AIKEN — Dark clouds failed to dim the bright dresses and colorful personalities at Ford Conger Field on Saturday.
An estimated 30,000 people braved early rain and cold temperatures for the 47th renewal of the Aiken Spring Steeplechase.
The infield of the track was spotted with tents from tailgaters and merchandise shops. The outside rails were lined with spectators exchanging bets and beverages.
For many, the event is a family affair, including several generations returning each year.
“We’ve had three generations here,” said Natalie Pierce, of Elon, N.C. “We love horses. We’ve met a lot of people over the years who are owners, riders, trainers, announcers. We’ve made a lot of friendships over the last 30 years. We’ve just really enjoyed the friendships, reuniting with them every year.”
Around the paddock and finish line, owners, trainers and jockeys offered good luck wishes, congratulations and stories of raising their latest horse.
“It’s a fantastic event and a great course,” trainer and jockey Arch Kingsley Jr. said. “There’s a strong horse culture here. It’s great to see.”
Many congratulations were offered to Kingsley, who rode Sunshine Numbers to a win in the Budweiser Imperial Cup, earning $30,000 in the fifth race of the day. Kingsley is both jockey and trainer of the 11-year-old dark bay gelding, which won by 11 lengths at 3:51.
Sunshine Numbers, a New York-bred horse named National Steeplechase Association Horse of the Year in 2009-10, is owned by Sue Sensor of Camden, S.C.
“There aren’t enough words for this horse,” Sensor said. “He’s getting better with age. We spent a lot of time swim training this winter, and he has a whole different set of muscles. But he also mentally knows what’s going on more. He ran well. He puts a smile on my face. I’m so proud.”
Kingsley is also trainer to runner-up EZ Mac in the Ford D. Conger race, the sixth of the day.
The Thiel family took home three of the six wins as owners. Dale Thiel won the G.H. Bostwick race with Meeting, and the Charlie S. Bird III race with Sir Dynamite. Daughter Laura Thiel Shull won the Ford D. Conger race with Moving Violation.
Runner-up in the Imperial Cup was Country Cousin, winner of the race in 2011. Third place went to Extraextraordinary, trained by Doug Fout, who also trained the winner of the James W. Maloney race, Pleasant Woodman. Owned by Farm d’Allie Racing and Lazenby Stable, Pleasant Woodman had the largest winning margin of the day at 223/4 lengths.
In the Imperial Cup, Cuse, ridden by Gustav Dahl, fell in the final jump of the second lap. However, both horse and jockey rose immediately and trotted off the track with ease.