Aiken has a rich history in all things equestrian and is widely known as a horse lovers’ paradise.
The biggest celebration of the city’s equine heritage is the Aiken Triple Crown, which will be held for the 50th time in 2020.
Kicking off the festivities will be the Aiken Trials on March 14 at the Aiken Training Track.
Next up will be the Aiken Spring Steeplechase on March 21 at the Aiken Horse Park Foundation's Bruce's Field.
The finale, Pacers & Polo, is set for March 28 at the Powderhouse Polo Field.
Back as far as he can remember, “the Triple Crown has always been a part of my life,” said Aiken’s 52-year-old mayor, Rick Osbon. “We have aged together.”
He recalled attending his first Triple Crown event, the Aiken Trials, when he was around 5 or 6 years old.
“I sat on top of a pickup truck to watch the races,” Osbon said. “It was neat.”
The inspiration for the Aiken Triple Crown’s name was thoroughbred racing’s Triple Crown.
The three events in the Sport of Kings’ version are the Kentucky Derby, Preakness Stakes and Belmont Stakes.
The late Sam Cothran, a former Aiken Standard publisher, came up with the concept of tying together several local horse competitions, according to the late Charles “Chuck” Armour.
“It was totally his idea, but Sam never really wanted to take much credit for it,” said Armour, a former Aiken Standard sports editor, during a 2013 interview. “I’ve tried to make people give him a little bit more of a pat on the back. But he never really wanted it, and it never really happened.”
In 1970, Abraham Schultz, who lived in Massachusetts, set the stage for the Aiken Triple Crown’s birth.
He was the new owner of the Aiken Mile Track, and he wanted to conduct harness races there in the early spring to promote the facility.
At that time, the Trials had been around since the early 1940s and the Hunt Meet (the Spring Steeplechase’s former name) had been held since the mid-1960s.
In an Aiken Standard article about Schultz’s proposal, Armour wrote that it would be “a unique opportunity” to add a day of harness racing to “the existing roster, thus creating a ‘Triple Crown.’”
Armour said he was thinking about thoroughbred racing’s Triple Crown when he put together his story, and he continued to use the term regularly as he reported on the developments that led to the suggestion becoming a reality.
The Aiken Triple Crown eventually became the official name for the local three-event racing series after being approved at a meeting of the Aiken Chamber of Commerce, which had gotten involved in the effort to organize it.
The first edition of the Aiken Triple Crown was in 1971.
The Harness Races were held March 6, and the Trials took place March 13. The Hunt Meet was held March 20.
The Harness Races remained part of the Triple Crown through the 2003 edition.
Soon after that year’s series, however, Bruce McGhee, who had purchased the Aiken Mile Track and renamed it McGhees’ Mile, announced that his facility no longer would serve as the site of the Harness Races.
McGhee said that the City of Aiken had placed restrictions on him that had caused him to lose millions of dollars while operating McGhees’ Mile after he moved here from Maine.
In addition, the number of standardbreds being stabled at the track was decreasing, making it difficult to find enough horses to fill the races.
Pacers & Polo replaced the Harness Races in the Triple Crown lineup in 2004. USC Aiken’s Pacer Club teamed up with the Aiken Polo Club to create the event.
The Aiken Triple Crown “is like a huge family reunion and homecoming kind of rolled together because so many families use it as a gathering time,” said Aiken Chamber of Commerce President and CEO David Jameson. “So many folks that used to live in Aiken come back for it. And people who live in Aiken who don’t see each other frequently know where each other’s parking space is at, especially at the Spring Steeplechase. They move around to talk to each other and catch up with what has been going on.”
The Triple Crown also is a boost for Aiken’s economy.
“When you’ve got a houseful of company, you’ve got to buy more groceries and sometimes you have to look for other activities for them to do out in the community,” Jameson said. “Folks buy new clothes and prepare for the Triple Crown in so many ways. Some people have landscaping done and pine straw spread. The things they do when company is coming are what make up a lot of the economic impact of these events.”
Visitors fill hotel rooms and seats in restaurants.
“The Triple Crown is the major time of year when Aiken shows itself off to folks,” Jameson said. “It’s one of Aiken’s grand features. It separates us from so many other communities, and it’s a separation with distinction.”