing’s next big star during the 72nd running of the Aiken Trials.
More than two hours before the racing started, men in sports coats and women donned in floppy derby hats filled the infield and outfield of the track, sharing drinks and laughs in the annual display of camaraderie.
After more than 30 years in the same plot of grass near the track’s outfield wall, the social aspect of the trials is what keeps the Bunns coming back.
“It’s just an opportunity to enjoy the weather and see old friends,” said Billy Bunn, of Aiken, as his wife, Dinah, placed snacks on a folding table.
The Aiken Trials marks the first leg of the Aiken Triple Crown, a three-weekend celebration of horse sports that also includes the Aiken Steeplechase and a polo match. More than 10,000 people come to the famed track each year to witness the trials.
In the infield, Shirley Haupt and Margret Shea, both of Aiken, were enjoying light snacks and wine while they waited for the start of the race. It was the first Aiken Trials for both.
“We just decided it that it was time,” Haupt said as she adjusted her wide-brimmed hat. “I just really love the horses and I love the sport of racing, so it’s fun.”
In the outfield, Pat and Dot Boardman were having a picnic while they waited for the parade of antique horse-drawn carriages. The carriages were filled with people dressed in clothing from years past.
“It’s like stepping back into another era,” said Dot Boardman, who has attended the Aiken Trials rain or shine for the past 11 years.
The smell of barbecue and sounds of live music pierced the air as patrons awaited the running of the horses. Some used the beds of pickups as a stage for impromptu acoustic guitar shows, while others placed friendly wagers on the races.
Charles McKee, who was attending the event for the second time with his wife, Joy, said they hope to make the Aiken Trials a yearly tradition.
“We enjoy it,” he said. “Being so close to the horses, watching them race and meeting new people. It’s something like a family reunion.”