Triple Crown: Aiken Training Track enjoying a resurgence

Mar. 15—To say the Aiken Training Track is a phoenix rising from the ashes would be an exaggeration. But after a decades-long struggle by local horsemen to attract more thoroughbreds to the facility on Two Notch Road, it finally is enjoying a resurgence.

"We feel hopeful and we feel excited because we've had a lot more interest from people wanting to come here," Training Track Chairman Chad Ingram said. "We're building a little momentum."

From October 2021 through September 2022, approximately 135 horses were in training — some for only short periods of time — at the one-mile oval.

Training Track President Bill Gutfarb expects that number to increase by at least 50 during the period that began October 2022 and will end in late September.

"That's a good question," said Gutfarb, when asked about the reason for the revival. "I don't know who gets the credit for it. I think it's just a matter of all of us — whether we be the trainers that are here or the members of the board of directors — pushing and pushing and pushing to get more horses to come here."

Open since 1941, the Training Track is where young thoroughbreds are prepared for racing and older horses get a break from competition.

The one-mile oval also is the home of the Aiken Trials, traditionally the first leg of the Aiken Triple Crown.

Scheduled this year for March 18, the 80th edition of the Trials will be followed by the Aiken Spring Steeplechase on March 25 and Pacers & Polo on April 1.

During the early 1980s, more than 400 thoroughbreds spent the winter at the Training Track.

But for various reasons, including the growth of year-around racing and Florida's rise in prominence as a winter training site, the number dwindled.

In 2015, the facility experienced a major setback when Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al Maktoum, the ruler of Dubai, shut down his training operation in Aiken.

"I've been concerned about the future of this track for a long time and will continue to be, but now it's going to get even harder," said Brad Stauffer, who was the Training Track's president at the time.

Under Ingram and Gutfarb's leadership, the facility's board has explored the possibility of making the track and its grounds more user-friendly for other types of horses.

In 2021 and again in 2022, the Best of the West auction, which featured a variety of equine breeds, was held at the Training Track.

Ingram, Gutfarb and others also discussed the possibility of putting a cross-country course for eventers, a riding ring or an arena for barrel racing in the infield.

In addition, there were continuing efforts to promote the Training Track to thoroughbred owners and trainers in other parts of the country.

"Perhaps everything is just starting to click," Gutfarb said.

One of the Training Track's biggest assets, he believes, is that Aiken is a "very nice" community.

"We have restaurants, golf courses, tennis courts and pickleball courts along with all sorts of horse activities," Gutfarb said. "There is every discipline you can imagine — flat racing, steeplechase racing, harness racing, dressage, hunter/jumper shows, foxhunting, polo and some Western riding."

New this year to the Training Track is Virginia-based Neil Morris, who conditions steeplechasers and flat runners.

He has around 30 horses with him in Aiken.

Morris had visited here previously to foxhunt and was impressed with what the area has to offer in addition to an escape from Virginia's colder winters.

"Aiken is a friendly town, and the Training Track is a great facility," he said. "You've also got Hitchcock Woods, which has sand trails and lots of room. Not many other cities have that."

Especially encouraging to Morris has been Training Track management's willingness to accommodate his steeplechasers.

"I've had some very healthy conversations with Chad Ingram, and he was open-minded," Morris said.

That led to the creation of a schooling course for steeplechasers, with National Fences and log jumps, in the Training Track's infield.

Among the other newcomers with horses stabled at the facility or in nearby barns are Alexandra White and Tom Rice.

Arkansas Savvy Racing also had horses at the Training Track for a while, and veterans such as Cary Frommer and Legacy Stable's Stauffer and Ron Stevens continue to condition thoroughbreds there.

In January and February, the Training Track teamed up with the City of Aiken to conduct a series of four events called Breeze Days at the facility.

They offered the public the opportunity to watch thoroughbreds gallop and breeze (exercise at a faster pace) in the morning.

Free coffee and doughnut holes were available at the Cot Campbell Clocker's Stand.

More than 200 people attended the final Breeze Day on Feb. 22.

"We want to help the community get a better understanding of what we do here and show them it's a nice venue to come to and see the horses," Gutfarb told the Aiken Standard during the first Breeze Day on Jan. 11. "We are another aspect of Aiken's culture."

The Training Track also makes an important contribution to the local economy, in his opinion.

"The better we do here at the track, the better it is for the City of Aiken and Aiken County," Gutfarb said. "The more horses we have here, the more people will be coming to work here. You need more grooms to care for the horses and more exercise riders, and more people who own the horses will be coming here to visit. All that generates business for the community."

Training Track management has been in discussions recently with the Aiken Driving Club about a national driving event being held on the facility's grounds this November, Gutfarb reported.

"Hopefully we can work something out," he said.