Friday, January 28, 2011

Eventing Training Sessions in Aiken

The United States Equestrian Federation has once again selected Aiken as the site for winter training sessions for riders aspiring to be on the U.S. eventing team. For the third year, these sessions will be at Three Runs Plantation, an equestrian residential community on Aiken's Southside. Three Runs is an ideal location for winter training, providing jumping and dressage arenas with excellent, all-weather footing as well as a comfortable clubhouse overlooking the facility. These sessions are open to the public, and provide an unrivalled opportunity to watch our international riders train with Captain Mark Phillips, the chef d'équipe of the eventing team. The management of Three Runs has also invited select groups of interested horsemen to come out and enjoy lunch while observing the action. Cross country training sessions will be held on the course at Paradise Farm on Route 302 east of town.

There will be four sessions, two in February and two in March. The dates are: February 6-9; February 21-22; March 2-5 and March 16-18. The sessions are for riders on the current High Performance A and B training lists, meaning those who will most likely earn a spot on the team this year, as well as those that have the potential to compete now and in the near future. The winter training list also includes a roster of Developing Riders, who will be participating in the sessions by invitation.

The High Performance Riders are preparing to compete in the 2011 Pan American Games in Guadalajara, Mexico in October. This year, three of the four riders on the A list are already based in Aiken during the winter months (Phillip Dutton, Boyd Martin and Kim Severson. The fourth rider, Amy Tryon, lives in Washington and will spend the winter months in California.) There are nine riders on the High Performance B list, and at least five of them will definitely be training in Aiken. (Allison Springer, Jennie Brannigan, Will Coleman, Will Faudree and Laine Ashker.) The Developing Rider list has quite a number of familiar Aiken names. These include Sinead Halpin, Doug Payne, Kristin Schmolze and Arden Wildasin. Other Developing Riders who are slated to train here include Danielle Dichting and Lizzie Snow. The complete schedule for the first sessions is available through the Three Runs Plantation website

Aiken is one of three locations that have been chosen for winter training sessions. The other two are Ocala, where the O'Connors are based, and Thousand Oaks, California. Aiken can make a claim to be the most important of these locations. After all, we have the most riders. (There are 14 who will be training here, as compared to 13 in the other two locations combined.) If you look at just the High Performance riders, Aiken is the clear winner: we have 8 and the other to locations have 5.

For a complete roster of High Performance and Developing riders, go to the USEF website: (It's a bit of an odyssey to track them down. The easiest way is to search for news releases. The Developing Rider and High Performance Rider lists were published on December 8, 2010.)

Hopes and expectations are high for the U.S. team. After a disappointing showing at the 2010 World Equestrian Games in Kentucky (the U.S. failed to medal on its own home turf), eventers are looking to redeem themselves in Mexico. The last time the team competed in the Pan Am Games was 2007 in Rio de Janeiro. There they won team gold as well as individual gold, silver and bronze. Anyone wishing to support the U.S. team efforts can make a donation to the USEF. Although there is no specific fund raiser planned at the Three Runs this year, it will be possible to donate at the sessions.

Breakfast at the Gallops

The Aiken Thoroughbred Racing Hall of Fame and Museum is putting on its fifth annual "Breakfast at the Gallops" on Thursday, March 16 from 8 to 10 am at the Aiken Training Track. The event, sponsored by Darley, is designed to give people interested in Thoroughbred racing an inside look at what goes on in a training facility. Local trainers, including Suzy Haslup, will be on hand to talk about training methods and to answer whatever questions people might have as they watch the horses work on the track.

Aiken has long had a reputation as a great place to train young horses, as well as a quiet setting in which to prepare older horses for the next season's campaign. Every winter, freshly minted 2-year olds take their first racing steps on Aiken's historic track. Every summer, scores of those horses go on to win races, and every year, one or two of those Aiken Training Track graduates takes a real shot at greatness, running in the Kentucky Derby, the Travers or the Breeder's Cup. At the Aiken Training Track, you never know which horses you see will become champions.

Tickets for the event cost $15 in advance and $20 at the gate. They can be purchased at the H.O. Weeks Activities Center on Whiskey Road or at the Aiken Training Track Office. Space is limited. A portion of the proceeds will go to support the Aiken Thoroughbred Hall of Fame and Museum.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Winter Polo Developments

The polo season is still a few months away, but those who travel in polo circles have a lot of big plans. First, there has been quite a bit of winter polo going on this year, despite weather that has been unusually cold. Karen Reese, who has been playing with several groups, says that she counts 47 players who are actively practicing this winter, on at least 11 different fields. Because several local high goalers have stayed home in Aiken before making the pilgrimage to Florida for the professional season in mid-February, the level of these games is sometimes quite high.

"The practices go all the way from baby, baby chukkers for green horses, to flying," she says.

Karen is preparing to entertain more year-round polo at her Hilltop Farm east of town. This winter, she broke ground on a new outdoor polo arena, where she plans to have practices and tournaments in the future. Although local players have proven that it is possible to play on Aiken's fields all winter long, there are certainly some days when the fields are wet and an arena would come in handy. Karen has a more immediate and practical need for an arena, however, since she is interested in providing a place for Aiken Polo Club's new interscholastic polo team to practice.

Interscholastic and intercollegiate polo is arena polo. The rules and the strategies of arena polo are different than they are for the grass game, so Aiken's team so far has been at a disadvantage. Although they have been playing at Clint Nangle's Overbrook Farm in Wagener, they have had very little chance to practice in an actual arena. When the arena at Hilltop Farm is completed, it will become the home base for the APC team. It will also be available for an intercollegiate team from USC Aiken, which has been in the works for several months and may soon become a reality.

The Aiken Polo Club interscholastic team, organized in 2010, currently has five members. The two youngest members are Miranda Gantt and Karen Reese's daughter Tess Pimsner, both of whom are still in grade school. The three older members, Austin Allen, Jeff Schuler and Tyler Morris, are high school students who have been practicing this fall and winter and are on their way to a regional qualifying tournament in Newport, R.I. from February 11 through 13. If they win there, they will qualify for the regionals at Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y. a few weeks later. The nationals will be in Charlottesville, Va., this spring.

Craig Fraser, who is the polo manager at Aiken Polo Club and the coach of the interscholastic team, explains that the kids have to travel so far because there are not currently enough interscholastic teams to make a Southeast region.

"You need three teams," he says. "We tried to make it work with our team, a team from Atlanta and a team from Charleston, but the Charleston team wasn't ready to compete at this level yet. So our team is competing in the Northeast region."

In order to be eligible for the interscholastics, players must be in at least the fifth grade, and they may not have reached their 19th birthday on September 15 of the year that they are playing. To be a part of the Aiken Polo Club team, players must also live within 100 miles of the club. Since two of the senior members of the current team will soon be too old for the program, Aiken Polo Club is looking for new prospective members. Craig says that kids who would like to play do not need to have prior polo experience and they do not need to have their own horses. Anyone who is interested should email Craig. (

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Spring Polo Plans

Schedules are out for the spring tournaments in the Aiken area, and everyone is gearing up for what they hope will be an active season. New Bridge Polo Club and 302 Polo Club have coordinated their schedules and will be offering 6, 8 and 12 goal polo, starting in late April and finishing up in June. This is quite a change for 302 Polo, which, in years past, has put on a series of 16-goal tournaments. There will also be the annual 30-goal Aiken Equine Charities Cup, which will be held at New Bridge in May.

Following on the success of their fall schedule of USPA tournaments, Aiken Polo Club will be holding three USPA 4 to 8 goal tournaments in the spring. Practices will begin April 1, and the first tournament, the 6-goal USPA Sportsmanship Cup, begins on April 20. In recent years, Aiken has held a number of four chukker tournaments, which are more economical and easier on some players than the usual six chukker affairs. Generally speaking, these tournaments have been held at the beginning and the end of the season, with the result that players who are not prepared to play in six chukker tournaments sit out much of the middle of the season. To remedy this situation, Craig Fraser, the club manager, has structured the tournament season with both a four and a six chukker arm. Play begins with a four chukker 6 goal in April, after which they may elect to participate in two May four chukker 4 goals, or step up to play in two May six chukker 8 goals.

The schedule also includes Aiken Polo Club's first modern-day women's tournament in June. This is not, of course the first women's polo tournament in the area. The Aiken Ladies Invitational, held under the auspices of the 302 Polo Club each fall, has been going strong for over a decade. The ALI, which is a qualifier for the Women's Championship Tournament in Florida, regularly attracts some of the best female polo talent in the world to play in its upper flights. The USPA Women's Challenge Cup, held June 8 through 12, will be a 2 goal tournament and is likely to include a number of more locally-based teams.

Finally, Kris Bowman, who is the director of club development for the United States Polo Association, says that she is planning to make sure that a number of up-and-coming young players will be on hand for the spring season. The USPA has been running a program called Team USPA (originally Team USA), which identifies young people who are serious about the sport and provides them with coaching, playing and training opportunities. Last year, several of these young people ended up in Aiken after the end of the winter season in Florida, where they worked for top professional players. Several were picked up to play in tournaments at all levels.

This year, Aiken may be an official destination. There are plans in the works to have some training sessions for Team USPA on Aiken's fields in the spring. This could be a good thing for players looking to fill out their teams with fresh young talent.

The Aiken Triple Crown

The annual Aiken Triple Crown (three consecutive weekends of different horse sports) starts a week later than usual this year. The first event, held Saturday March 19, is the Aiken Trials, a day of racing for young horses that have been training over the winter at the Aiken Training Track. The day usually includes several races for untried 2-year olds, as well as at least one race for older horses.

For the third year, there will also be a race for polo ponies sponsored by The Aiken Horse. The horses will race 300 yards (the length of a polo field) from a standing start. Entrants are required to be actual, experienced polo ponies, preferably ridden by real polo players. The races in 2009 and 2010 were both won by Eli Yale, a former racehorse currently playing at the Aiken Polo Club.

Although it can be a bit difficult to find polo horses that are fit and ready to run so early in the season, players who have participated have enjoyed themselves, and the race is a real crowd pleaser. Polo players who would like to join the action are welcome to put their entries in. If you are interested in racing, send an e-mail message to, or give us a call at 803.643.9960. Get those horses fit now!

Spectators who would like to come to the trials should plan to spend the afternoon. In addition to the races, there will be a carriage parade, a tent party, a hat contest, a best carriage contest, best tailgating spot contest and a traveling mariachi band. Tickets may be purchased in advance at various locations, including Boots, Bridles and Britches and Aiken Saddlery. If you buy in advance, tickets are $10. They're $15 on the day of the races. (

The second leg of the Triple Crown will be the Aiken Spring Steeplechase, held on March 26. The spring steeplechase is the first official meet on the National Steeplechasing Association calendar. It is also the largest equestrian spectator event in the area, drawing crowds from local areas as well as from further afield. Railside tailgating spots at the spring steeplechase are sold out months and even years in advance. General admission is always available, however and costs $10 in advance or $15 at the gate. Spectators may also elect to join the party under the tent opposite the finish line, which includes a gourmet lunch and a cash bar. There will also be a dinner and a dance the night before the races. For more information, contact the Steeplechase office at 803.648.9641, or check out the website:

The final leg of the Triple Crown is the USC Aiken Pacers and Polo Match, which kicks off the spring polo season. This game will take place on Powderhouse Field on Saturday, April 2. The match, which always pulls in a big crowd, is a fundraiser for the University of South Carolina Pacers baseball team.

The night before the game, on Friday, April 1, there will be a party at the fieldside tent. This party, presented by the Equine Steering Committee of the Greater Aiken Chamber of Commerce, is the third event of the chamber's Equine Performing Arts Series. Called a "Polo Asado and Tango," it will celebrate polo's South American connection, featuring an Argentine-style barbecue over an open fire.

Over the past few years, there have been quite a number of polo-centered fieldside parties called "tangos." Generally, these have featured eating, drinking and socializing, but no dancing. This party will be different, however. The Mike Frost Trio will be playing and the Palmetto Dance Studio is sending instructors. Adios, muchachos.

For more information or to buy tickets, go to the Aiken Chamber of Commerce website:

Prominent Trainers and Owners Mourned

This winter, Aiken's Thoroughbred world lost two prominent members, Mack Miller and Ned Evans. Miller, who was a trainer of champion race horses, died on December 11, 2010, from complications of a stroke. He was 89. A few weeks later, on December 31, Edward "Ned" Evans, one of America's most prominent horse breeders and owners, died from leukemia. He was 68.

Ned Evans was the son of Thomas Mellon Evans, who once maintained a winter training base for his Buckland Farm in Aiken's historic district. After the elder Evans died in 1997, Buckland ceased operations. However, Ned Evans, who owned Spring Hill Farm in Virginia, continued a relationship with the city, regularly sending his young horses to Ron Stevens for winter training. One of Mr. Evans's most successful horses, Quality Road, was the Aiken Trained Horse of the Year in 2009 and 2010, making him the first horse ever to win that title twice.

MacKenzie Todd Miller, known as "Mack" was one of the most illustrious horsemen ever to train horses at Aiken's track. He was born in 1921 in Versailles, Kentucky, and was first exposed to racehorses at 14 when he attended the opening meet at nearby Keeneland with his father, who was a maintenance manager for Greyhound Lines and an amateur horse breeder. Mack saw his first Kentucky Derby two years later when he was 16.

Mr. Miller attended the Bolles School in Jacksonville, Fla, then went on to the University of Kentucky. He dropped out soon afterward to serve in the Army Air Corps during World War II. After the war, he went to Calumet Farm, so eager to be involved with racehorses he offered to work for nothing. He started out as a groom, and two years later took out his training license. In 1955, he won his first stakes race, and just a year later, trained Leallah, the champion 2-year-old filly of the year.

Mack Miller's career spanned 50 years and he trained 72 stakes winners. In addition to Leallah, he also trained three more champions: Assagai, who was champion male turf horse in 1966, Hawaii who was champion male turf horse of 1969 and Snow Knight who was champion male turf horse of 1975. He was the first trainer ever to develop three different American turf champions.

At the end of his career, Mr. Miller worked as a private trainer for Paul Mellon's Rokeby Stables, which had a winter stable in Aiken. In 1993, when Mr. Miller was 71 and Mr. Mellon was 85, Mellon convinced him to enter the horse Sea Hero in the Kentucky Derby, one of the only major stakes races that neither had won. Sea Hero, who was trained in Aiken, went off at 13-1, but came home the winner, beating the favorite by more than two lengths.

Mack Miller was known for his courtly manner and his ability to get the best out of difficult horses. The Aiken Thoroughbred Hall of Fame has a permanent Mackenzie Miller exhibit that includes photographs, win pictures, paintings and trophies. A video of Sea Hero winning the Kentucky Derby can be found on the hall of fame website:

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Spanish Horse Show

Entries are coming in from up and down the East Coast for the first show in the newly organized Interstates P.R.E. show series to be held at Coves Darden Farm on Route 4. The I.S. P.RE. USA consists of three regional shows culminating in the national championships in November. The shows are for registered P.R.E. (Andalusian) horses, and are recognized by the Associación Nacional de Criadores de Caballos Españoles (ANCCE), which is the official Spanish organization that registers and inspects P.R.E. horses.

The Coves Darden show will be from March 4 through 6. It will include a full roster of conformation classes for fillies, colts, stallions and mares, There will also be a class for geldings and two "cobra" classes in which groups of three or five mares are presented together. The show also has "functionality tests" which are essentially dressage classes. Entries close on February 24.

Judges and officials will be flying in from Spain to ensure that the horses are assessed according to authentic Spanish criteria. There will also be several prominent representatives from Spain on hand, including Javier Conde who is the current president of the ANCCE.

Miguel Coves and Dorothea Darden, who own Coves Darden Farm, are also planning to make the show a sort of mini festival of the Spanish horse, with the goal of introducing new people to the breed, and giving Americans a taste of Spanish equestrian culture.

Future shows in the series will be held in Texas in June and in California in September. The finals will be in Texas in November.

For more information, visit the I.S.P.R.E. USA website: