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Saturday, August 23, 2014
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Published: Sunday, 4/10/2005

Steeplechase is mix of sport, socializing

Leaning over the black wood railing with digital camera poised, could I possibly get a perfect shot of the horses leaping majestically over the high hedge? If the guy next to me hadn't been so pushy I might have had better luck. Or if the old knees were strong enough to bend so that I could squat down, I could have aimed between the fence rails; it would have been an easier mark.

But, alas, I must be content to focus in memory on the beauty and excitement of my first steeplechase in Aiken, S.C. My pictures do not capture the thundering hoofs, the roar of the crowd, but most especially the leap of the horses 100 yards from my vantage point. I suppose mastering the digital camera will be a lot like the cell phone and the computer. I will get by, but never quite get the hang of the many options.

I didn't even know what a steeplechase was when Aiken friends Richard Enk and Gene Roach suggested I adjust my return driving route from Florida through Aiken for the semi annual event, scheduled for Easter Saturday.

Now that I know the origin of the sport, it's no wonder I have become a fan. It's Irish. A four-mile race from St. John's Church at Buttevant, Ireland to St. Mary's Church in Doneraile in 1752 is recorded as the first steeplechase. Because the church steeples were the tallest landmarks on the landscape they were the racing marks and the idea of chasing to the steeple became known as steeplechase.

American steeplechasing is mostly in the eastern states from March through November. The National Steeplechase Association is in Fair Hill, Md. They are off and running in April and May. Check www.nationalsteeplechase.com for schedules.

Aiken, a horse town, boasts steeplechase grounds, where meets are held each spring and fall, along with several polo fields and a 2,000-acre urban park with riding trails. It was the 39th steeplechase in the city 20 miles from the Georgia border.

I have never attended the Kentucky Derby, but I will wager that the hats worn by Aiken women are as large, lovely, and flamboyant as those that will be worn at the Derby in May. Everything I wrote on Easter Sunday about women not wearing hats anymore was incorrect the day of steeplechase. I had the good sense to wear a rainbow-striped, wide-brimmed cotton hat, but it looked like a beach hat compared to the stunning straw, silk, and tulle designs the Aiken ladies donned for the occasion, and each hat coordinated with fashionable tea-length ensembles. Retail hat displays were also prominent at vendor booths on the inner field.

The steeplechase is, to say the least, a social affair that begins the night before at a formal dinner dance attended by 500 supporters. On steeplechase day, 1,000 ticket holders who dress to the nay arrive two hours before the first race to strut their stuff and for a lavish buffet in a colossal white tent.

What's on a southern buffet that would never be seen "up north?" Shrimp and grits, as an appetizer or a main dish, has come to be a personal favorite. As a matter of fact it was my entree choice at Amanda's in downtown Aiken the night before. The high, wide, and gorgeous floral table designs at the steeplechase brunch were so striking I thought for a minute that Toledo's Keith Brooks had done them. Hundreds of other fans comprise a dress-down crowd that opts for tailgate picnics. The closer their reserved picnic space is to the rail the more they pay for it, up to $400.

After a champagne toast, it was hang on to your hat in the breeze and scurry to the rail to watch the first race, to hear the bugle sound, and watch the nine steeds round the bend in a thundering herd and hope they would clear the hedge. It was more exciting than a standard horse race with bleachers and a betting counter. Both were missing at the steeplechase.

I was glad that I couldn't bet the customary $2 because I would have won the first two and lost the next three. Steeplechasing is done on grass and not turf. "Flat" racing is included, but the jumps are the thrills. In Aiken the track had 14 jumps and each was 52 inches high.

The possibility of a horse falling in the jumps is a definite negative in my point of view. Then a canvas is put over the injured animal and it is taken away and may be put down.

Thankfully we didn't stay for the last race. That evening we were told two horses fell. Seeing that could have ruined a perfect day in South Carolina.



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