Originally created 03/27/04

Dust settles for horse track owner after property battle



AIKEN - Bruce McGhee says he's seeing things more clearly this year.

For the first time since he moved to Aiken in 1997, he won't be the host of the last leg of the Aiken Triple Crown, which was a harness racing event during his tenure but is being replaced today by a polo tournament.

He's not butting heads with city officials over land rights issues or fending off petitioners who want to designate his property historic.

"This is living, see," he said Thursday at his Banks Mill Road track. "Fighting with the city is existing."

But Mr. McGhee's battle and reminders of the ugly war he waged with historic petitioners are still fresh. About a month ago he got notice that a judge had denied an appeal over a 2-year-old lawsuit, which was filed to bar Mr. McGhee from serving alcohol at his track.

Kiki Blalock, who started the historic petition and filed the suit against Mr. McGhee and the city for granting him permission to serve alcohol, said she didn't have any comment on the McGhees' Mile Track.

Mr. McGhee, 75, said the judge's decision meant little, adding that he might never build a restaurant or new grooms' quarters at his track. Even though he has the city's blessing, he said he's tired of jumping through regulatory hoops.

It took him more than a year and $50,000 in legal fees to stop dozens of petitioners, including his competitor Jack Wetzel, who co-owns Ford Conger Field, to keep his land from being declared historic. That, Mr. McGhee said, would have stifled his development plans because of regulations attached with the designation.

He argued his case before three municipal panels, including the Aiken City Council. Officials eventually narrowed the city historic commission's power by erasing the part of city code that allowed 10 petitioners to push for a historic designation on property they don't own.

That victory does little to appease Mr. McGhee. The city still won't allow him to park RVs on his land, something he says would make his track more marketable to harness trainers.

He said he turned two trainers away this winter who wanted to board about 30 horses at his track because of the restriction.

But even without them, Mr. McGhee now has a healthy slug of revenue flowing in - enough so he could have put on a harness race for the third leg of the Triple Crown, he said.

That wasn't the case when he backed out of the deal.

"We could have put it on, but we didn't know it," he said.

University of South Carolina Aiken Athletics Director Randy Warrick tells a slightly different story. He said event organizers decided to make the shift to polo, the ancient Sport of Kings that is enjoying a revival that has added energy to Aiken's horse community.

A key factor in this decision was the difficulty Mr. McGhee was having putting a race day together because harness racing is on the decline and fewer trainers are wintering in the city, Mr. Warrick said.

IF YOU GO:

WHAT: The Aiken Polo Round Robin Tournament

WHEN: Competition at 2 p.m. Gates open at 11 a.m. Lunch at 12:30 p.m.

WHERE: Powderhouse Polo Field, Powderhouse Road

TICKETS: $8 in advance, $10 at the gate

PARKING: All parking is at the polo field. General parking costs $5.

Reach Josh Gelinas at (803)279-6895

or josh.gelinas@augustachronicle.com.