By Lauren R. Giannini
Aiken, one of the great “escapes” for folks fleeing winter’s bite in the U.S. and Canada, is an equestrian wonderland for hunter-jumper shows, three-day eventing, foxhunting, steeplechasing and carriage driving, to name a few. If you’re headed to Aiken, you’re in for a treat. First-timers might want to compile a list of places to go, things to do.
First on your list: Hitchcock Woods, one of the largest urban forests in the nation, features 70 miles of sandy trails open year-round to the public from dawn to dusk. Horse power or foot power only!No motorized vehicles, no bicycles, no quads — you feel as if you’re stepping back in time. The Woods offer a most delightful experience not far from the heart of Aiken and its charming, tree-divided Laurens Street.
Hitchcock Woods began in 1939 with the establishment of the Hitchcock Woods Foundation, a non-profit to which Thomas and Louise Hitchcock pledged to transfer 1,191 acres over a number of years. Today, the historical Woods encompass more than 2,100 acres, thanks to the purchase or donation of adjoining tracts totaling 900-plus acres.
One very special annual event benefits the Hitchcock Woods and also provides the only occasion when motorized vehicles are permitted. This year celebrates the centennial of the Aiken Horse Show, April 1–3. This show is a must-do on your list if you happen to be in town.
In 1996, the Hitchcock Woods Foundation asked William Howard to take over the reins. He gave the show a natural look, setting and ambience. The Aiken Horse Show took off and, ever since, has proven to be a very successful fundraiser for the Woods.
“Aiken is an incredible place — so much history and back history with the old families who lived here,” said William Howard. “You can still ride horses around the center of town, which is amazing! Everyone who visits Aiken should go for a hack or a carriage drive in the Woods. It’s beautiful.”
Racing & Steeplechasing
Aiken offers a lot to visitors, whether you’re part of today’s “Winter Colony” or simply visiting to enjoy a great getaway. You’ll find plenty to keep you busy, from history and culture to eating out and shopping. For many people who converge on Aiken, the attraction involves equestrian sports of all kinds, beginning with racing and steeplechasing.
The Aiken Thoroughbred Hall of Fame, located in the historic Hopeland Gardens, showcases great horses that were trained in Aiken, including Eclipse Award flat track winners Conquistador Cielo, Pleasant Colony, Swale, and 2014 Eclipse Award Champion Steeplechase Horse, Demonstrative.
Then there’s Palace Malice, the 2013 and 2014 Aiken Trained Horse of the Year, locally owned by Cot Campbell’s Dogwood Stable and trained by Brad Stauffer at the Aiken Training Track when he wasn’t at various racetracks, winning 7 of 19 starts. Six of his firsts were graded stakes, including the 2013 Belmont Stakes (Gr. 1). After earning $2,691,135 in purse money, Palace Malice now stands at stud in Kentucky.
Aiken has two racetracks: one for flat racing, the other for spring and fall National Steeplechase Association meets. The Aiken Spring Trials, March 19, showcase young Thoroughbreds at Aiken’s Training Track and serve as the first event in Aiken’s “Triple Crown.” The second, Aiken Spring Steeplechase, celebrates the tradition and excitement of jump racing in its 50th renewal at the Aiken Horse Park, traditionally called Ford Conger Field, now aka Bruce’s Field. The final leg of Aiken’s Triple Crown is Pacers and Polo, April 2, at Powderhouse Polo Field.
Aiken has become a star-studded winter destination for international and upper-level riders including Phillip Dutton, whose career includes winning the 2008 Rolex on Connaught, owned by the late Bruce Duchossois of Aiken, and Boyd Martin. Phillip and Boyd teach the very popular Master Classes, which benefit the Land Rover U.S. Eventing Team’s Road To Rio. Top eventers wintering in Aiken include Olympic medalist and three-time Rolex winner Kim Severson, Sally Cousins, Doug Payne, Dom and Jimmie Schramm, Australians Kate Chadderton and Ryan Wood, and Canadian Waylon Roberts.
Hunters, Jumpers, Horse Trials & Dressage
In addition to hunter-jumper shows, Aiken boasts a full calendar of horse trials and dressage shows. Venues include Paradise Farm, Full Gallop Farm, Sporting Days Farm and Stable View, an official winter training facility for the U.S. High Performance Eventing Team (the other official winter training facility is in Ocala, Florida). Boyd Martin bases his training activities at Stable View while his wife, Silva Martin, winters with her dressage horses and students at Fox Frolic Farm.
Highfields Event Center, owned by Rick and Cathy Cram, is another equestrian enclave with a show schedule packed with local, JFF (Just For Fun) and USEF National and Premiere dates, dressage competitions and non-horse events, such as the Aiken Music Fest (June 18). Located a few blocks from downtown Aiken, the 60-acre show facility offers three all-weather rings, grass Grand Prix jumper field, derby field, polo field, permanent stabling, and RV hook-ups, to name a few amenities. Highfields is home to Progressive Show Jumping, Progressive Jumps and Progressive Stabling.
For lovers of the chase, Aiken and its environs boast the Aiken Hounds, a venerable drag pack that dates back to 1914; Whiskey Roads Foxhounds (1976); Why Worry Hounds (1990); and Edisto River Hounds (1995). Several other packs are within “commuting distance”: Low Country Hunt (Charleston), Camden Hunt (Camden) and Belle Meade Hunt (Tomson, Georgia).
Lodging, Food & Fun
Visitors can find accommodations that suit their budgets whether it’s a dream getaway or escaping the harsher northern winters in order to compete, trail-ride and foxhunt. Total pampering awaits you at the Willcox Hotel or you can opt for proximity to the links by booking into the Inn at Houndslake. Then again, you can stay at Hotel Aiken and “walk home” after hitting the Polo Bar, one of the hottest nightspots in town right under the same roof. It’s all there, waiting for you…
Anyone with a yen for shopping will feel right at home strolling along Laurens and wandering down side streets. There’s fun and adventure as you explore the possibilities, which include Aiken Dry Goods, Epona and Equine Divine, where dressage rider-trainer Silva Martin often finds something that she fancies.
“There are some really cute stores in Aiken, and I’m a bit of a girl — I really enjoy buying clothes and I love going from store to store and looking around, but that isn’t possible with my husband,” said Silva, laughing. “I love to discover a specific item that suits my style and to shop for presents for people who invite us while we’re in Aiken.”
Restaurants and cafés abound. The Prime offers fresh lobster and aged beef, to name two carefully selected menu items. Marie’s is very popular, especially among eventers, who head there at least once a week for Mexican food and margaritas.
Aiken has something for everyone — horse sports, food, art, culture and history. It’s a very friendly town.