Thursday, April 30, 2009
For the first time in its 67 year history, the Aiken Trials included a race for polo ponies. The horses took off from a standing start and ran 300 yards, the length of a polo field. Before the race, riders and horses put on a short polo demonstration on the track. Riders were dressed in their polo gear and looked ready for a match.
There were six entries, all of them piloted by players who can be found competing in local matches during the season. Starter Peter Krebs lined the horses up on the track. He dropped his red flag, and everyone was off.
The first horse to get away was Eli Yale, a 6-year-old Thoroughbred gelding, owned, ridden and conditioned by Pam Gleason, the editor and publisher of The Aiken Horse. Eli broke so fast, he was soon several lengths ahead of the field. Although Aztec, also owned by The Aiken Horse and ridden by Salvatore Torres, made up some ground in the final yards of the race, the outcome was never really in doubt. By the time Eli galloped past the paddock, his ears were pricked forward and he seemed to be coasting. Aztec finished second, while Elegant Matter, a 7-year-old gelding owned, ridden and trained by Ben Gregoncza was third.
Eli Yale, who was acquired at the Aiken Polo Pony sale in the fall of 2007, is in his second year of tournament polo. Before polo, he had a short career on the racetrack, where he ran in good turf company, but never won a race before Aiken Trials day. Perhaps his handlers should have entered him in shorter sprints: his time of 17 seconds set an Aiken Training Track record and was off the world record for that distance by a little over two seconds.
Riders and spectators agreed that the polo race was a great addition to the Trials. Polo players who were watching suddenly wished that they had entered a horse themselves, and many are already planning their entries for next year. Other members of Aiken's horse community commented that the inclusion of the polo race made them feel like they were a part of the festivities, rather than just spectators.
The race was called the Post Trophy and was sponsored by The Aiken Horse. The name is a fitting one. Fred and William Post were a father-and-son team of polo trainers and breeders who came to Aiken in the second decade of the 1900s. Their polo field was inside today's Aiken Training Track, which they built in 1941 to train and conditioned their flat racers.
The winner received a silver plate and registration in the American Polo Horse Association.
Monday, April 20, 2009
Although about 20 veterinarians rushed to attend to the stricken animals, there was nothing that could be done. They administered intravenous fluids, cooled the horses with fans and ice packs, and desperately sought anything that might be an antidote to what appeared to be a some type of poison. About 100 people tended to the downed horses. Observers erected blue tarps to shield them from the crowd. Seven horses were transported back to Palm Beach Equine Clinic. But 11 horses were dead within an hour. A further 10 died before Monday morning, some of them at the clinic, others at the Lechuza barn. The official death count is 21, but unofficial reports say there may be as many as 30 dead horses.
The horses went down so suddenly it was clear to the veterinarians that the cause of the "mysterious illness" was not a virus or any contagious disease. Necropsies are being performed at the University of Florida College of Veterinary Medicine in Gainesville and by state vets at the Animal Disease Diagnostic Lab in Kissimmee, trying to determine exactly what killed the horses.
Although veterinarians who spoke to the press said they suspected that the horses may have eaten something poisonous, the word around the polo world was quite different. According to unconfirmed reports, the horses had received injections before the match. Exactly what the injections contained is unknown, although the shots were supposed to be vitamins to help the horses recover from the stress of the game. The injections, if they are indeed to blame for the deaths, may have been a combination of vitamins and other substances. They may have been contaminated (one report posited that they were contaminated with cleaning fluid) or they may have contained a combination of substances that caused a toxic reaction.
Lechuza Caracas is owned by Venezuelan banker and player Victor Vargas. Lechuza was considered one of the top teams in Florida this winter. News reports say that the horses that died were worth about 2 million dollars. Many of them were owned by Lechuza, but some were owned by the players. Several of the horses were reportedly leased to the team by other players. On Monday, Lechuza withdrew from the US Open tournament and issued a statement about the tragedy.
It may be several days before pathologists determine what killed the horses. In the meantime, investigations have been launched by the Florida Department of Agriculture, the Palm Beach County Sheriff's Office and the United States Polo Association.
Thursday, April 2, 2009
The young racehorses that spent the winter learning their trade at Aiken Training Track are leaving, too. Many of them started shipping out shortly after the Aiken Trials on March 14. They are going to racetracks around the country: Belmont Park in New York, Churchill Downs in Kentucky, Del Mar in California, Gulfstream Park in Florida. Almost every region of the United States will have at least one or two racehorses representing Aiken. The 2-year-olds will spend at least a few more months training before entering their first races. The 3-year-olds may be racing already.
As the ground temperatures rise, the Bermuda grass on the polo fields starts to green up, bringing back the polo players. The most serious of Aiken’s players spent the winter in Florida, competing in various important national and international tournaments. Some of them will be there until the end of April to watch (or play in) the U.S. Open Polo Championship, a 26-goal tournament with finals scheduled for April 26. Others will be shipping back to Aiken throughout the month of April. Players who spent the winter in town have had their horses in work for at least a couple of weeks and many are ready to play. If they are lucky, the horses are mostly shed-out and look like athletes again after spending the winter lounging about, eating hay. When players run into each other in social contexts in late March and early April, one of the first questions they are likely to ask is “Are your horses up yet?” or, more cryptically, “You up?”
The other events that mark the spring in Aiken are the horse shows, starting with the historic Aiken Horse Show in the Woods, held this year from April 3 through 5. There have been horse shows in Aiken throughout the winter, of course, mostly held at Highfields Event Center on Gaston Road. These included two weekends each of the “AA” rated Aiken Winter Classic and March Madness shows, which were quite well-attended this year, partially thanks to a strong contingent that shipped in from nearby Camden.
Mid-April, however, will be the main event, the eleventh anniversary Aiken Spring Classic I and II. The top draws at these shows are the $10,000 International Hunter Derby Classic on April 18, the $25,000 Aiken Spring Classic Grand Prix and Sunday brunch on April 19, and the $30,000 Carolina Real Estate Grand Prix and brunch on April 30. On April 19, Chris Powers, who is chairwoman of Women Beyond Cancer, is having a luncheon at the showgrounds to raise money for her charity. Women Beyond Cancer provides free retreats for women with cancer, some of them at Chris’s Two Sisters Farm in Windsor. The luncheon, which costs $40 per person, features lunch by Chef Miles of the Willcox, a silent auction and a sidesaddle demonstration by Aiken Ladies Aside. If you are interested in the luncheon or the retreats, find more information at www.womenbeyondcancer.org.
The Ford Trucks U.S. Open Arena Polo Championships is a 16-goal tournament that is being put on by Randy Russell, president of Polo America. To date, there are several confirmed teams, including one that will showcase the talents of the ultra-talented Snow brothers, Adam and Nick. Adam, as most polo enthusiasts know, is an Aiken resident and one of the top players in America. Rated 8 goals on the grass (outdoors) and 9 goals in the arena (indoors), he is sure to be one of the stars of the show. Nick, who is a Senior at Harvard this year and captain of the polo club there, is rated 4 goals both indoors and out. There are rumors that the New Bridge Polo Club might field a team featuring 9-goaler Matias Magrini. Other top players who will be on the roster include Tommy Biddle at 8 goals. It may just end up being a clash of the Titans, and there aren’t just bragging rights at stake. The winning team will receive various prizes including first class tickets on American Airlines that will take them to a four-night, five-day polo vacation in Costa Careyes, Mexico.
A team from Hawaii is also on the way to Aiken, eager to take the top arena prize. This team isn’t bringing any horses, and is still looking for a few to fill out their chukker lists. They are offering anyone who is willing to supply them with mounts a week’s accommodations in Hawaii, as well as horses to ride and polo matches to play.
Aiken players were enthusiastic enough about the prospect of an arena tournament that Randy decided to add a low goal contest to the schedule. The Ford Trucks Classic will be played at the 3 goal level on the “off” days of the Open. Players in the low goal are guaranteed three games and will get tickets to the Open finals. Teams and individuals who are interested in playing in the Ford Truck Classic should contact Randy Russell at firstname.lastname@example.org or call him at 760.238.7168.
Those who would like to watch the matches can select from various types of ticket packages. Tickets will be available at Aiken Saddlery, Boots, Bridles & Britches and any Aiken-Augusta area Ford truck dealership. A significant portion of the proceeds from ticket sales will go to the military families at Fort Gordon. For more information: www.poloamerica.com.
Although the season hasn’t started yet, so far, things look promising on the playing front. It is certainly true that economic circumstances have curtailed the activity of some of the most reliable teams at the medium and high goal levels. There are also very likely numerous lower profile players who will not be spending as much on their polo this year. But Aiken’s playing base is both wide and deep. Early indications are that there will indeed be a polo season this spring, and it might even be a good one. Just to be safe, organizers at various clubs have lowered fees and put together various incentives for players.
For instance, 302 Polo is holding three medium goal tournaments this spring (one 14 and two 16 goals). To encourage participation, they are giving a discount to teams that enter more than one tournament. There is even talk about adding a cash prize for the winners. “We call it our 302 stimulus package,” laughs Barb Uskup, one of the club’s organizers.
Other clubs are looking forward to active low goal seasons this spring. New Bridge Polo Club, now managed by Willie Hartnett, will hold a 12 goal tournament in April, followed by an 8 goal tournament in May and a 6 goal tournament, date to be determined. “We were a little bit worried about what would happen at first,” says Eugene Gibelli, the New Bridge general manager. “But every day I am getting calls from people who are interested in looking at property here, and players who are coming to play. It helps that we have approximately 50 members. I think regardless of the economy, we are going to have an exciting season.”
Aiken Polo Club has made its spring season more affordable by lowering the goal level of the tournaments. Last year, for instance, Aiken held one 4 goal and three 8 goals. This year there will be three 4 goals and one 8 goal.
Poloists who want to play even more economically can choose among three low goal clubs in the area. Wire Road Polo Club is having $10 per chukker practices on Tuesdays and Thursdays, as well as a 4 goal league and a 6 goal league. The schedule isn’t out yet for Omar Cepeda’s O.C. Farm, but last fall’s 4-6 goal tournaments there were enjoyable and affordable. There will even be inexpensive polo on some very top class fields at the Brigadoon Polo Club in Windsor. Rebecca Gutierrez, who has been running chukkers and leagues at Edisto Polo in Wagener for the past few years, is moving her operation to the new field at Brigadoon. There will be three 4-6 goal tournaments in April and May, with discounts for teams that enter two or more tournaments.
Interested in polo? Here are some numbers and websites: Aiken Polo Club: www.aikenpoloclub.org, 803.643.3611. 302 Polo Club: www.302polo.com, 803.642.8780 (tournaments) or 803.642.8787 (practices.) New Bridge Polo and Country Club: www.newbridgepolo.com, 803.644.7706. Brigadoon Polo Club: 561.676.2879. Wire Road Polo Club: 561.722.5953. Omar Cepeda: 561.762.4506.
“We have horses of lots of different types,” she says, “And we need some experienced riders to volunteer to ride them so that we can make them more adoptable. If we can get the horses we have here adopted out, then we will have more room to take in horses that need help.”
Larkin stresses that the horses that need riding aren’t rank. Some are green, and some do need retraining. They all need exercise and attention. There are also lots of nice horses available for adoption or fostering. Fostering could be a great solution for someone who is only in town seasonally, or who would like to have and care for a horse, but can’t commit to owning one long-term.
Check out the website: www.aikenequinerescue.com or call 803.643.1850.
After commissioning a study that showed that the Aiken equestrian community contributes over 71 million dollars a year to the local economy, the Aiken Chamber of Commerce knows that horses are an economic force. The Chamber wants horse people to start exercising their political clout, too. To this end, they asked Samantha Charles, who is a member of the Chamber board, chair of the Chamber’s Equine Steering Committee and the publisher of Sidelines magazine, to organize a meeting of horse people from various disciplines. The purpose of the meeting was to talk about the current state of the industry, and to discuss ways that things can be improved in the future.
The meeting, which took place February 24 at the Aiken Chamber headquarters on Richland Avenue, included 20 representatives from the horse community, as well as several members of the Chamber who were not involved in the horse industry. Liz Stewart, a facilitator, divided the people into three sub groups, each of which was asked to brainstorm about a particular question. One group was asked to identify factors that can help keep the horse industry healthy. The second group was asked to identify what barriers there might be to strengthening the industry, while the third came up with examples from other communities that might be useful in ensuring that the Aiken community as a whole continues to support the horse community. Afterwards, each subgroup presented its ideas.
In the second part of the meeting, the subgroups discussed the pros and cons of pursuing the idea of building a large, state-supported horse park in Aiken. Finally, the discussion turned to the possibility of organizing an Equine Summit for the fourth quarter of 2009. The idea for the Equine Summit, tentatively entitled “Horses – Past, Present and Future,” is in an embryonic stage. In the coming months, another meeting (or two) at the Chamber will clarify what the summit will be about, who will be invited, and even whether there will be a summit at all.
In the first two parts of the meeting, the various groups came up with several interesting ideas, and there were a number of differing opinions about the hottest topic of the day, the potential horse park. Proponents of a horse park would like to see one built somewhere close to Route 20, perhaps along Route 1. They see a horse park as an economic boon that would ensure the survival of the equestrian industry in Aiken. Those who spoke against a horse park said, essentially, that Aiken itself is a horse park, and that we don’t need to encourage the horse industry in Aiken to grow any larger than it already is.
“Aiken’s horse industry already contributes 71 million dollars to the economy,” said Tom Uskup, who was there as one of the representatives of the polo community. “How much more do we need? How much is enough?”