Great day at the races

rburris@thestate.comMarch 30, 2013 

— The sun rises over a placid Springdale Race Course Sunday morning in Camden, but Saturday, the place was a party.

Attendance, however, was noticeably down this year – to about 50,000 or so, race course officials estimated, as the state’s premier horse-racing event collided with the highly-observed Easter holiday weekend.

Still, elaborate table spreads, colorful, floppy hats for the ladies and pastel-colored dresses of every shade were very much the order of the day – as usual for the 81st running of the Carolina Cup steeplechase races.

“Tailgating after college makes (that experience) look like high school (when compared to what was put out Saturday),” said Shannon Parsons of Wingate, N.C., who with his wife, Melissa, prepared everything from barbecue with beans to hamburgers and hotdogs on stainless steel gas grills for 20 to 25 students, including their 21-year-old son, Taylor. They all journeyed to the races for a day from Wingate University, about 60 miles north of Camden.

“We’re the designated drivers and the cooks,” Melissa Parsons said.

A partially sunny, partially overcast day made for a near perfect mixture of spring for the day, with warm, but not hot temperatures and soothing cool breezes, many race patrons said.

The Carolina Cup, which organizers dub one of the largest outdoor horse events on the East Coast, normally attracts 65,000 to 70,000 fans each year.

Swaths of unclaimed parking spaces were easy to see, both in the zany College Park tailgating area and the more established infield parking area, with many ticket sales occurring just the last day before the race, officials said.

“It definitely is a smaller crowd this year, about half the people as usual,” said Alex Wyatt, a 21-year-old East Carolina senior. Wyatt noted that the “D” parking row, and “E,” farthest from the infield in College Park, were largely unoccupied. The crowds congregating at each tent seemed smaller, too, Wyatt said, with 80 or so people gathered at each rather than a typical 100 or so.

Camden Police Chief Joe Floyd, who headed law enforcement security for races, said the number of infield vacancies were largest, however.

“It looks like attendance is down slightly (compared to last year), and that area looks to be mostly in the infield area,” Floyd said, speculating that many of the patrons who normally occupy the infield spots were probably at home because their college kids are home for the Easter weekend.

“I really think that Easter being tomorrow has had probably the most influence so far as it being a slight reduction in the attendance this year.

A confluence of several South Carolina law enforcement agencies came together through mutual aid agreements to man the Springdale Race Course this weekend, Floyd said, including Camden, the city of Columbia, the University of South Carolina and Clemson University public safety offices, SLED, Lexington, state constables and others.

Enabled by additional financial resources made available for security at the races, Floyd said more officers were posted in each of the three main areas patrons occupied, including the grandstand, infield and College Park areas.

By 2:30 Saturday, 18 people had been arrested, Floyd said, mostly on drunkenness charges, but that number ballooned to about 90 arrests by 6:30 p.m., days end, with 260 people having had charges made against them. Those numbers coincide with last year’s incident reports for the race, he said. Only one fight was reported, Floyd said. Five people were transported from the event to area medical facilities for various reasons, he said.

Reigning novice champion Alajmal won the featured Carolina Cup Race in a powerful come-from-behind run in which he mastered the field coming down the homestretch. Hall of Fame trainer Janet Elliott is Alajmal’s trainer.

One rider fell from his horse in the second race on the five-event race card, and one horse went down and had to be removed from the track in race three. Both were OK, officials said later.

Tony Scully has been Camden mayor for just four months, but he has been a patron of the races since 2005. He summed up the day like this.

“This is the high point of our year,” Scully said. “The spirit of our celebration is high, but more importantly, the horse is what grounds this community.”

The horse community is hardworking, Scully said, and the people who live there have “great hearts” both for the horses and the dogs that comprise the industry in Camden.

As for this year’s smaller crowds, Scully put the solemn Christian Easter holiday in this perspective.

“Yes, it is,” he said of the Easter weekend. “As you can see with the big hats, there’s an additional celebration – of color and flowers, and new life, and resurrection, and it’s a very happy day for everybody.”

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