Monday, October 11, 2010

Time for Steeplechase

The 19th renewal of the Fall Steeplechase is coming to Ford Conger Field on Saturday, October 30. As usual, there will be dinner and dancing in the railside tent the night before the event: this year the theme is “Twilight in Transylvania,” in recognition of Halloween. There will be six races, starting at 1 p.m., with the traditional Aiken Driving Club carriage parade between the first and the second races. The featured race is the Budweiser Holiday Cup.

The races at the steeplechase are put on by the National Steeplechase Association, which runs race meets at tracks up and down the East Coast. The Aiken Spring Steeplechase, held on March 20 this year, was the first meet on the NSA calendar. The fall steeplechase is one of the last. Steeplechase horses, riders and trainers travel from meet to meet, trying to win purses and to earn enough money and races to put them at the top of the yearly standings.

By the time Aiken’s fall meet rolls around, most of the big money races will already be over, and the majority of the horses that will be racing here will be less experienced chasers. This is not to say that there won’t be good horses or trainers in evidence. The runaway top trainer this year is Jonathan Sheppard, who almost always brings a few horses to Aiken and is a fan of the town – he even played polo here in years past.

Sheppard, whose horses have won about 30 percent more money this year than those of his next closest rival in the trainer standings, also recently hit a milestone in his career. On September 25, Arcadius, a horse that he saddled for Hudson River Stables, jumped to victory in the $100,000 Helen Haskell Samson Stakes at Monmouth Park in New Jersey. This gave the 69-year-old Sheppard his 1,000th career win over fences. This is especially impressive considering the low annual number of jump races held each year in the United States – generally there are fewer than 200 per year.

Sheppard, who was elected to the Racing Hall of Fame some 20 years ago, has been the leading trainer in the U.S. 24 times so far. He is the first trainer ever to saddle 1,000 steeplechase winners in this country.

For more information about the steeplechase or to buy tickets to the races or the dinner, visit the website ( or call 803.648.9641.

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