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Aiken Thoroughbred Racing Hall of Fame and Museum still going strong amid pandemic

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Since reopening in December after a months-long pandemic closure, Lisa Hall said it's been pretty much business as usual at the Aiken Thoroughbred Racing Hall of Fame and Museum.

Hall, the museum's coordinator, said that while the number of people inside is limited to 12 and protocols for mask-wearing and hand sanitizing have been put in place, "we’re still open."

The local Hall of Fame has been located on the grounds of Hopelands Gardens since its grand opening in the 1970s. Hall has been involved in its management since 2000, even though she's technically been retired since 2015.

“I left on a Friday and came back on a Monday,” Hall said.

The 40 champion thoroughbreds who have trained at the famed Aiken Training Track are immortalized in the Aiken Thoroughbred Racing Hall of Fame and Museum, and there are also permanent exhibits throughout the museum.

There are also exhibits that rotate in-and-out or new ones that come around, Hall said.

The museum recently featured an exhibit on James Smiley, a Black steeplechase jockey who was born in Aiken, in honor of Black History Month.

Hall said she has the next two new exhibits planned out: one on Ted Atkinson and one on the Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation. Atkinson used to ride in the Aiken Trials before he became a famous jockey, Hall said.

She also said Atkinson rode for Greentree Stables and rode on Tom Fool, who is in the Hall of Fame. Hall said that Atkinson's granddaughter was supposed to speak at Breakfast at the Gallops this year, before the event was canceled due to coronavirus safety concerns.

However, the exhibit will still go up and the granddaughter will speak at next year's breakfast, Hall said.

During the last part of March to around mid-April, the exhibit on the Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation, which takes care of horses after they finish their racing career, will go up. The foundation does a program called Second Chances, where horses visit prisons around the country and inmates learn how to take care of and feed the horses.

"So, hopefully, they will have a skill when they have completed their sentence," Hall said. "South Carolina’s a big horse state. It’s not just thoroughbreds. We’ve got carriage driving, we’ve got polo, we’ve got rodeo. Those skills they learn could be applied anywhere, not just for thoroughbred racing."

Hall said her favorite exhibit in the museum is about Blue Peter, one of the horses honored in the Hall of Fame, who is buried at the Aiken Training Track. She said her office has two walls full of Blue Peter memorabilia and items.

"All the docents will tell you I am obsessed," Hall said with a laugh.

Hall said she encourages residents to come out and visit the museum, as well as Hopelands Gardens, located at 135 Dupree Place.

"If you are any kind of fan of history, any kind of fan of Aiken, or whether you like horses or not, this is a great place to come to learn about why Aiken has become what it has become: a great sports town, a great horse town," Hall said.

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