Originally created 03/25/01

Races draw diverse crowd



AIKEN - Rich folks, rebels and race fans rubbed elbows Saturday during Aiken's official first day of spring.

What a shindig they had.

From a Southern belle belting out big band lyrics under a covered tent to modern-day cowboys in Stetson hats hollering for the horse they had bet a beer on.

Such were the scenes at the 35th running of the Aiken Spring Steeplechase, where it "doesn't matter if you're a working man or a millionaire, 'cause everybody has a good time," said Roddie Busby of Montmorenci.

Mr. Busby said he has been hugging the rails at Ford Conger Field since 1967, when mules ran for money after the real racehorses wowed descendants of Aiken's famed Winter Colony crowd.

The Winter Colony, which once numbered more than 100 wealthy households, introduced the horse industry and other social amenities alien to a small, inland village at the turn of the century.

Today, mules aren't a part of the steeplechase scene. In 1967, they ran loose and Mr. Busby and a few other fellows had to catch up with them on Pine Log Road, a few miles from the track.

The steeplechase is the oldest jewel in the Aiken Triple Crown, replicating a sport that goes back 250 years to a time when young English and Irish noblemen proved which horses were best in the county by racing them from one church steeple to the next.

The Aiken tradition began in Hitchcock Woods in 1931 and was a great success from the start. Today, it is still the most popular of the three races and attended by as many as 20,000 people when the weather is right. And right it was Saturday, which had organizers predicting a record crowd of 35,000.

Horses that run in the Aiken Spring Steeplechase no longer train in Aiken, but the featured Imperial Cup has come to be a coveted prize - and this year's $30,000 cash - in American Steeplechasing. Most of the nation's top trainers and mounts travel to the area to try for it.

Spectator Janet Larson was among the masses. She has lived in Aiken for five years but was either delivering babies or on call at an Augusta hospital when the steeplechase rolled around. Not this year, although she was tending to three children of her own, including 6-month-old twins.

Her first observation: "There's quite an assortment of people here, but that's what makes it fun."

Reach Chasiti Kirkland at (803) 279-6895.