AIKEN - For the next three Saturdays, thousands of people are expected to crowd the 1-square-mile area that is the center of Aiken's horse community.
They'll come for the horse racing - whether it's the thoroughbreds thundering on a flat track today, jumpers clearing tall rail barriers next week or trotters in harness, pulling jockeys in stripped-down buggies two weeks from now.
It is the start of "the season" - both the racing season of spring and summer and the social season. Fans come to the track to cheer the horses, but they also show up for the food and the friends.
Tailgating is an art form at these events, ranging from a laid-back style that features a pickup order of chicken wings to more formal affairs where catering is a no-no and elaborate preparation is done trackside.
The races are the equestrian version of the Masters Tournament, offering a season of ringing cash registers for Aiken merchants.
"The Triple Crown is huge for our business," said Sam Erb, the owner of the West Side Bowery, a downtown Aiken restaurant, and former owner of Newberry Hall, which does a large amount of catering during the Triple Crown.
Today the racing season begins, with the first leg of the Aiken Triple Crown. The Aiken Trials, a flat-track race at the Aiken Training Track, is in its 61st year.
The track is in good shape after getting its first complete makeover. Six races are set for today. The first and last each have six entrants - the most on the card.
Trainer W.C. Freeman of Freeman Stables, with 53 years in the sport, has one horse in the fifth trial for 3-year-old maidens, which are horses that have run but never won.
Mr. Freeman said this spring's rain and mild temperatures have hampered training a bit, but the horses will learn a lot from their moment in the sun.
The Trials are pegged as a dress rehearsal - complete with the excitement of thousands of cheering fans along the rail - for bigger, future races. Many horses who have run in the Trials have gone on to compete in the national Triple Crown races.
In 1989, Summer Squall, owned by famed Aiken horse entrepreneur Cot Campbell and trained by Track President Ron Stevens, finished third at the Trials. It was the last race the horse failed to win until the 1990 Kentucky Derby, where it finished second. Two weeks later, the horse won the Preakness Stakes.
The Aiken Triple Crown is not just for the horses, Mr. Freeman said.
"We also want to show our appreciation to the local people," he said. "If they come to the races, they find out what it's all about."
Between 5,000 and 10,000 people are expected to attend the Trials.
The weather forecast doesn't look good, though. A 60 percent chance of rain is expected, with temperatures in the 50s.
There is no rain expected for the Aiken Steeplechase, the second leg of the Triple Crown. Held since 1931 at Ford Conger Field, just across Audubon Drive from the Aiken Training Track, the Steeplechase usually draws about 30,000 people.
The third leg - the Aiken Harness Races - is held at McGhees' Mile Track on Banks Mill Road. It also draws fans in the thousands.
IF YOU GO
WHAT: The Aiken Trials
WHERE: Aiken Training Track, Audubon Drive
WHEN: A slate of six races is set with post time at 2 p.m. Gates open at 10:30 a.m.
COST: Tickets cost $10 at the gate; general-admission parking costs $5.
Reach Matthew Boedy at (803) 648-1395 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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