AIKEN -- Racing fans lean on the rail at the Aiken Training Track each winter, watching and wondering.
It's an exquisite game of expectations. Which one will it be? When will the next "big horse" come racing out of Aiken's barns to thrill the racing world?
There have been hundreds of winners from this small Southern city where horses have the right of way and clay streets are left unpaved to cushion their hooves. The street sign at the end of one lane even orders drivers to WHOA instead of STOP.
Some argue that Aiken's greatest year was 1993, when longtime Aiken trainer MacKenzie "Mack" Miller's colt Sea Hero won the Kentucky Derby and Key Stable's American Winner won harness racing's premier event, the Hambletonian.
Greyhound, perhaps the greatest harness racehorse of all time, trained in Aiken before setting the world record for the mile in 1938, and Pete Bostwick and other steeplechase lovers also trained champions here. But the flat racing thoroughbreds always have held center stage with the public.
Aiken's other Classics winner in the decade was Dogwood Stable's Summer Squall, winner of the 1990 Preakness Stakes. Two weeks earlier, the diminutive son of Storm Bird finished second in the Kentucky Derby. Two Aiken Training Track mainstays, trainer Ron Stevens and Dogwood owner Cot Campbell, still cherish that Preakness victory as the highlight of their careers.
Finishing third in the 1990 Kentucky Derby was Pleasant Tap, trained in Aiken for Buckland Stable by Al Darlington. Pleasant Tap went on to win the Eclipse Award (racing's Oscars, given to national champions in their divisions) a year later as Champion Older Horse. Buckland won another Eclipse Award with Pleasant Stage, the 1991 Champion Two Year Old Filly.
A fourth Eclipse Award of the 1990s came home to Aiken in 1997 when Dogwood's Storm Song won the Breeders Cup Juvenile Filly and two other important races for 2-year-olds.
And that wasn't even a stellar decade by Aiken racing standards.
Eight Aiken-trained horses won national championships in the 1980s. Seven horses from Aiken won a total of eight Eclipse Awards in the 1970s and 10 Aiken-trained horses are given credit for 21 national championships in the 1960s. Going back to the 1950s, four horses from here won 11 championships, and six Aiken-trained runners brought home nine Eclipse Awards during the 1940s.
The Aiken Training Track was established in 1941 under the direction of Greentree Stable's legendary John Gaver. Since then, the track has been run only by local trainers Mike Freeman and current President Ron Stevens.
Including Sea Hero, three Aiken-trained horses have won the Kentucky Derby. The other two were Pleasant Colony in 1981 and Swale in 1984.
The U.S. Horse of the Year came from the Aiken Training Track barns along Two Notch Road four times: Capot in 1949, (second in the Derby and winner of both the Preakness and the Belmont); Tom Fool, who won four Eclipse Awards, including the top honor in 1949; Kelso, perhaps the greatest handicapper of all time, who won 10 Eclipse Awards, including Horse of the Year five years in a row from 1960 through 1964; and Conquistador Cielo after his win in the Belmont Stakes in 1982.
Kelso, a gelding, was a late-comer to Aiken. With no stud career to train for, he came here after his flat racing career to learn a new job as a steeplechase racer.
Conquistador Cielo was the first of trainer Woody Stephens' five Belmont Stakes winners in a row. Caveat, Swale, Creme Fresh and Danzig Connection were taught how to be racehorses in the Stephens barn close to the track office.
Although Mr. Stephens made his winter residence in Aiken during his early years, he later started visiting a few times during the season and left the winter training of these five, and dozens of other winners, to assistants Dave Donk and Billy Badgett.
Mr. Donk later won five graded stakes -- three and $1 million in 1995 alone -- with a horse named Awad, who was trained by Suzie Haslip in Aiken during several winters.
One of Aiken's greatest champions was Buckland Farm's Pleasant Colony -- sire to Pleasant Tap, Pleasant Stage and 1993 Belmont winner Colonial Affair, who was trained by Aiken native Scotty Schulhofer.
Horses who have gone to the racetracks of the world with names that included some form of Pleasant or Colony usually were tall and broad-shouldered like their sire. They usually developed late and ran well in distance races, coming from off the pace. They have another common trait -- winning.
Pleasant Colony won the 1981 Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes before a third-place finish in the Belmont dashed the town's Triple Crown dreams. He received the Eclipse Award as Champion Three Year Old Colt, but lost the top prize of Horse of the Year to the incomparable handicap horse John Henry, another great gelding whose bloodline ended with him.
Mr. Miller already was a member of the national Thoroughbred Hall of Fame when he stood with longtime owner Paul Mellon watching Sea Hero win at Churchill Downs.
His colt Fit to Fight won 14 of 26 starts, including the New York Triple Crown in 1984. Mr. Miller is the only trainer to win the Eclipse Award on grass three times, with Assagai (1966), Hawaii (1969) and Snow Knight (1975). He won an Eclipse Award with co-champion 2-year-old filly Leallah in 1956.
The stories of Aiken's trainers are as glorious as their horses.
National Hall of Fame trainers who wintered in Aiken include Mr. Gaver, Mr. Miller, Mr. Stephens, Mr. Schulhofer, Max Hirsch, Buddy Hirsch, Thomas Hitchcock Sr., H.A. Jimmy Jones, James W. Maloney and Angel Penna.
Two other great trainers who are in the Aiken Thoroughbred Hall of Fame are Mr. Freeman -- who won an Eclipse Award with Shuvee, a top filly of all time who regularly beat the colts in her 14 Grade I Stakes win in New York alone -- and now-retired Buddy Raines, one of the most colorful trainers.
Legend says Mr. Raines' father traded him for a horse when he was very young, but the wily trainer went on to have a hand in winning the 1934 Kentucky Derby with Cavalcade as an assistant to Bob Smith and won the 1962 Preakness on his own with Greek Money.
During a 1995 interview with The Augusta Chronicle, Mr. Freeman, Mr. Miller and Mr. Raines all proclaimed that the climate, the soil, the water, the traditions, the facilities and the people combine to make Aiken the finest place in the nation to train young racehorses.
So who will have the next big horse?
With about 300 young horses returning to Aiken barns this fall, it's time to start wondering again -- until the spring brings a thaw and the pounding excitement of another racing season.
Reach Stephen D. Hale at (803) 279-6895 firstname.lastname@example.org.
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