Editor's note: Corrected to reflect that Sheriff Jim Matthews succeeded Steve McCaskill as sheriff after McCaskill retired.
There’s a new sheriff in College Park at the Carolina Cup, and Jim Matthews pledges to have little sympathy this year for underage alcohol drinkers or unruly drunks of any age.
“This is my first experience with College Park,” Matthews said. “To say that it’s out of control is an understatement. The people at the Cup are concerned, as am I.”
Things could get interesting when tens of thousands of college students stream into the horse race/fashion show/cocktail party in Camden on Saturday. But then, things are always interesting in College Park, the section of the Springdale Race Course property set aside for college kids in 1997 after older patrons complained about their rowdy behavior.
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The number of people arrested each year has ranged from 50 to nearly 150. Every year, the bulk of the arrests and citations reported by the Kershaw County sheriff’s department, the Camden police and the S.C. Highway Patrol are for underage drinking and public drunkenness.
Among the highest arrest totals reported in recent years were 144 in 1995, early in Steve McCaskill’s 16-year tenure as Kershaw County sheriff. Matthews, who succeeded the retired McCaskill after winning a heated 2010 election, brings a new outlook to the Cup.
Matthews jokes that he asked Camden police Chief Joe Floyd – who handles most of the rest of the Springdale Race Course property on race day – to switch Carolina Cup responsibilities. He knows his officers face a long day on Saturday in College Park.
“The young people are going to do it; they’re going to take chances,” Matthews said. “And we’re going to have things set up to handle them.”
Last year, a 19-year-old girl suffered alcohol poisoning and her heart stopped before medical personnel revived her, authorities said. More common are the young men who start imbibing early in the day and turn stupid or violent, or both, late in the afternoon, Matthews said. Fights are common.
There are so many arrests each year that court officials set up shop at the races to compile the docket of those arrested so the cases can be handled on site. County magistrates and city judges flock to the county jail after the race to hear the cases well into the night. An ATM was installed last year at the jail so the cash-strapped revelers can pay bail.
Matthews has about 70 officers to handle as many as 20,000 revelers in College Park. Although things don’t usually get really crazy until about 1 p.m., Matthews said, his officers will arrive early in an attempt to fend off kids who are sloppy drunk even before they get to the course.
Matthews acknowledged he has had “some pushback” from others in Kershaw County about his proposed crackdown at the Cup. They appreciate the economic boon from the race and don’t want talk about hundreds of arrests to kill it.
“There are some people who aren’t happy with me, and I’m very disappointed in that,” Matthews said.
But the threat of more arrests also hasn’t slowed the calls to bus rental companies, who ferry college students throughout South Carolina, North Carolina and Georgia to and from the Cup.
Sororities and fraternities have reserved four buses from Brooks Cavalier Charter Tours in Columbia. “That’s all (the buses) we have,” said owner Charles Brooks. “If I could rustle up 20 more, they’d fill them up.”
Brooks enjoys driving a bus full of kids to the Cup each year. The only problem he runs into is cleaning the mud the kids track back into the bus from College Park, which is chewed up by the end of a good day and is a muddy quagmire on rainy days.
By contrast, Buddy Young, owner of Capital Tours in West Columbia, said he stopped offering bus trips to the Cup six or seven years ago because of the damage done to his buses by rowdy kids. Some years, he spent more in repairs than he made in fees.
“They tore seats, busted windows, and when there’s vomit, you have to have all the seats professionally cleaned,” Young said.
The publicity about Matthews’ planned crackdown also hasn’t hurt ticket sales. Jeff Teeter, director of the Carolina Cup Racing Association, said more tickets were selling faster than the past two economy-strapped years.
Teeter said he’s all for law enforcement agencies doing everything they can “to ensure spectators are safe and have a good time.”
Teeter believes a strong law enforcement presence from the start of the day could be a positive move to cut down on problems later in the day.
For all his tough talk, Matthews has warned his officers to be careful.
“I told them with all of the new cell phones, there’ll be 10,000 video cameras out there, so don’t be getting heavy-handed,” Matthews said. “We don’t need to be on the national news.”