Steeplechase races return to Stono Ferry this weekend

Stono Ferry, site of the Charleston Cup races in the fall, is hosting the inaugural Charleston Trials on Sunday.

The March horse racing calendar in South Carolina just got a little more crowded.

The first edition of the Charleston Trials, featuring three races on the flat and two steeplechase races, will be held Sunday at Stono Ferry in Hollywood, helping fill out a busy month of horse racing in the state that kicks off with the Aiken Trials thoroughbred races on Saturday.

In addition, the Aiken Steeplechase will be held March 23, as well as an 11-race mixed card of quarterhorse and thoroughbred racing on the flat at the Elloree Trials.

The state’s biggest event, the Carolina Cup steeplechase races, is March 30 in Camden.

Karl McMillan, race director for the Charleston Cup, a fall fixture at Stono Ferry that will feature its 20th running this year, said the organization has always wanted a spring complement to the Cup and thus the time has come for the Charleston Trials.

“We’ve always wanted to have a spring race. It’s just been solving the logistics of putting it all together,” McMillan said. “But a unique opportunity presented itself from the National Steeplechase Association. They came to us wanting to get a trial or a warm-up early in the season to help horses get ready for the Carolina Cup.”

Goree Smith, organizer of the Elloree Trials, says the Charleston Trials will be a welcome addition to horse racing in South Carolina.

“March is horse racing month in South Carolina,” Smith said. “For about three or four weekends, there’s racing somewhere. I’d like to see even more racing events in South Carolina. It’s good for the sport.”

While the Charleston Trials races won’t count in the National Steeplechase Association’s point standings, the races should draw some of the nation’s best horses as they prep for the Carolina Cup, one of the bigger events on the association’s calendar.

McMillan is hoping locals will support the spring races as well as they have the Charleston Cup races in the fall, an event that draws as many as 15,000 spectators.

The Trials will also offer fans a chance to get in on the ground floor of a new event.

“Many of the best spots in the fall races have been locked up for years,” McMillan said. “So this is an opportunity to lock in on a reserved parking space. We’re not tying the fall and spring races together, so if you reserve a space for the Charleston Trials in the spring, you will have right of first refusal for that spot next spring as well.”

McMillan hopes the Charleston Trials will be the start of a new tradition, and at the same time a renewal of a much older one.

“Historically, horse racing in Charleston was always in the spring,” McMillan said. “Prior to the Civil War, it was tied to the St. Cecilia Ball and the debutante parties. We hope to tie into the history of racing in Charleston and start what we hope will be a new tradition and an opportunity for people to make this part of their spring season.”