Bruce’s Field opens this Fall
by Pam Gleason
If you drive down Powder House Road this August, you will see something exciting: the stables have gone up at Bruce’s Field, Aiken’s newest equestrian showplace. Bruce’s Field, owned by the Aiken Horse Park Foundation, will be the site of a world-class horse show facility.
The field itself has historically been the location of Aiken’s twice-annual Aiken Steeplechase. The grassy steeplechase track remains, and the Fall Steeplechase will still take place there at the end of October. The new permanent stables, eight structures containing 28 stalls apiece, are situated to the left of the field as you drive in through the Powder House entrance. The infield of the track now includes five all weather riding arenas with professional German Geo Textile (GGT) footing, state-of-the-art in the horse show world. An elaborate and comprehensive drainage system ensures that the footing will always be perfect for riding, even if there is a downpour. There is irrigation for when conditions are dry. The facility promises to bring a new element to Aiken, and organizers hope that its presence will burnish Aiken’s local and national reputation as an equestrian Mecca.
Tara Bostwick, who is the vice president of the Aiken Horse Park Foundation and has been intimately involved with planning and construction this summer, says that the facility will be ready for its first shows this fall. These will be the Equus Events Fall Classic I and II, which will take place from September 3-6 and September 10-13. The grand opening of the field will not be until next May, when the Aiken Horse Park Foundation will put on two major shows, Aiken Charity Horse Show I (May 6-8) and Aiken Charity Horse Show II (May 11-15.) The shows will be run by Megan and JP Godard who own Equus events, while the charity aspect will be chaired by William Howard, whose reputation for putting on such affairs is unexcelled.
Bruce Duchossois was a lifelong horseman and an Aiken resident. He and Jack Wetzel, a well-known figure in the driving world, purchased the 66-acre steeplechase track and surrounding land back in 2000 to protect it from development. An accomplished and passionate amateur showjumper, Bruce had always dreamed of turning the field into a horse show ground where he could put on old fashioned charity horse shows. For several years, the infield of the track was used for Progressive Show Jumping’s signature events, the Aiken Spring Classic I and II, which are held each April. But, with no permanent arenas or stabling facilities, the field proved a difficult venue for a show, especially when there were many entries or the weather was not cooperative. Eventually, the shows moved to Highfields Event Center, where they are still held today.
When Bruce was diagnosed with terminal cancer in 2012, he realized that, if he wanted his dream to become reality, he needed to act. Within a year, he had established the Aiken Horse Park Foundation, hand picking the board of directors, which includes prominent members of the horse show community from all over the eastern region, as well as Aiken residents with a passion for horses. Bruce died in July 2014 at the age of 64, but not before seeing and approving plans for the new facility.
“Bruce wanted to bring back the tradition of the old fashioned horse show,” says Tara. “He wanted horse shows the way they used to be, with parties and social events. He never wanted the shows to get too big. It was very important to him that the classes be done at 5, so that you could have a party and then go to dinner.”
The original plan for the facility was somewhat more modest than the one being followed today. Initially, Bruce’s estate was going to provide the funding for a very nice place to have a horse show. But then, the $100 million Tryon International Equestrian Center opened in North Carolina, just two and a half hours from Aiken.
Tryon, which held its first shows in the summer of 2014, has been described as a “Disneyland for horses” and the board of the Aiken Horse Park had no intention or desire to compete with the facility. They did realize, however, that the presence of such a place in the same region did change the game. It meant that if the shows at Bruce’s Field were to be successful, they had to offer the same top quality footing and facilities. They had to make their shows something special.
The Duchossois family agreed, stepping in to help make it possible to create what is being built today. Bruce’s father, also named Bruce, is (among other things) the owner of the Arlington Park racetrack in Chicago, and the family was in a position to make Bruce’s Field truly world class. With exceptional footing, a beautiful setting and a promise to cater to the exhibitor, horse shows at the field will be out of the ordinary. They are also something that will add to the attractiveness of Aiken as a whole.
“Competition is good,” says Tara. “I see the whole region being lifted, and I see this as a wonderful opportunity for Aiken to attract some new people and to revitalize the horse community here.” She notes that hunter/jumper enthusiasts will be able to show for four weeks in Aiken each spring, starting with the two weeks of the Aiken Spring Classic at Highfields and ending with two weeks of competition at Bruce’s Field.
Already, riders from far and wide have expressed an interest in coming to the inaugural spring show, both to see what Aiken has to offer and to help support Bruce’s dream. Starting this fall, the facility will also be available for other things, including some planned schooling jumper days to cater to the eventing crowd this winter. There may even be an equestrian trade fair there in the future.
“The family wanted this to be Bruce’s legacy,” says Tara. “At Bruce’s memorial service, Mr. Duchossois thanked Aiken for being so welcoming and for bringing Bruce into its family. This legacy for the family is important; it’s a tangible thing that they can hold onto for their brother and their son, something physical that can carry on his dream.
“Aiken was founded by families that have given to the community, creating places like Whitney Field for polo and the Hitchcock Woods for all riders,” Tara continues. “They did that knowing that they weren’t even going to be here to appreciate and enjoy those places. They did it because they loved Aiken. I just feel how lucky we are that Bruce had that same vision.”