Horse racing in Camden

"It was like racing used to be before we got that dear, dumb public to spend so much money and louse it up so greatly." -- Joe Palmer on Camden

CAMDEN, S.C. -- Visitors guided on their way by a sign proclaiming "Springdale Race Course, 1 mile" will find two old ovals sprawled in broad and open expanse along both sides of Knights Hill Road in the sleepy little southern town of Camden, South Carolina. It is here along this quiet route that a haven for horses was founded in 1928, and two years later the track first hosted its signature steeplechase event -- the Carolina Cup. Another steeplechase -- the Colonial Cup -- was added in 1970, assuring that although the tiny grandstand may sit empty most of the year, every spring and fall the place comes alive with racing once again.

Throughout history, this location and the surrounding farms and training centers in Kershaw County and beyond have produced or hosted some of the sport's mainstream stars. Although flat contenders do not compete here, champions like Damascus, Ruffian, Seeking the Gold and Forego graced these hills and hollows in the prime days of Frank Whiteley and LeRoy Jolley, when horsemen stabled in the North shipped their runners down for a break during the frigid winter months.

"Years ago when I was a kid, the training center was always filled -- but it was more of an atmosphere where trainers would come down when there was no winter racing and bring their older horses here to give them some time off, just some rest for a month or two," recalled Mickey Preger Jr., who runs an operation in Camden teaching the basics to young thoroughbreds before sending them off to more glamorous locales. "Now, if it's not jumpers here, it's basically yearlings and 2-year-olds getting started."

A handful of horsemen like Preger with old-school ideals still start young thoroughbreds and freshen more experienced runners over the Springdale course, at private facilities nearby, or at the adjacent Camden Training Center (known by the locals as "the flat track"). Well-known runners of the modern era -- Action This Day, Coronado's Quest, Distorted Humor, Forever Together, Happy Ticket, Hoist the Flag, Honorable Miss, Informed Decision, Inside Information, Karelian, and Secret Status, to name a few -- all began their early education or spent periods of time here between races. Youngsters started here or at facilities in the surrounding areas will ship to trainers like John Shirreffs, Dale Romans, Bill Mott, Mike Maker, Tony Dutrow, Neil Howard, Kiaran McLaughlin, Jonathan Sheppard, Danny Peitz, Graham Motion, and Al Stall Jr.

"There's a bunch of good horse people there, first and foremost," Stall said. "Then all the other stuff falls in behind, the sandy base and the seasonal temperatures and the trees. It's old-timey."

Shadwell Stable has two barns and 36 horses at the flat track, where 2006 Belmont Stakes winner Jazil first came along. Plum Pretty, who won the Kentucky Oaks in 2011, and Winter Memories, the brilliant Grade 1-winning turf filly, began their education at Kip Elser's Kirkwood Stable on the Springdale grounds (West Point Thoroughbreds keeps 22 runners with him as well). Zenyatta's dam Vertigineux and unraced half-sister Eblouissante started at the flat track as part of Preger's 25-horse string, as did two-time Grade 2 winner Mr. Commons. Shackleford, the 2011 Preakness winner, began his career about an hour away at Web Carroll's facility in St. Matthews, which produced the likes of 2011 Horse of the Year Havre de Grace. Elloree Training Center has also been known to produce top runners under the supervision of Frank Goree Smith, and over at Holly Hill Training Center (just under a two-hour drive from Camden), operations like Claiborne Farm and Pin Oak Stud sent contenders such as 2010 Breeders' Cup Classic winner Blame and 2011 Breeders' Cup Ladies' Classic victress and Dubai World Cup contender Royal Delta to develop the foundation that would take them to success.

This spring, two 3-year-olds with Kentucky Derby aspirations emerged from beneath Camden's shady pines -- Blue Grass Stakes contender Ever So Lucky and Arkansas Derby hopeful Najjaar. The former started out with Sheppard's string at Springdale and even returned for a little freshening en route from Palm Meadows; he left Camden Wednesday on a horse van bound for Keeneland. The latter has been training at Oaklawn Park with Danny Peitz and began his education with Kevin Kahkola at the Shadwell barn on the flat track.

"I've been coming to Camden since November of 1961," recalled Sheppard, who is known for his steeplechasers as well as his quality contenders on the flat. "I stayed there four months and really liked it, thought it was a great place to train horses. The climate's ideal, you barely miss a day's training; the track doesn't freeze and water drains right through it. I got in the habit of going there and it really fits my style. I send my flat horses in and out of there quite a bit."

The pervading belief is that a horse brought along in this idyllic setting is a happy one.

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At Springdale, a one-mile dirt track takes a meandering, by-no-means-perfectly-oval junket around a lush carpet of grass, turning after about six furlongs to assume a steady uphill climb toward a sturdy hunter green viewing stand. Trainers who condition here are as apt to walk across and stand on the fresh green turf as they are to watch a horse breeze from the sidelines, as there are no rails along the narrow dirt strip aside from a fence that loops the perimeter. Across the street the five-eighths oval is slightly wider and sports its own six-stall starting gate, where young horses are slowly introduced to the nuances of their future profession, walking to stand quietly inside the metal stalls, walking out again.

The facility here could be compared most realistically to the better-known Fair Hill Training Center in Maryland, mostly because a brother-sister duo was involved in the pivotal years of each location. William du Pont Jr. put in the old Fair Hill as part of an 8,000 acre haven for foxhunting and steeplechasing begun in the late 1920s -- the Fair Hill we know today was continued by the state after his death in 1965. In Camden, his sister Marion du Pont Scott purchased Springdale in 1954, bringing her holdings in the community up to about 1,000 acres of land that was solely for equine use. She bequeathed the 600 acres that is Springdale to the State of South Carolina for continued training and racing upon her death in 1983, while the remaining land was obtained by Will Farish II and reestablished as Camden Training Center until 2005, when it was purchased by Carlyle Development LLC.

"They were different locations, different climates, and different pieces of land, but a similar way of thinking about the horse," said Kip Elser, who keeps about 65 horses in training.

And what do horses think about the area? Just ask Wendy Kingsley, whose husband Arch runs Long Leaf Stable with 20 stalls at Springdale and more at his nearby farm.

"I've never met a horse that didn't love Camden," she said.

The Kingsleys sent out 2011 Carolina Cup winner Sunshine Numbers to a 27 ¼-length upset last season; they've had the top New York-bred steeplechase horse here for the past three years running and will start three contenders -- Sit a Spiel, Eastern Starlett, and Baltic Shore -- on the Carolina Cup undercard on Saturday. Arch, a former champion steeplechase jockey from Virginia who now conditions his own runners, first came to Camden in 1992 to ride for Sheppard and wound up based here when he retired from riding races.

"The thing that's different about Camden is the variety of places to take a horse," he explained. "They're more interested, engaged, and enthusiastic about training. Everyone who has sent horses to us over the years has been complementary of their foundation and seasoning. We just go out and ride them and train them to enjoy their work. It's a low-key atmosphere but a trainer can create intensity with other runners if needed. It's not overpopulated here and the surfaces are immaculately cared for."

The people who live here love it too, and in Camden's old and gracious homes -- where original wallpaper from the 1930s-1950s forms a backdrop for old prints and win pictures of runners long gone -- a pervading affection for the horse may be found. The town's simple way of life is why the Kingsleys bought their farm 12 years ago and set about building a home to raise their daughter Taylor, now 6, and why Preger, who was born here but grew up in New York, returned to raise his son Mitchell, now 19.

"New York just wasn't a place to bring up a child," said the 47-year-old horseman. "My wife Ashley and I decided to come back here in 1992 and start the yearling business. We've been going since 1993 and it's been good. It's a laid-back atmosphere. Camden is a great place to live."

There's an old saying, 'there are many ways to train a horse but only one way to take care of them.'

-- Mickey Preger Jr.

Preger is a Jr. His father Mickey Preger Sr. trained horses on the New York circuit, including 1983 Eclipse Award-winning older mare Ambassador of Luck, before retiring in 1992 (now 72, he lives in Camden with his wife, Judy). Before the younger Preger was starting horses like Grade 1 winner Karelian, Distorted Humor and others, he was galloping for his father and for Whiteley. The barn his horses inhabit at the flat track closely mimics the vintage wooden structures seen at Horse Haven on the Oklahoma Track at Saratoga Race Course in upstate New York; spacious windowed stalls and open shedrows are kept up in the same old-time style. His approach to starting a horse is similarly old-fashioned -- getting a yearling used to basic tack, lunging in the round pens, basic tack, gradually getting on the horses in a stall, riding them through figure eights in the paddock, taking rides along a lovely sand trail through the woods, and then heading over to begin gallops at the secluded half-mile track.

"There's an old saying, 'there are many ways to train a horse but only one way to take care of them,'" he said. "It's just fun to watch them develop and see how they go. If your horses don't look really good in this place then something's definitely wrong, because they should all look perfect here."

Perfectly-groomed horses and an immaculate setting are signature marks of two barns just down the road from Preger's operation, where Shadwell's runners are kept. Kahkola, 43, took over in Camden in 2008 after getting his start with Neil Howard when Lane's End still owned the place. Standing against the picturesque backdrop of a tree-rimmed one-mile track over which his trainees were the lone gallopers, he remembered a time when major horsemen and contenders inhabited the oval.

"I started up in Detroit when I was 18 and worked for seven years at Detroit Race Course," he recalled. "The first year I came down here in 1993 LeRoy Jolley had a barn of horses here, Lane's End and Neil Howard were here, and Mr. Whiteley had all the horses for the Phipps -- they went on to Shug McGaughey after he was done. All kinds of big-name trainers would just bring their whole strings down."

With the advent of winter racing and a shift to competitive circuits in Florida and California (most horsemen from New York and Kentucky winter at Gulfstream Park, Palm Meadows Training Center, or Payson Park), the philosophy of giving a racehorse an easy winter off has diminished. Young horses here arrive in late August or early September and leave in May of the following year, leaving a quiet summer before the next crop shows up in the fall.

"That's what kind of hurt this place; Palm Meadows and similar facilities where you can train racehorses, train babies, and do a kind of similar thing to what we do here, but you can still run because you're right next to the racetrack," Kahkola said. "A lot of owners want to run year-round now. They don't want to come down here, give a horse 30 days in the paddock, and have them ready for spring. Nowadays there's so many big races, there's no opportunity to take a break. That's another reason Camden doesn't get as much popularity. The newer generation isn't even aware it exists, but you talk to the older horsemen and they all remember this place."

Kahkola serves mainly as a primary trainer for Shadwell-owned youngsters that will go on to Kiaran McLaughlin and Danny Peitz, but he said once in a while a runner will come to his facility for some R&R.

"It's great for babies, and even older horses do really well here," he said. "We had Tajaaweed, the horse that won the Arlington Handicap last year. Danny wanted to give him a little break and we turned him out in the paddock here, trained a little over the turf, did all his breezing on the grass, and he was ready to go. It's a great facility, very quiet, very relaxed -- You can get horses ready here, it's a nice place."

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There are three major sporting events in South Carolina -- Darlington Raceway's Southern 500 (a two-day NASCAR extravaganza in May), the Heritage Golf Tournament (a PGA occasion in April), and the Carolina Cup. This Saturday, the Carolina Cup Racing Association celebrates the 80th running of the race that has become known as the largest outdoor sporting event in the state. While Cup officials project an estimated 60,000 will attend, locals said a more realistic number from years past lies between 30,000 and 40,000. End even those whose interests lie mainly in flat racing may take notice of the fact that 2011 Eclipse Award-winning Champion Steeplechase Horse Black Jack Blues highlights the feature in his first start of 2012, looking to remain unbeaten in the U.S. after victories in the restricted Dot Smithwick at Virginia Fall and the Grand National at Far Hills last November.

"It draws people from all over," Kahkola remarked. "They'll come from Georgia, Tennessee … it's pretty much a Derby-type atmosphere with big hats and sundresses -- it's just a big party."

In the days leading up to the race, traditional concerns over typical issues were arising in the community. Traffic is known to snarl, and the local Sheriff was fighting with Cup organizers over how much his deputies should be paid to manage the throng. As one lifelong local put it regarding "College Park," (think of the Preakness infield on steroids), "the college kids [come] out in masses to 'watch' horse racing, and by 'watch,' I mean drink copious amounts of alcohol" -- which presents a hassle Cup organizers and horsemen mostly tolerate and highbrow race attendees in the grandstand and premiere tailgating areas generally attempt to ignore.

There is no doubt, however, that the Carolina Cup is what local newsman Tom Didato termed "Camden's official unofficial holiday," a scene that has changed little since old-time turf writer Joe Palmer painted this picture in 1953:

"The order of business is something like this. A car pulls into Springdale late in the morning and parks against the fence which separates the course from the spectators. The occupants spill out and raise the lid of the trunk, disclosing camp chairs, blankets, sandwiches, thermos jugs, ice buckets, bottles and other necessities of life, including fried chicken. Thereafter there is visiting up and down the line, for there will be something like a quarter-mile of cars. By the time everybody has had a drink with everybody else … the first race comes out."

Claire Novak is an Eclipse Award-winning journalist whose coverage of the thoroughbred industry appears in a variety of outlets. You can reach her via her website.