Long before Secretariat secured the Triple Crown and more than a century before Churchill Downs was opened to host the Kentucky Derby, South Carolina set the standard for American horse racing.
In 1734, the first jockey club in the United States was founded in Charleston. As agriculture-rich families began to invest in prized thoroughbreds, trade with English horse breeders overseas was opened and brought the animals stateside.
Races in Edisto Island, Jacksonborough, Pocotaligo and Strawberry Ferry quickly followed and before Charleston's Hampton Park was created, far more colts than fitness-crazed residents ran around its vast acreage. The city became one of the most significant horse racing venues in the world and, at one point, had as many as 10 racetracks.
On Sunday, history and tradition are being celebrated with the Steeplechase of Charleston at the Stono Ferry Racetrack in Hollywood.
After being purchased by The Post and Courier this year, race directors and organizers are hoping to recapture an event that is the pinnacle of storied Southern culture. But they also want to create a competition that can serve as proving ground for horses, trainers and jockeys to show they have what it takes to get to the next level.
With $100,000 up for grabs among six different races, jockeys will take their horses and enter them into the spotlight of the National Steeplechase Association, thinking that a win here could mark the start of a long and successful racing career.
“Hopefully, you’ll be looking at history at the making,” said Toby Edwards, the executive director of the Carolina Cup Racing Association. “I think this will become a Southern tradition on the social calendar for quite some time.”
A whole different animal
Steeplechase racing started out as a bet.
In 1752, Irish brothers Cornelius O'Callaghan and Edmund Blake wanted to see who was the faster rider, and they decided to have a cross-country race from one church steeple to another a little more than 6 miles apart. The men ran their horses through lush grass, rolling hills and over babbling brooks.
Forty years later, a similar horse race in Charleston was held in 1792 as part of Washington Race week and even featured a 1-mile loop around Hampton Park. One significant artifact from that race course remains: In 1903, its ornate gate was gifted to Belmont Park in New York, home to the third leg of the Triple Crown.
Organized horse racing essentially ceased during the Civil War, but some Confederate soldiers still broke regulation and held their own contests when officers turned a blind eye.
A key moment of revival came shortly after the war, when Thomas Hitchcock constructed a steeplechase facility on his large, 3,000-acre property in Aiken. The National Steeplechase season actually starts with the Aiken Spring Steeplechase in March and ends with the Steeplechase of Charleston.
Steeplechase racing is a whole different animal from what many traditionally think of when it comes to horse racing. Unlike the Kentucky Derby, where horses will train for a week or more on the dirt before the "Run For The Roses," many of the Steeplechase contenders come to the track unprepared.
The thoroughbred horses are older, and heavier, than usual. They are trained in the countryside, where running on grass and jumping over obstacles is more commonplace, more natural, for them. They typically run only 10 or fewer races per year.
"It gives them a second life," said Don Clippinger, a spokesman for the National Steeplechase Association. "It builds a closer relationship with the thoroughbreds and their owners and trainers because they are running much longer than other race horses."
'Old school of horse racing'
Jockey Ross Geraghty likes the danger of steeplechase racing. The 42-year-old Ireland native said he's been dropped by horses many times during quick turns and tall hurdles. But dusting himself off is his favorite part of the sport. On Sunday, he'll ride in five of the six races.
"It certainly beats a 9-to-5 job," Geraghty said. "If you love what you do, it isn't really work now, is it?"
Steeplechase jockeys are tough. They've typically been riding for a long time on all types of terrain: dirt, grass, mud, just name it. Some are professional, but many are amateurs from overseas trying to make a name for themselves stateside. They are also heavier than their counterparts who run on other terrains, and they have to be able to hold on tight while the thoroughbred is leaping over a hurdle.
Sunday's race was supposed to determine the winner of the National Steeplechase title. Two jockeys were vying for the honor, but one of them broke his jaw during a race this week. Michael Mitchell, the unscathed rider, decided to split the national title with his competitor.
"If I was going to run and win, I wanted to earn it," Mitchell said. "In this sport, there is huge risk, especially with the unpredictability of it. You're running fast, you're jumping high. It's a very humbling sport."
While Steeplechase racing is hard work for jockeys, it's a relaxing spectacle for attendees.
Many flat horse racing tracks are more like football stadiums, where the audience pays more attention to their odds books or watches the race on a massive LED screen. If it's a race like the Preakness Stakes or the Kentucky Derby, half of the audience may be standing in the infield or slopping in the mud after one too many mint juleps.
Steeplechase races are not like that.
"It's a different experience," Clippinger said. "Steeplechase of Charleston is very family oriented. It's an experience as much as it's a horse race. People are tailgating, the kids are throwing footballs, and it's a good opportunity to see horse racing close up."
Audience members can get up close to the railing, and they can peak over as the horses vault and ride the corners on the turn.
In South Carolina, betting on horse racing is not allowed. Still, many feel that steeplechase racing has continued to thrive because of its emphasis on the sport itself, not the dollars being thrown around because of it.
Steeplechase of Charleston was owned by The Randolph Co., which operated the race since 1986. When The Post and Courier purchased the race this year, Evening Post Industries Chairman Pierre Manigault said he wanted to highlight the unique nature of steeplechase racing.
"Steeplechase represents the old school of horse racing when owners and trainers had smaller, more intimate stables and raced more for bragging rights than checks," he said. "Also, they’re usually held in lovely rural, pastoral settings, which makes for a wonderful day in the country."