AIKEN -- Chaplain Richard Benner blamed himself for the overcast skies and chilly winds that threw a coldness over the meeting Saturday for the 58th running of the Aiken Trials.
After four decades in ministry to people who work with horses, Dr. Benner blew it when he picked up his tickets for the Trials, looked up thankfully at a sunny sky and prayed with the coming races on his mind, "Lord, please give us another day like this one tomorrow."
But that was Thursday.
"God is good," the 65-year-old chaplain said at the Trials after offering another prayer, first in Spanish for the growing number of Hispanics in Aiken's equine industry, then in English. "Friday was a beautiful day."
Saturday, however, was so cool that spectators huddled under afghans and wrapped numb hands around steaming cups of coffee to warm up. At the high end of the track, a few wore furs.
Most of the crowd of 8,000 toughed it out for all seven races featuring thoroughbreds training in Aiken, but enough left shivering to prompt veteran announcer Nigel Casserley to say, "To those many hardy people who stayed for the last race, thank you."
By then trumpeter Sparky Knowles was getting numb lips. The seventh time he blew the traditional post call, as thoroughbreds lined up in the starting gate, the tune was just a little thin.
But horses like a brisk frisk, and Saturday's herd had spectators placing private bets at the post -- many of them after checking Pockets' picks. James "Pockets" Carter, who runs the Track Kitchen with his wife, Carol, once was a professional groomer at some of the nation's major tracks, and he is known for educated guesses.
He was right this year on five of his seven choices, and his top pick came in second in each of the other two races.
Ensconced near the track, Linda Lucas of Aiken came prepared for the chill with an afghan, knit cap, earmuffs, boots and socks.
"I grew up on Boardman (a nearby street), and I remember walking to the Trials," she said. "I never miss, and I can tell you not to count on the weather. One year it snowed."
Tom Osborne warmed his hands near a gas grill while his wife cooked pork tenderloin and grilled sausage for their tailgate party.
"Usually the gods are with us," he said, recalling that most of the 18 years he has lived in Aiken, the first Triple Crown weekend has been glorious. "But we're here every year, even when it's cold."
His other secret weapon against the chill: four layers of clothes. The children were bundled up, too, waiting for friends to arrive. There would be up to four couples with a dozen children among them, chowing down as guests of Jim Herbert, a local Jaycee who shares his post parking with friends. The Aiken Jaycees sponsored the Trials.
By the paddock, while her brother and sister waited to see real horses, little Mary Elizabeth Kule snuggled against her daddy's chest beneath his heavy jacket on one of the coldest days of her life, considering she's just 3 months old.
Dr. John Kule and his wife, Amy, admitted the family had hoped for a warmer day for their first Trials. They had moved from Swansea, where he was a family doctor, after five years of commuting to Aiken for church and recreation.
Katie Kule, 5', and her brother Michael, 3, were rosy-cheeked in the cool air, but it was worth it. They got to see the first horses with braided manes and frisky feet prance into the paddock, ready to run.
All in all, it was a good day for the Jaycees, too. They did big business in hot boiled peanuts, hot coffee, hot fries, hot dogs and hamburgers fried in hot grease.
And folks who came to party were not deterred, setting tables with everything from smoked salmon, lobster, prime rib and pate with champagne and fine wine to much more simple fare washed down with soft drinks or beer. Some simmered pots of chili and catfish stew.
But the flowers on their tables said spring -- sprigs of forsythia and azaleas, camellias, tulips and snapdragons.
Cars lined around the Aiken Training Track told a telling tale, with plates from Florida, Georgia, North Carolina, Kentucky, Tennessee, Ohio, New Jersey and several other states.
The horse community is gearing up for an even bigger crowd at next week's Steeplechase. The Triple Crown ends a week later with the Harness Race.
Reach Margaret N. O'Shea at (803) 279-6895.
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