AIKEN -- The first leg of Aiken's Triple Crown of horse racing is five weeks away, but organizers are already busy preparing for the annual event.
The races, which feature three different styles of races on successive weekends, serve as a test for horses that have trained in Aiken all winter.
The Aiken Trials, which kick off the Triple Crown on March 14 at the Aiken Training Track, are quarter-mile races for untested 2-year-olds and half-mile races for horses 3 years and older.
The noncompetitive trials serve as a warmup to the regular racing season that begins in the spring in the North.
Though lineups won't be set for several weeks, the races usually include several big name horses and breeders, some of which go on to compete in prestigious races like the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness Stakes.
More than 300 horses have been training at the Aiken Training Track this winter, track president Ron Stevens said.
"There's some awfully well-bred horses that have been training here," Mr. Stevens said.
Between 8,000 and 10,000 spectators are expected to attend the trials, which will follow the same format as in past years, Mr. Stevens said.
"I think there's been so much tradition here, so I'm afraid to try anything new," Mr. Stevens said. "If it ain't broke, why fix it?"
Mr. Stevens said his biggest concern is that recent heavy rains could turn the track into a mud pit. The track will require two or three weeks of rain-free weather to dry out completely, Mr. Stevens said.
While the trials are an exhibition, the Aiken Steeplechase, scheduled for March 21 at Ford Conger Field, is the first competitive event of the season sanctioned by the National Steeplechase Association.
A purse of about $90,000 is expected for the races, which normally attract more than 20,000 spectators.
Horses and riders compete in steeplechase races by jumping over fences on a grass track.
Horses competing in steeplechase races tend to be older than the horses in the trials. Steeplechase horses 10-years-old and older are not uncommon, said Steeplechase organizer Girl Conger.
The Aiken Harness races will take place March 28 at the newly renamed McGhees' Mile Track.
Bruce McGhee, who took over ownership of the track in June with his wife, Janis, said he's excited about operating a track in what he considers one of the nation's premier horse-related communities.
"There is everything here in Aiken anybody could want, particularly if you're geared toward horses," Mr. McGhee said. "They couldn't have built a better place for horses."
About 5,000 people usually attend the races, which feature trotters and pacers. The race serves as a warmup for the competitive harness racing season in the North.
The talent pool for the races was reduced recently after a horse owner withdrew about 50 horses from the track before relocating them to North Carolina, Mr. McGhee said.
But the McGhees have bought 10 horses to help fill out the race lineups, which they predict will have a similar participation level as last year.
The event most likely will feature eight races with three or four horses participating in each, Mr. McGhee estimated.
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