It's a time in one of the most horse-crazy cities in the country when people come together for the love of equine sports. It's a chance to see the stamina of Thoroughbred athletes, the endurance of steeplechasers and the agility of polo horses all in one event. Each of these disciplines will be celebrated during the three weeks of the 2011 Aiken Triple Crown, which kicks off Saturday. The Triple Crown has become an Aiken fixture, but this year features a few date changes and new events:
The Aiken Trials
WHERE: The Aiken Training Track: 538 Two Notch Road, Aiken
As the first leg of the Aiken Triple Crown, The Aiken Trials is a day of six flat races designed for horses that are just beginning their racing careers.
Those in the first four races are fresh 2-year-olds who have grown up and been trained on the grounds of the Aiken Training Track.
"These are horses that have never run before," said the Training Track's office manager, Nikki Bargeloh. "They are schooling races. The horses have never been out of the starting gate, never seen a crowd."
The horses will be ridden by their exercise riders who rise before dawn to breeze the horses every day.
After the 2-year-old races, the Trials will hold a fifth race for winners, horses that have run professionally before and who have also been raised at the Training Track.
The last race of the day will be one for pure fun -- where polo riders will trade their mallets for racing silks and put their polo ponies to the test of speed.
"That's a fun race because a lot of the polo people are great characters," Bargeloh said.
The Aiken Trials have been held since 1942 and draw about 8,000 spectators, Bargeloh said.
Gates will open at 10 a.m., and races begin at 2 p.m. Drivers will also hold a carriage parade on the track at 1 p.m.
Spectators can tailgate on the grounds and browse the two merchandise vendors and three food vendors on site.
For the first year ever, the Trials will also hold a contest for its spectators. Judges will determine: Best Hat, Best Tailgate and Best Carriage for the carriage parade.
"We're trying to make it a little more fun this year," Bargeloh said of the contests.
IF YOU GO: Tickets are $10 in advance for entry and $10 for parking. On the day of the event, tickets will be $15 for entry and $15 for parking. Contact the Training Track at (803) 648-4631 for tickets and more information.
The Spring Steeplechase
WHEN: March 26
WHERE: Ford Conger Field, Audubon Drive between Two Notch Road and Powderhouse Road
Though riders come from all over the country to compete in the Aiken Spring Steeplechase, the event is not all about the horses, said Steeplechase Vice President Albert Bostwick.
The races come after a morning of shopping through vendor booths, tailgating and dining under the party tents.
The spring event traditionally proves to be three times as large as its sister race -- the fall steeplechase -- as it can draw as many as 30,000 spectators.
"We never know," Bostwick said. "It's an event that has seemed to grow every year. We would expect, unless we have horrible weather where a lot of people will wake up and say 'Oh, I'm not going to go,' we're going to have a good turnout this year."
The gates will open at 9:30 a.m. and the guarantor party tent will open at 11 a.m.
Tickets for the party tent are still available and run $100 each. On-site parking for the races has sold out, and Bostwick said the only way to secure a parking space is with the guarantor ticket.
"(The ticket) includes parking near the tent, a buffet lunch, open bar, live entertainment and arguably the best viewing on the track," Bostwick said.
The first of six races will kick off at 1 p.m. Horses are still qualifying for the Aiken races nationally, so the lineup will not be available until days before the races.
A new feature of the steeplechase this year is the raffle contest, in which the winner will score a "very good inside subscriber parking space" worth $200 for the 2012 spring race, Bostwick said. Raffle tickets are $10 each and are available around the track on the day of the races.
Proceeds from the raffle will go toward the purchase of an equine ambulance for the Aiken horse community.
IF YOU GO: General admission tickets are $10 in advance and sold at various retail stores throughout Aiken or $15 at the gate. Parking for general admission is limited to two offsite parking lots: one at the Powderhouse Polo Field on Powderhouse Road for $15 and parking at the Aiken Training Track for $10. Call the Aiken Steeplechase at (803) 648-9641 for tickets or more information.
USC Aiken Pacers and Polo Match
WHEN: April 2
WHERE: Powderhouse Polo Field, Powderhouse Road
The USC Aiken Pacers and Polo Match joined the Triple Crown in 2004 when it replaced harness racing as the third leg of the event, said USC associate athletic director Tim Hall. Since then, it has made its mark as the first polo game of the spring season for the Aiken community.
On April 2, two teams of riders from the Aiken Polo Club will match up for six 7-minute chukkers and an award ceremony after the match.
Gates open at 10:30 a.m., and the match will begin at 1 p.m., Hall said.
Before the game, Hall said spectators can tailgate near the field or in the VIP Hospitality Tent, which costs $45 before March 18 and $70 after.
"People will be tailgating, having a good time, getting together with friends and eating a little bit," Hall said.
The VIP tent includes lunch, beverages, a program and admission to the event.
IF YOU GO: General admission is $8 for adults and $5 for children in advance or $10 for adults and $5 for children at the gate. Parking for all tickets is $5. For tickets and more information, call the USC Aiken Athletic Department at (803) 641-3486.