When Al Darlington arrived in Aiken in 1983 to take over as trainer at Buckland Farm, he knew he was surrounded by thoroughbred racing royalty.
Woody Stephens, Buddy Raines, Jim Maloney, Mike Freeman and Mack Miller were some of the legendary trainers who were already entrenched at Aiken Training Track.
“When I first came down I was in awe,” Darlington said. “It was like being in New York or Saratoga.”
Darlington made his mark in Aiken as well – he trained a pair of Eclipse Award winners – and he will be honored by the Aiken Thoroughbred Racing Hall of Fame and Museum.
Darlington and late trainer Sally Cluff, who worked for Paxson Stable, will be the subjects of an exhibition that honors their careers. A drop-in at the hall of fame and museum will be held at 2 p.m. today.
“We’ve been wanting to do something for a while,” said Lisa Hall, the museum’s program director. “They both added a lot to the racing community.”
Cluff began her career in Aiken in the early 1970s and held a variety of positions for Mrs. Henry Paxson before taking over as head trainer in 1980 to replace Allen King. She helped break and train Candy Eclair, which shared the Eclipse Award in 1978 for champion 2-year-old filly.
Cluff, who died in April 2011, was considered an inspiration for females in a profession dominated by men.
Darlington came to Aiken about a decade after Cluff began her career. He was brought in by Thomas Mellon Evans, owner of Buckland Farm, to break and train his young thoroughbreds.
Two of Darlington’s charges turned out to be special. Pleasant Stage won the 1991 Eclipse Award as champion 2-year-old filly after she won the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies race. Pleasant Tap won an Eclipse Award a year later as the champion older male after a campaign that saw him take the Jockey Gold Cup and four other races.
Both horses were co-trained by Christopher Speckert.
“I was lucky to be able to work for Mr. Thomas Mellon Evans,” said Darlington, who is now 77. “He entrusted all of his young racing prospects to me. It was good for him and for me.”
Darlington worked in Aiken through 1997. Now, he works as a clocker at Charles Town Race Track in West Virginia. But he still comes to Aiken often to help with the Aiken Trials and the two steeplechase meets each year.
“Aiken’s a fabulous place. What is it about Aiken?” he said. “I say it’s the people. That’s the best way I can explain it. It’s a joy to come back in the spring and fall.”
Cecil Atchley, a longtime friend of Darlington’s, recalled when he was asked to do a weekly radio show about thoroughbred racing. He immediately called on Darlington for help with Post Time.
“To have a show, you have to have someone who knows the people,” Atchley said. “After three weeks I couldn’t get a word in edgewise. We had the top names in racing.”
Darlington fondly recalls those days.
“The thing of it was it wasn’t hard to get them,” he said of the many celebrities who were radio guests. “When you mentioned Aiken, it was a prestigious place. I had the resources and knew who to call to get the phone numbers.”
He still has a radio show, Down The Stretch, to promote racing at Charles Town. But he still has a fondness for Aiken.
“I had a free hand. No one bothered me,” he said. “Mr. Evans said he wanted the horses prepared right. I got lucky with the first horses and they did well. It worked out well for him and me.”