Throwback Thursday: Aiken Steeplechase Edition

The Aiken Steeplechase holds its annual spring race meet this year on Saturday, March 22.  The Aiken Steeplechase is the second leg of the Aiken Triple Crown and probably  the largest spectator event in the Aiken area.

Aiken has a long history with steeplechasing. Back at the turn of the last century, some of America’s top steeplechase trainers conditioned their horses in Aiken during the winter. These included men such as Thomas Hitchcock, who was a  leading trainer, winning  the American Grand National with his horse Good and Plenty in 1906 and training half a dozen recognized champions.

Many accomplished steeplechase riders also kept fit in Aiken. The most famous of these was Pete Bostwick, who was the leading steeplechase rider in the United States six times and was inducted in the National Museum Racing Hall of Fame in 1968. Other steeplechase riders included Rigan McKinney, Temple Gwanthemy and Crompton Smith.  Steeplechase trainers and riders often galloped over the mile track in the Hitchcock Woods, which had (and has) a number of steeplechase style fences. In addition, all of the steeplechasers regularly rode out on the hunt with the Aiken Hounds. Not surprisingly, during those days, first flight often seemed more like a race than like a fox hunt.

Although steeplechase training itself was well established in Aiken from the 1890s onward, the Aiken Steeplechase Association didn’t get started until 1930, one year after nearby Camden established its own steeplechase. In that year,  the association held a three mile race over regular drag lines in the Hitchcock Woods. The winner was Harry Worcester Smith, the author of Life and Sport in Aiken, the book that details the history and events of Aiken’s Winter Colony. Smith rode his horse Strongbow; the second place horse was Lipingo, also owned by Smith, and ridden by his son Crompton Smith.

In the second year of the Aiken Steeplechase, the field was smaller, due in part to Aiken’s decision to allow ladies to ride. This was, perhaps, the first time that women were invited to ride along with men in a steeplechase in America. It was not an entirely popular decision.  While a few gentlemen from Aiken were ready to compete against ladies, riders and trainers from Camden were not.

“The chivalrous sportsmen from Camden were unwilling to take the chance of being thrown down or jumped upon by a girl, and so they stood on the sidelines,” wrote Smith in Life and Sport. The winner that year was Miss Jean Olcott, pictured above, riding Smith’s Lipingo. Smith, in this picture, was joking with Miss Olcott that, as the owner of the horse, he was entitled to take home the cup.