Equine competitions in March attract thousands of spectators, set records in Aiken

April 5, 2019 GMT

March in Aiken was packed with equine competitions. Major events were scheduled for every weekend, and they attracted thousands of spectators to several different venues.

The month began with the first LiftMaster Grand-Prix Eventing showcase.

And it ended with the 103rd Aiken Horse Show and the 16th edition of Pacers & Polo.

In between were the Bruce McGhee Memorial Harness Races, 77th Aiken Trials and the 53rd Aiken Spring Steeplechase.

The Trials, Spring Steeplechase and Pacers & Polo make up the Aiken Triple Crown.

In some cases this year, records were set, and in general, organizers reported positive results.

The Aiken Horse Park Foundation conducted the inaugural Grand-Prix Eventing showcase, which offered a $50,000 purse and was held March 1 and 2 at Bruce’s Field.

Olympic-medal winning riders were among the participants.

The dressage and show jumping phases of the competition took place March 1, and the cross-country phase was held March 2.

There also was a craft beer festival March 2.

The Horse Park Foundation’s vice president and treasurer, Tara Bostwick, reported the attendance was better than expected.

“We were overwhelmed by the reception and the excitement around it,” Bostwick said. “Our goal was to have 1,000 people on Saturday (March 2), and there were about 4,500. On Friday (March 1), I was astounded by the number of people who were out there in the rain watching dressage (in the morning). There had to have been over 1,000.”

The Bruce McGhee Memorial Harness Races were held at McGhees’ Mile on March 9.

Janis McGhee, whose family owns McGhees’ Mile, estimated the attendance at “around 3,500.”

There were 13 races for standardbreds and one race for miniature horses.

“Everything went pretty smoothly,” McGhee said.

Aiken Training Track President Cary Frommer described the Aiken Trials on March 16 as a “rousing success.”

There were six races for thoroughbreds and five races conducted by U.S. Pony Racing, a Maryland-based organization.

The weather was cool and there were clouds overhead, but it didn’t rain.

Describing the crowd size, she said:

“The turnout was one of the best that we’ve had in years, but I’m not sure how that translates into numbers. We sold every reserved parking space.”

The Aiken Steeplechase Association was the organizer for the Aiken Spring Steeplechase on March 23 at the Horse Park Foundation’s Bruce’s Field.

There were four races over jumps and two on the flat.

On the day of the Spring Steeplechase, Steeplechase Association President Paul Sauerborn said the attendance was 30,000 to 35,000.

Later, he revised those numbers downward to “between 25,000 and 30,000.”

Sauerborn said his original estimate was based on an increase in the number of people parking offsite. But he later determined that the loss of parking spaces at Bruce’s Field – because of facilities added to the property by the Horse Park Foundation – was responsible for much of that upswing.

“The weather couldn’t have been any nicer,” Sauerborn said. “All of the reserved parking spaces sold out. The Guarantor Tent was sold out, and there were almost 800 people in there.”

In addition, sales of Aiken Steeplechase Association apparel increased from last March.

Because of a marketing agreement with Unique Expressions, an Aiken gift shop, “we probably sold twice as much this year,” Sauerborn said.

The Aiken Horse Show, a major fundraiser for the Hitchcock Woods Foundation, was held March 29-31 in Hitchcock Woods.

The number of riders entered, 148, was a record, reported the event’s director, Dana Massey.

Hitchcock Woods Foundation Administrator Joanne Gunnell said the luncheons in the big white tent March 30 and 31 were sold out, with approximately 350 people dining there each day.

There were 250 to 275 diners in the tent for Picnic in the Woods on March 29.

Spectators outside the tent numbered around 450 during the Horse Show’s three-day run, Gunnell said.

The renewal of Pacers & Polo was March 30 at the Powderhouse Polo Field.

“Our railside spaces were sold out,” said Leslie Hull-Ryde, director of news and information for USC Aiken. “We had 450 people in the VIP Tent, and we made a record high of $4,500 on the silent auction, which will go toward Alumni Association and legacy scholarships.”