Originally created 03/24/01

Aiken remembers a legend



AIKEN - He told stories of real life and legend.

But with Sandy Cassatt, it was hard to know the difference. His friends say that's what made Alexander Johnston Cassatt Jr. the man they called "Sandy." That and his Irish charm.

The storyteller retired Aug. 28, the day he died at Aiken Regional Medical Centers. He was 67. But his tales - a little more fabricated every time they're told - still linger around the Track Kitchen, where the horse trainer sometimes ate breakfast, or during a drag in Hitchcock Woods as the former master of Aiken Hounds led a mad dash through America's oldest urban forest.

"The horsing community is going to miss him," said trainer Ron Stevens. "We already do. He was a real personality. Everybody knew Sandy Cassatt."

Mr. Cassatt was born into money in Philadelphia, and with immediate name recognition. He was the great-grandnephew of painter Mary Cassatt. She was the only American - and the only woman - invited by the French Impressionists to show with them because they recognized in her a kindred spirit and powerful talent. She also championed Impressionism in the United States.

Some of that talent rubbed off on nephew Sandy, too, who loved holding a paintbrush as much as a set of reins.

He moved to Aiken in the mid-1980s and settled down on a sprawling horse farm. Before that, life had taken him into Mexico, where he trained thoroughbreds, and to Illinois, where he managed two horse farms.

It seemed only natural that he'd finally found a home in Aiken, where horses have the right of way and where race fans lean on the rail at the Training Track each winter watching and wondering in a game of expectations. Later, around St. Patrick's Day, the fans wager on those expectations when the whole town turns out to watch young thoroughbreds take their first-ever lap around a track in front of a rowdy crowd.

Mr. Cassatt was always there. The trainer and jockey in him couldn't pass it by. More than likely, he had a horse in the Aiken Trials. He always told visitors Aiken was the best winter home a racehorse ever had.

"We lost a world-class raconteur, bon vivant, companion and friend," said Cot Campbell, owner of Dogwood Stables. "He was a perfect example of the oft-used expression, `They don't make'em like that anymore."'

Mr. Cassatt's family tree reveals a long romance with steeplechasing, where young Irish riders risked life and limb more than two centuries ago to prove whose horse was fastest. In 1895, his grandfather was on the original board of directors of the National Steeplechase Association, a position the younger Mr. Cassatt assumed in the 1990s.

He also is credited with helping make the Aiken Steeplechase this city's rite of passage.

"He was an amazing force in helping my dad make the Steeplechase what it is today," Georgianna Conger-Wolcott said of Mr. Cassatt.

Ford Conger Field, where the races are held, was named for her father. He saw it become one of the premier horse events in the Southeast and helped inaugurate a successful Fall Steeplechase in 1992, which continues to run the Saturday before Thanksgiving.

Reach Chasiti Kirkland at (803) 279-6895 or scbureau@augustachronicle.com.