Wednesday, February 4, 2009

A Horse Park for Aiken?

On Wednesday afternoon January 21, word spread like a line of flame through the horse community: there was to be an open forum at the University of South Carolina Aiken Convocation Center, to discuss the construction of a large-scale, international-quality horse park in the city. Numerous horsemen from the show, event, hunt and driving worlds joined realtors and other people connected with Aiken’s equestrian world. The meeting room suddenly didn’t have quite enough chairs.

“Only around 30 people R.S.V.P’d,” apologized one of the organizers, Mary Ann Keisler, who is director of tourism at Thoroughbred Country, an organization dedicated to promoting the hospitality industry in western South Carolina. “And there are many more of you here than we expected.”

It turned out that the meeting wasn’t about a horse park. Rather, it was a forum conducted by Robert Cleverdon, director of an Ireland-based company called Tourism Development International, to solicit ideas and opinions about how to promote Aiken and Edgefield Counties as tourist destinations. Tourism Development International is a consulting firm that was hired by South Carolina’s Department of Parks, Recreation and Tourism to create a comprehensive tourism plan for the state. One option in that plan calls for solidifying Aiken’s reputation as an equestrian destination by making it the location of a horse park that could be used for shows, clinics and other equestrian events.

Robert Cleverdon had an agenda that he tried to follow during the meeting. That agenda included identifying various things other than the equestrian life that might attract tourists. The meeting was also intended to address potential tourist attractions in Edgefield County. Several people had made the trip to USCA from Edgefield, and they may have been eager to discuss historic houses, Native American archeological sites and bike trails in their neighborhoods. However, the overwhelming majority of attendees were horse people from Aiken. They had come to talk about a horse park, and that is what they did.

Cleverdon, an Englishman, didn’t appear to understand exactly what was happening. He would ask if people in Aiken wanted more museums, and someone would reply that they thought a horse park would be good for the area because it would complement the many great equestrian facilities we already have. He would suggest that we could develop our waterways to attract more tourists, and someone else would answer that they worried that the horse park might detract from the charm of Aiken. Although a horse park was, indeed, one of the official topics of discussion, after a few rounds on the subject, Mr. Cleverdon tried, with little success, to get people to stop bringing it up. The end result was perhaps a bit disappointing for horsemen and Englishmen alike, since neither got to explore the topics that interested them in any depth.

Tourism Development International will be making recommendations to the Department of Parks, Recreation and Tourism, and they might even suggest developing a horse park for Aiken. However, in the current economic climate, it is unlikely that the state would be able to do anything in the near future. Funds for creating such a facility would have to come from a public-private partnership, and even then, the state would have to be on firmer financial footing before considering such a thing.

What the forum did prove was that Aiken’s horsemen are very eager to talk about a horse park. Following the meeting, Deirdre Stoker Vaillancourt, a realtor with Meybohm and a horsewoman, spoke with Representative Tim Young, a state legislator who was eager to pursue the idea further. Several area horsemen are planning to set up meetings that really are about a horse park, both to explore its possible impact on the area and to determine ways that it could be made a reality. Stay for the latest updates.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Eventing News

There can be no doubt that Aiken is the place to be this winter if you are an eventer. Not only are there competitions, training and schooling opportunities galore, pretty much everyone is here. This year that includes riders from the United States Equestrian Federation’s winter training list of “Developing” riders as well as a selection of elite riders in consideration for the United States Eventing Team that will compete at international events in the coming years.

The riders will train at Three Runs Plantation, an equestrian development on the Southside. There will be three sessions, held on February 17-21, March 4-6 and March 17-19. On February 18, riders will train over the cross country course at Paradise Farm on route 302 east of town. Captain Mark Phillips, who recently renewed his contract as the U.S. chef d’√©quipe, will work with the riders. Wayne Raeford, who is the owner and developer of Three Runs, will be holding a V.I.P. brunch at the Three Runs clubhouse on February 19 with proceeds to benefit the USEF.

Other eventing extras this winter include a USEF benefit gala cocktail party and silent auction held at Phillip Dutton’s Red Oak Farm in Bridle Creek on the evening of March 6. This will be the second of five annual parties that Evie Dutton (Phillip’s wife) and Dineen Daniels (Bridle Creek’s co-owner and developer) are organizing in order to assist the USEF. Phillip Dutton will speak about the 2008 Hong Kong Olympics and there will be a silent auction and bountiful hors d’oeuvres. There is also a possibility that Gina Miles, who won the individual silver medal at the Games, will fly in from California. Tickets are $55 and can be purchased at Meybohm Realtors’ downtown office until February 27.

Horsemen might also want to check out the “That’s a Promise” tour, put on by Pennfield Feeds. Pennfield, a Pennsylvania-based company, feeds many of the horses on the U.S. Eventing Team, including horses owned by Phillip Dutton. Another Pennfield-fed horse, Jamaica, a driving horse owned by Chester Weber, was recently named the USEF Horse of the Year. The “That’s a Promise” tour starts in Florida and will be in Aiken on March 10. The evening will include talks about equine nutrition, the chance to meet Olympic riders, sip wine and sample hors d’oeuvres and compete for the opportunity to win a training session with an Olympian. Proceeds will benefit the USEF Young Rider program. For tickets and more information:

Monday, February 2, 2009

Sharer Dale is Jumping Higher

Sharer Dale, a professional realtor and amateur rider who recently relocated to Aiken from Chagrin Falls, Ohio, has been supplementing her income by outjumping the pros at this winter’s Progressive Show Jumping events. At the Aiken Winter Classic at the end of December, she was fifth in the $10,000 Mini Prix riding her horse Antares, then won the $5,000 Welcome Stake with Antares and took second with her other top jumper Gerry 79. At the Aiken Winter Classic II in early January, she came back to win the $10,000 Mini Prix, again riding Antares. In the jump-off, she bested Daniel Geitner, a top local professional, by nearly six seconds.

“My guys are really good,” says Shari, speaking of her horses. “I bought Antares off a video nine years ago when he was 6. I had told Wilhelm Genn that I needed a horse with a sense of humor, and he picked out Antares for me. Antares was in Germany. The video was of him jumping with a 13-year-old girl riding him. He was obviously so forgiving, with such heart. Every time he came around a corner and saw a fence, his ears would just shoot forward. I knew he was the right horse for me. I could never replace him.”

In addition to her seasoned campaigners, Shari also has two young horses she is excited about. Over the winter she and Sarah Thompson, the Aiken veterinarian, went down to Argentina where they bought three horses from La Tatabra, the best-known breeder of jumping horses in that country. One horse is for Sarah, the other two are for Shari. These horses are just coming 4 this year, so it will be a while before their jumping careers really take off, but watch out for them in the future. Shari keeps her horses at home and rides with Drasius Arkus. When she is not on a horse winning jumper classes, Shari works at Meybohm downtown

Midshipman to Aiken TB Hall of Fame

New Addition to TB Hall of Fame
After a 12-year drought, the Aiken Thoroughbred Hall of Fame will induct a racing champion this spring. Midshipman, a colt owned by Darley and started at the Aiken Training Track under Stonerside’s Tim Jones, won the Eclipse Award for outstanding Juvenile (2-year-old) Colt of 2008. He will be the first horse inducted into the Hall of Fame since Dogwood Stables’ Storm Song won the Eclipse as the outstanding Juvenile Filly of 1996.

Midshipman was sired by Unbridled’s Song, one of the top ten money-earning sires of 2008. His dam, Avenue of Flags, was a multiple graded stakes winning mare from California, who won $631,190 on her way to becoming California’s champion 3-year-old filly of 1997 and champion older female of 1998. Midshipman started his racing career on August 17 with a win at Del Mar (California), followed on September 3 by a win in the Grade I Del Mar Futurity. He was second in the Grade I Norfolk Stakes, and capped his 2-year-old year by winning the Bessemer Trust Breeders’ Cup Juvenile on October 25. His performance was good enough to make him the overwhelming winner in the Eclipse Award voting, garnering 195 votes, some 160 ahead of his closest competitor.

Midshipman was one of the horses that Bob and Janice McNair sold to Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al Makhtoum as part of the sheikh’s deal to buy Stonerside Stables back in September. Now a part of Darley Stables and a winner of $1.38 million, he was one of five young horses from that outfit to fly back to Dubai this December, presumably in preparation for a run at the United Arab Emirates Derby in late March. If all goes well, perhaps he will be stateside again on the first Saturday in May. Aiken always loves rooting for an Aiken-connected Kentucky Derby contender.

Induction into the Aiken Thoroughbred Hall of Fame is an honor that has been bestowed upon 39 horses, including Midshipman. To qualify, a horse must be recognized as a champion by winning an Eclipse Award, and must have trained in Aiken at some point in its career. Midshipman was not the only horse with Aiken ties who was up for an Eclipse this year. Another contender was Eight Belles, nominated in the 3-Year-Old Filly category. Eight Belles, who trained at Legacy Stable under Ron Stevens as a 2-year-old, finished second in the Kentucky Derby before breaking down on the racetrack where she was euthanized.

The ceremony honoring Midshipman will be held on Sunday, March 15 at 12:30 p.m. at the Thoroughbred Hall of Fame and Museum in Hopeland Gardens.

Owen Rinehart to Polo Hall of Fame

Aiken has always had a stellar reputation in polo circles for attracting and producing outstanding players and ponies. Some of the best players in the history of the game have graced Aiken’s fields, including the immortal Tommy Hitchcock (1900-1944), a 10 goal player who was often considered the best player the sport had ever seen, and Adolfo Cambiaso (1975 - ) an Argentine 10-goal superstar whose reputation has even eclipsed Tommy’s. In fact, of the 21 American born players who have been awarded a 10-goal rating by the United States Polo Association, seven (a full third!) have lived and played in Aiken.

This February, another of Aiken’s players will be inducted into the National Museum of Polo Hall of Fame in Lake Worth, Florida. Owen Rinehart, who attained a 10-goal handicap in 1991, is this year’s living inductee. He joins other Aiken-connected poloists on the roster, including Pete Bostwick, Thomas, Tommy and Louise Hitchcock, Alan Corey Jr. (father of the Alan Corey who plays today) Elbridge Gerry (who attended Aiken Prep School) Philip and Stewart Iglehart, Norty Knox, Devereux Milburn, Lewis Smith, Louis Stoddard and Harry Payne Whitney.

Owen Rinehart has a long list of polo accomplishments, including wins in the U.S. Open, the U.S. Handicap, the Gold Cup, the Monty Waterbury Cup, the America Cup, the Hall of Fame Cup, the World Cup and the East Coast Open. He also played for America in the Westchester Cup in 1992, the last year that the U.S. won the historic international match against England. This year, he serves as coach for the American team in the first year that the Westchester Cup will be contested on American soil since 1939.

Although Owen has a stellar reputation as a player, he may be best known for breeding, training and developing horses. His breeding operation is one of the most well-respected in the nation, and horses bred and trained at his Isinya Farm on Langdon Road have won numerous Best Playing Pony Awards in some of the top tournaments in the country. Additionally, he was named Best Mounted Player in both the 2005 Gold Cup (played at New Bridge Polo and Country Club) and in the 2007 U.S. Open in Palm Beach.

Owen will be inducted at the 20th Annual Hall of Fame Awards Gala at the museum on Friday, February 13. Other inductees include the Aiken “Ponies to Remember” Belle of All, owned and played by Louis Stoddard; and Rotallen, owned and played by Norty Knox. The evening begins with a Champagne reception and a silent auction to benefit the Hall of Fame. There will be a seated dinner, then the awards ceremony, then dancing. Tickets are $200 per person. ( or call 561.969.3210)

Aiken Gets Arena Polo

Aiken’s polo players have been threatening to start playing arena polo here for years, and several polo enthusiasts have gone so far as to put up polo arenas. There has even been at least one exhibition game over at The Plains of Aiken development. Now, although there is no word of anyone organizing regular arena practices or making an arena club, we will have an arena polo tournament, thanks to Randy Russell, president of Polo America and the man behind the Ford Trucks Balloon and Polo Festival, held here in 2007 and 2008.

Randy has put together the Ford Trucks U.S. Open Arena Championship, a 14-16-goal tournament that will be held at an arena he is in the process of completing at his home in the Steeplechase development on Aiken’s Southside. The tournament runs from April 28 until May 3. It will be limited to eight teams and already has attracted serious interest from three or four.

A polo arena is 300 feet long by 150 feet wide, although many arenas are either bigger or smaller. Whereas outdoor polo has four players to a side, arena polo has just three. The ball, made of inflated plastic or leather and about the size of a Florida grapefruit, resembles a mini soccer ball. Players can bounce the ball off the walls (“boards”) of the arena and they score by hitting the ball against a marked-off (usually) recessed area the arena’s end.

Like many indoor versions of outdoor sports, arena polo can be both faster (in terms of how the play changes) and more physical than grass polo. The game is definitely easier to watch and understand since the players never get that far away from the spectators. Many players, especially those from Northern climes, get their start in arena polo, which can be played year round indoors, even in Chicago or Maine. Horses that play in the arena have to be quick, bold and handy. They can even be a little bit crazy: on the grass a hot-headed, keen horse might be hard to stop, but in the arena there is nowhere to go but to the play.

The entry fee for the tournament is $1,000 per team and parking for spectators will be five dollars per car, and five dollars to attend the final match. There will be a Kentucky Derby party after the consolation finals on Saturday, May 2, at which players, spectators and friends can watch the race and (presumably) indulge in Mint Juleps. All proceeds go to benefit the families of servicemen at Fort Gordon. The families of Fort Gordon have also been the beneficiaries of the Ford Trucks Balloon and Polo festivals.

“I didn’t have a connection to the military before,” explains Randy. “But after we made the families of Fort Gordon the beneficiaries of the first balloon festival, I saw how appreciative they were and how much it is needed. Now about 90 percent of my events benefit military families. We’ve been able to help about 30 families attend funerals of loved ones that have died in the line of service. We’ve also been able to help a little boy get treatment for a blood disease after his mother ran out of insurance and ran up all her charge cards. We raised enough money to pay for his treatment and to pay off all her credit cards. Now the little boy is cured and playing soccer.”

Horsemen's Hangouts

Aiken isn’t just a great place to ride. It’s also great place for horsemen to network and socialize: everyone who is in the area is bound to come downtown for dinner or a drink, at least once in a while. When they do, they’re pretty likely to run into other horse people. People looking for work as riders or grooms often say they have the best luck getting hired just by going to the Polo Bar at the Hotel Aiken and talking to people.

This winter, there are a few new additions to the scene. One is a new cocktail hour on Tuesday and Wednesday evenings at The Willcox, one of Aiken’s stateliest and most historic hotels. The Willcox’s manager, Tina McCarthy, a horsewoman, is married to Dan McCarthy of Farmer Road Polo, the premier green horse training facility for polo in the area. With the McCarthys’s equestrian connections, it is little wonder that the cocktail hour is frequented by horse people of all disciplines. Of course, it also helps that numerous visiting horse people choose The Willcox as their residence during their sojourns in the city.

The other new addition is a welcome one for horsemen on the East side of town. New Bridge Polo Club has opened the New Bridge Café, serving breakfast and lunch from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. daily. The chef is from Argentina and the menu is North American with a South American flair. For instance, for lunch, you could order a bacon, lettuce and tomato sandwich. Or you could have the Milanesa (crisply fried breaded beef) lunch plate. Either way, prices are quite reasonable and the atmosphere is laid back, elegant and understated.