Sunday, August 30, 2009

Dinner at the Willcox

It won't be long before you could be having dinner at the Willcox. The Willcox is one of Aiken's most historic and iconic hotels. It was started as a catering enterprise back in 1897 by Mr. and Mrs. Frederick Willcox. The Willcoxes provided lunches, dinners and elaborate picnics for Aiken's Winter Colonists. Eventually, they turned their home into a grand inn, adding an elegant restaurant and a ballroom.

Although the Willcox was originally all about the food, it has not had a restaurant for quite some time. Last winter, Tina McCarthy, the general manager of the hotel, opened a piano bar in the lobby on Tuesday and Wednesday evenings, and it has become a favorite meeting place for Aiken's equestrian crowd. This September, guests will be able to consume more than just cocktails and snacks because the Willcox will once again feature a full service restaurant.

According to Geoffrey Ellis, the general manager, The Restaurant at the Willcox will be a "gastro pub." A gastro pub is a restaurant that has the atmosphere of an English pub, but which focuses on the science of food and has the energy of an up-market bar. The head chef, Regan Browell, is coming here from New Zealand, where she was the head chef of Rain, a gastro bar that featured Heineken beer and an updated, pub-type menu. Geoffrey Ellis, who has deep roots in the Aiken area, was the manager of Rain as well as of a wood-fired pizza restaurant in New Zealand, but he recently sold those businesses to move back to South Carolina along with his wife and family.

The Restaurant at The Willcox is scheduled to open during the third week of September.

USPA on the Way

The USPA is on its Way
Every fall the United States Polo Association holds its annual meetings in a different city somewhere in the U.S. This fall, the meetings will be at Newberry Hall in downtown Aiken.

"We try to organize the meetings around a major tournament every fall," says Ed Armstrong, the USPA Director of Tournaments and Clubs. "This year the meetings coincide with the final week of the USPA Silver Cup [at 302 Polo Club]. Aiken is a good spot for the meetings because it's easy for most people to get to. Plus, everyone knows someone that plays in Aiken."

From the players' point of view, the most important item on the agenda is the annual national handicap meeting. This is when all the players in the United States have their handicaps reviewed by their own club delegates as well as by the circuit delegates and the national handicapping committee. Since the composition of every team depends upon the sum of the handicaps of all of its players, accurate and consistent handicaps are crucial to keeping the sport fair and competitive. For players, however, especially for professional players, the goal is often to keep handicaps as low as possible so that they can be considered "cheap" at their rating rather than "heavy", assuring them of more jobs and a better chance of winning.

There are numerous other items on the agenda, including meetings and reports from the various committees. As ever, there is sure to be a fair amount of discussion on topics related to rules changes. The biggest debate is likely to center around the so-called "American rule." For decades, many Americans in the sport have decried the dominance of foreign professionals. Foreign players, they say, are often under-rated, and take playing opportunities away from young American professionals. Over the years, various rules have been enacted that are intended to help Americans get and keep playing jobs. The latest rule, set to take effect on January 1, states that every team entered in a tournament with a handicap of 22 or below must have at least one Registered Player member (i.e., a U.S. citizen), in addition to the "sponsor" who may be of any nationality (foreign players are registered as Affiliate Members.)

USPA officials, delegates and committee members will descend on Aiken from all over the country. They will be staying at several area hotels, including the Willcox, Hotel Aiken and the Hampton Inn on Whiskey Road. Polo players are generally people who like to have a good time. With the Silver Cup finals and the fall meetings going on, expect evenings in downtown Aiken to look like one big party between October 14 and 18.

Two Notch Road Wins

Glenn Thompson, who trains racehorses out of the Whitney racing barn all winter, had a nice victory in the $60,000 Continental Mile Stakes at Monmouth Park in Oceanport, New Jersey on August 15. Two Notch Road, a 2-year-old colt he owns and trains, took the lead in mid-stretch and then cruised to a 11/4 length victory over the turf.

Glenn was not overcome with surprise by the win, but the public was. Two Notch Road went off at 107-1 and paid $216.40 at the betting windows: the local newspaper called the victory a "shocker." This was the colt's fourth start and his first victory. In fact, before the Continental Mile, he had never been closer than sixth. In his last race before the stakes race, he was beaten by 27 lengths.

But Glenn knew the colt and had faith. He had already trained Two Notch Road's older sister, and he knew that she was about 20 lengths better over the turf than she was on the dirt. Glenn had wanted to run the colt on the grass from the beginning, but America is not big on turf races, and there are few of them written for 2-year-old horses. The Continental Mile, in fact, was the first turf opportunity that came up. Even so, the colt almost didn't make it to the post.

"I'm a bit of a dreamer and I always shoot high with my horses," says Glenn. "I had two choices on what to enter him in. One was the stakes race, and the other was a $25,000 claiming race about a week before. I thought I would be prudent, so rather than shoot for the moon, I entered him in the claiming race. I didn't worry that someone would take him because of his terrible last start. But on the way to the post in that race, he threw his rider, ran to the three-quarter pole, dropped his head and started eating grass. I thought that he was telling me he wanted to be on the grass."

The stewards scratched Two Notch Road from the claiming race because of his bad behavior. Just over a week later, he was in the Continental Mile winner's circle.

"It's nice when it all falls together," says Glenn. "I can't remember the last time I won a turf race."

Two Notch Road has a bit of a romantic history. He was orphaned at birth. Then, as a yearling last fall, he was entered in the Fasig Tipton Sale at the Timonium Fairgrounds in Maryland. With the economy in uncertain shape, the year 2008 was not great for selling racehorses. Those without stellar connections were going very cheap. Glenn noticed that the bidding on the colt was practically nonexistent. He trained horses for the breeders, was familiar with the colt and with his lineage, and knew he had potential. So he bought him for $2,500. Not a bad price tag for a future stakes winner.

Dogwood Winners

Dogwood Stable is having a great time at the Saratoga race meet this August. August in Saratoga is very much the big show: pretty much anyone on the East Coast with a promising race horse is either at Saratoga, or wishes they were. Horses that win at Saratoga as 2-year-olds are often on the road to greater things, things like the Breeders' Cup this fall and the Triple Crown races next spring.

That's why Dogwood Stable is excited to have three 2-year-old winners at Saratoga thus far. One is a bay filly by Lion Heart named Snap Happy. Snap Happy won a $50,000 Maiden Special Weights filly race on August 13. It was her first time out, and Dogwood connections are thrilled with the result and impressed with her determination and heart.

"She broke well, and ran gamely into the turn," says Jack Sadler, Dogwood's vice president. "Then she drifted out wide at the top of the stretch and lost ground. But she dug in and came home in front."

Calvin Borel, who rode Mine that Bird to victory in the Kentucky Derby and Rachel Alexandra in her stunning Preakness win, was the jockey. Snap Happy's success broke a summer-long, 19-race losing streak for the rider.

The next winner is a colt named Aikenite by Yes it's True who broke his maiden in his first start on August 9. Mary Jane Howell, Dogwood Stable's director of public relations, says that Cot Campbell, Dogwood's president, has been wanting to name a horse for his home town for a long time, and that this colt won the honor because of Cot's high hopes for him.

Aikenite, running in a 51/2 furlong maiden race, broke well, stalked the leader to the top of the stretch, and then powered home in front by 21/2 lengths. At the winner's circle, the jockey, John Velasquez, turned to Cot and said, "Boss, you've got a good one here."

Finally, on August 20, Golly Day, another 2-year-old sired by Lion Heart, won his first start, a mile and sixteenth contest on the turf. Golly Day made an explosive move coming down the stretch to finish first by over three lengths.

Aikenite, "a grand looking colt," is being pointed to the $300,000 Grade I Hopeful Stakes in early September, the most prestigious 2-year-old stakes race at the meet. Snap Happy is headed to the $300,000 Grade I Spinaway, the filly version of the Hopeful, also in September.

Fall Festival Opens

One of the first major equestrian events of the 2009 fall season is the Aiken Fall Festival horse show, held at Highfields show grounds on Gaston Road. This show is put on by Equus Events and starts on Thursday, September 3. The action runs through the weekend, then horses and riders have a few days off before competition starts up again on Thursday, September 10.

The horse show features a number of exciting classes each week, including two $15,000 Open Jumper Classics, two $5,000 Welcome Stakes, a $10,000 Childrens/Adult Jumper Prix, and the Governor's Cup Medal Finals on Sunday the 13th. The Governor's Cup is the equitation final for the South Carolina Hunters and Jumpers Association. Junior equitation riders qualify during the season by winning points at Governor's Cup classes in shows around the region, with the top 20 riders eligible to compete in the finals. The first ride goes at 8 a.m.

Other spectator-friendly events include Hunt Night and the 6-bar. Hunt Night features horses and riders that can normally be found on the hunt field rather than in the show ring. Equus Events introduced field hunter classes at the show last fall, and they were so popular that more of them have been added. Aiken has five local hunts and competition should be fierce. Everyone especially likes the hunt teams class, which calls for three horses to negotiate a course in tandem. Hunt Night is September 12 and the classes will take place on the polo field at Highfields, where there is plenty of room to park cars on the sidelines and tailgate. Action starts around noon.

The 6-bar is a show jumping competition in which horses go over a line of six jumps. After each horse completes the six jumps successfully, the jumps are raised and the horses go again. This is a knock-down-and-you're-out affair. The jumps go up as the number of competitors goes down until there's just one horse left. It's a fast moving competition and can really get the crowd gasping. The 6-bar will be on Friday, September 11, and it will be the last class of the day.

During the final weekend of the show, there will be two charity events under the ringside tent. On Friday, September 11, High Steppin' at Highfields, a dinner, dance and silent auction held in conjunction with the 6-bar, will benefit the United Way of Aiken. Admission is $45 per person. On Sunday, September 13, there is a luncheon during the $15,000 Open Jumper Classic. Tickets are $35 a person, with proceeds going to Children's Place.

Aiken's horse shows always have large numbers of competitors. Megan Godard, who runs the Equus Events shows along with her husband J.P., hopes that more spectators will come out to watch this year. There will be some top quality horses and riders, and the jumper competitions in particular make for a good spectacle. Admission to the show grounds is always free.