Waking up on an early spring Saturday, packing the car for a fun-filled tailgate and dressing to the nines for the Carolina Cup steeplechase races has become a tradition for thousands of Columbia and surrounding area residents. Many might even say it’s a rite of passage as an official welcoming of spring, where 65,000 people don their hats and seersucker suits and make their way to the Springdale Race Course in Camden. While, officially, it’s a horse race, for many, it’s become the social event of the year — a family tradition one wouldn’t dare miss. For others, especially new college students, it’s a first-time, unforgettable experience — where a horse or two may even be spotted accidentally.
The Carolina Cup started in 1930 and, but for a few years during World War II, it has been an ongoing tradition that Mrs. Marion duPont Scott continued when she bought the property in 1953. When she died in 1983, she left the Springdale property to the state of South Carolina. Her request was that a private, not-for-profit corporation be set up to run the property as a year-round training facility, as well as a stage for the Carolina Cup and Colonial Cup steeplechase races. Nick Ellis serves as chief executive officer of the Carolina Cup Racing Association, where he is tasked with keeping the event running and seeing that it remains successful. He ensures that the Carolina Cup endures as an entertaining, family-friendly celebration of spring that keeps guests coming back year after year.
“The Carolina Cup is special in that there aren’t many places where you can take your family to the race track, have a picnic and enjoy the beautiful surroundings,” says Nick. With the Carolina Cup, the races are always sure to entertain. The Kentucky Derby is run on a flat dirt track at 1 1/4 miles, yet the Carolina Cup is a steeplechase race run on the turf at 2 1/4 miles with 13 steeplechase fences.
“Most steeplechase horses have been trained to run on flat but may not be quite good enough to have long, successful careers there … or they might be the type of horse who has a lot of stamina and could go all day which would make them ideal for steeplechasing,” says Catherine French, executive director of the National Steeplechase Museum. Some horses that race on flat –– the derby races –– turn sour, where they no longer want to come out of the starting gate or get to the point that they don’t try anymore. These horses are often then bought by a steeplechase trainer who teaches them to jump. “Horses like to try something new,” says Catherine. “They will start steeplechase racing and think, ‘Oh, this is fun!’”
The Carolina Cup started out as a timber race, a race over solid posts and rails and was run this way until the late 1940s when it was run over brush hurdles. The steeplechase circuit begins the year in the South, and the Carolina Cup is generally the second race on the circuit. The circuit gradually moves up the east coast with racing in Georgia, Tennessee, Kentucky, North Carolina, Virginia, Maryland, Pennsylvania, New Jersey and New York. The circuit then heads back down the east coast in the fall and ends with The Colonial Cup in Camden. The number of horses running in one of the first spring races of the year is often dependent upon how harsh the winter was. If trainers haven’t been able to adequately train their horses over the winter months, they may choose to skip the first spring races of the year.
“Even though trainers have indoor facilities, harsh weather can really hinder a training program,” says Nick. “For a trainer, getting a horse prepared for his first race of the year is always a challenge.”
While the Colonial Cup may include all of the top horses from the year, it’s the Carolina Cup that makes all of their other activities possible. “The Carolina Cup attracts a crowd more than four times the size of the Colonial Cup, and therefore it makes the most money,” says Catherine. “Without it, we wouldn’t be able to put on the Colonial Cup, which is a very important race as it often decides the horse of the year, the rider of the year and the trainer of the year. The Carolina Cup is an important race meet, where we see a lot of young horses and novice racers beginning their steeplechase careers. We always hope that these horses will stay sound enough to come back and run in the Colonial Cup.”
The number of horses racing in the Carolina Cup may vary, but the number of spectators remains at a steady 60,000 to 70,000 each year. More than 80 percent of those attending the race are from South Carolina, with the remainder mostly traveling from Georgia, North Carolina and Florida. More than 25,000 college students attend the Carolina Cup each year, many likely never even spotting a horse … and still they come back year after year.
“It’s so fun to see the kids come in all dressed up,” says Catherine. “It doesn’t matter what the weather is, if they bought a new strapless Lilly Pulitzer dress, they are going to wear it! And for the families, it becomes a tradition. People like to have the same parking spaces, to park by the same people on the rail, packing their picnic lunches. It’s an incredible social event.”
It’s true that for many, it’s all about the party, but for Catherine, it truly is about the horses. As a steeplechase photographer since 1986, Catherine has photographed races up and down the East Coast. She can be found at the last fence, capturing the action.
“While the social aspect of the Carolina Cup is wonderful,” she says, “if I am trying to convince someone to attend the cup, it’s all about the racing aspect for me. I would also encourage them to attend the Colonial Cup, as the racing is even stronger there.”
The race itself is steeped in history. So much so, that in 1998, the Steeplechase Museum was built as an addition to the Carolina Cup offices. The museum was constructed in an effort to preserve the history of steeplechasing and houses a collection of steeplechase memorabilia. The Carolina Cup trophy is the oldest sports trophy in continuous use in the United States.
Nick admires both the rich history and the pageantry of the event. “The colors of the silks, the colors of the flowers, the colors in which the spectators are decked out, the women in their fancy, innovative hats — it’s all so beautiful,” he says. “You won’t find that in many other places.”
Nick would know. He rode often as a teenager and would show horses, hunters and jumpers. He grew up in Delaware but didn’t know much about racing or steeplechasing. When he started as a freshman at the University of South Carolina, he started riding and going to Camden for horse shows on the weekends. “I started schooling some of the ex-race horses,” he says. “Then someone asked me to teach horses how to jump, and so that’s how I backed into it.”
Nick’s first Carolina Cup was in 1970 when he “galloped” a jet black horse called Hippocampo. “Galloping” consists of galloping the horse slowly for a mile or more with the actual distance depending upon the horse’s individual training program. As a horse gets fitter, close to running, shorter, faster gallops are included in the training regimen. Horsemen use the term “breeze” to describe this sort of work out. Running in the Carolina Cup, Hippocampo was difficult at the start and even had to be pointed in the right direction. In the last quarter of a mile, the two favorites were in the lead but ran too fast. At the final turn, the two lead horses were tiring badly, as was the rest of the field. “Here comes the little black horse,” remembers Nick. “He left them in the dust on the way to the finish. It was the first time I had experienced a horse I had been galloping go on to win a race. It’s a wonderful memory.”
It’s this unpredictability and the many variables which affect the outcome of jump races that Nick believes captures the attention of so many. “The spectators love the animals, and they love the excitement. There is a NASCAR element — an excitement that is unpredictable,” he says.
While the exhilaration and grandeur of the event are known to all, a somewhat lesser known element of the Carolina Cup is the money that it raises for the Kershaw County community. Mrs. Scott wanted to ensure that all proceeds from the race would go to the Kershaw County Memorial Hospital. Because of that generous decision, millions of dollars have been raised for the hospital for the purchase of new machines and the recruitment of specialist physicians to the hospital, among other donations. “Some people may think it’s an elitist sport,” says Nick, “when, in essence, it’s a fundraising event.”
Whatever it may be — a social event, a racing event or a fundraising event — one thing is for sure. It’s an afternoon where people come together to enjoy each other’s company, welcome the coming of spring, wear that brand new outfit and maybe even see a horse.