AIKEN, S.C. — The first chance to watch Belmont Stakes winner Palace Malice in action was canceled.
The track was frozen at 8:30 a.m., the scheduled time that the public was invited to watch the champion horse train. Here in South Carolina near the Georgia line, it hasn’t been nearly as cold and miserable as it is back home, but coats, hats, and gloves are needed on most days.
The early morning freeze didn’t totally deter Cot Campbell, Palace Malice owner, from letting the Aiken community see the horse that brought home $1 million last June from the third jewel in thoroughbred racing’s Triple Crown. He simply rescheduled it for that afternoon at 1:30 when the training track had thawed and more than 100 of the bay colt’s fans lined the fence to watch the horse make two quick laps.
Aiken is horse country, to be sure, and you can’t be here very long without learning more about the sport of kings. Well-kept stables are on many of the large estates. Horse mannequins, exquisitely decorated by local artists, stand throughout the city. It is not uncommon to see people in their riding gear strolling downtown, and the track kitchen for breakfast is the best place to be in the thick of the horse circle.
At the Carriage House Inn, where I have stayed several times, I look forward to the communal breakfast table and chatting with people who are attracted to Aiken because it satisfies their equestrian interests. Carrots in a silver goblet on a sideboard at the inn, for guests’ horses instead of mints, are but one clue of the city’s main attraction. Last week I met a woman who is moving here from Dallas with her ponies and carriage.
Greeting the crowd of onlookers before Palace Malice’s grand entrance from Dogwood Stable, Mr. Campbell was all smiles as he thanked everyone for coming out on a cold day and for many of us for a second time because of the morning cancellation. Opening the brief track exercise to the public is said to get the horse accustomed to crowds as well as to show him off, but there are others who say the winning thoroughbred is personable and is so aware of cameras that he turns his head for a better profile.
The 86-year-old horseman assured the crowd that Palace Malice was more than ready to get out of the barn and take to the track.
“He’s anxious to go and to train,” Mr. Campbell said. “It took two people to get him out of the barn and two to put him back this morning. This is good weather for him.”
Palace Malice is a handsome 3-year-old that was born in Kentucky but raised and trained in Aiken. In a national TV interview after the 145th Belmont Stakes win, Mr. Campbell said, “They will be dancing in the streets of Aiken tonight.”
A cheerleader for the city he has called home since 1986, Mr. Campbell knows he found the right place.
“If you are involved in thoroughbred race horses, the ideal place to make your home is Aiken, because there’s a great appreciation for the horse here,” he said.
Since the famous thoroughbred was returned to his home stable after Belmont, the Aiken Standard newspaper has published notices of his training and grazing schedule, but the day that I joined the fan club was his farewell to Aiken before traveling to Boynton, Fla., and training at Gulfstream Park for his next big race in New Orleans.
Mr. Campbell’s lifetime dream of being involved with thoroughbreds came true in 1973 when he gave up a successful advertising business and bought a horse.
“What a fabulous life I have had,” he said in reference to his career change. “Palace Malice has come along in the twilight of my career and that is especially gratifying.”
He has received numerous awards in the horse-racing industry and will receive the Person of the Year in Aiken award on March 16 at the Aiken Thoroughbred Racing Hall of Fame and Museum.
Mr. Campbell also tries to make sure that the unsung heroes of horse racing are recognized. In 1993 he established the Dogwood Dominion Award to honor trainers, grooms, exercise riders, and others who work out of the spotlight.
Mr. Campbell credits his wife of 54 years, Anne, for being involved in the Dogwood award program and in all aspects of his life.
More about his life is recorded in his books, Lightning in a Jar, Rascals and Racehorses, and Memoirs of a Long Shot.
Mary Alice Powell is a retired Blade food editor. Contact her at: firstname.lastname@example.org.