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Good-bye and hello

Colonial Cup race meet dissolved but race itself will join Carolina Cup

Posted: April 13, 2017 4:56 p.m.
Updated: April 14, 2017 1:00 a.m.
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THE LATE Marion duPont Scott will have the Colonial Cup race run in her memory each spring as part of the Carolina Cup card after the Carolina Cup Racing Association voted to put an end to the Camden fall classic race meet after 47 years.

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Having had the road to the National Steeplechase Association end here, Camden will now serve as the jump-off point for the nation’s best jump horses. That decision did not come without compromise, however.

Following a lengthy and emotional discussion at a specially called post-Carolina Cup meeting, the Carolina Cup Racing Association’s (CCRA) Board of Directors voted in favor of suspending the National Steeplechase Association (NSA) season-ending event, the Marion duPont Scott Colonial Cup meet held each November in Camden, beginning with this November’s race.

The Camden fall classic race day, itself, will no longer be a part of the community or the NSA’s slate. The Grade I race itself will be run in the spring as part of the Carolina Cup and gives the popular Camden spring classic a powerful one-two punch with two headline races -- the Grade I Marion duPont Scott Colonial Cup and the $75,000 Carolina Cup for novice jumpers -- kicking off the NSA campaign one week after the Aiken spring meet serves as the season’s lid-lifter.

The decision to do away with the Marion duPont Scott Colonial Cup race meet at the Springdale Racecourse, contested since its namesake first bankrolled the event  in 1970 and was the first time jumpers had ever run for a $100,000 purse anywhere in the world, was one which did not come without lengthy deliberation by board members.

The wishes of the late Mrs. Scott, the “First Lady of American Steeplechasing," were not far from the collective mind of the CCRA board members when first discussing and then voting to discontinue a race which she established.

“It was a very difficult decision,” said former CCRA race director and former and current CCRA board vice-chairman John Cushman Thursday morning while seated in CCRA CEO Nick Ellis’s office inside the National Steeplechase Museum.

“The bottom line for me was, and (Cushman’s predecessor as CCRA race director) Dale Thiel used to tell me this when I was the director, ‘When you come to these hard decisions, particularly involving the Colonial Cup, is would Mrs. Scott approve of this?’

“(Mrs. Scott) definitely would have approved of this decision. We’re going to lose something but try and save that race that she created. This is her legacy. She gave this property (the Springdale Racecourse) to the state.”

Cushman, who returned to the CCRA board in 2017 after having stepped away from the post several years ago, said the energy in the room last week in deciding to cancel the Colonial Cup was unlike anything he had ever experienced in any meeting which he had attended or with which he had been involved. Shuttering the Colonial Cup, he said, did not come without passionate discussion and soul-searching by all those involved in a decision which would, ultimately, affect both the jump racing community and the citizens of Kershaw County.

“That was the most emotional board meeting I had ever attended in my life,” said the former four-time champion steeplechase jockey and owner of The Tack Room in Camden. “I’ve talked to five or six people who were there and everybody said the same thing and, we had a lengthy conversation about this, whichever way people voted they all felt the same way; I don’t think that you’re going to find anybody who will say that wasn’t an extremely difficult decision to make.”

Kershaw County Council Chairman Julian Burns, who also serves on the CCRA board, agreed the decision was difficult but believes it was the right decision to make.

“I think this is a very positive step -- it preserves and enhances the Colonial Cup and the Carolina Cup and assures that we continue to keep two world class events in our community and allows us to bring in even greater attendance and further enhance the overall experience for a wider audience,” Burns said.

“It wasn’t an easy decision; it was considered, vetted and deliberated over a long time with many people. I applaud the board, and especially our chair, Peggy Steinman and vice-chair, John Cushman, for leading us to this decision. It was the right decision to make and I believe is the most appropriate in keeping with the vision and wishes of Mrs. duPont Scott. I continue to draw on the support of our county and state for supporting this rich cultural event. 

“The equine community in Kershaw County -- from barrel racing and wild bronco riding to dressage and steeplechasing -- is a key part of our Vision Kershaw County 2030 plan and we will continue to work to make it a successful and attractive feature of the county.”

The decision rendered by the CCRA board was one which was hardly taken lightly. For the past three or four years, when members looked at the final monetary tally following each of Camden’s two race meetings, it was plain to see that the numbers were not adding up and something, either sooner or later, had to be done about the loss of revenue.

Sooner came during Tuesday afternoon’s meeting at the National Steeplechase Museum.

“This topic has been on the board’s agenda for awhile. It’s been three or four years coming because the Colonial Cup is losing some serious revenue; the Carolina Cup has been supporting it for awhile,” Cushman said. “It came to the point to where people were ready to make a decision.”

While serious, the mood in the room Tuesday was hardly all doom and gloom, he said. It was hardly a matter of axing the Colonial Cup meet and ending a tradition started by Mrs. Scott. A solution had to involve keeping the race which she so loved and incorporating it with the Carolina Cup, which can be called “the People’s Race.”

Rather than discarding the Colonial Cup feature chase, which last year was run for a $150,000 purse, why not bring it into the Carolina Cup meet to give that day two feature chases? Cushman said by doing this, race patrons, owners, trainers and riders get the best of both worlds, an early season Grade I chase to be contested before a crowd numbering in excess of 40,000 rather than a more intimate gathering of the 10,000 which showed up each fall in Camden.

“I personally, as a jockey, relate this as riding at Saratoga as compared to riding in a festival meet, which I was fortunate to ride in once, in Cheltenham, in front of 70,000 people. It adds up,” he said. “There is a lot of excitement when you ride in front of a big crowd rather than 10,000 people. It creates a buzz in the air. The riders really feel it and the horses feel it; it’s just a different atmosphere. From that perspective, it really enhances the day.”

CCRA board members are trying to keep the Colonial Cup feature chase purse at $150,000, which is the NSA minimum for a Grade I race. Should that be the case, the Colonial Cup will go from being the fifth and final Grade I jump race to the first and only one of two in the spring in events which weigh heavily in deciding the champion steeplechase horse in this country. 

Another perk of moving the Colonial Cup race to the spring is that the NSA can use the $350,000 Grand National held in Far Hills, N.J., as the grand finale for handicap-quality horses. That, Cushman said, is the way it should be since there was sometimes a letdown after the running of this country’s richest jump race.

 “The big season for the handicap horses is going to end at Far Hills, which it should because it’s a $350,000 race,” Cushman said. “Those horses will get rest six weeks earlier (rather than staying in training for the Colonial Cup) and then, they will get back in training a little earlier. We hope that we can create an unbelievable day of racing to kick off the season (with the Carolina Cup races) rather than end it.”

If there is a concern about having the Colonial Cup so early in the year it is that some owners, mainly north of Camden, may be affected by bad weather in the winter and may not have their horses where they want to be in terms of fitness at such an early stage of the season. Cushman allayed many of those fears as he noted than many trainers in the Mid-Atlantic region have all-weather facilities such as those which four-time defending champion trainer Jack Fisher has at his facility in Maryland.

“If you look at the past 10 years,” Cushman said while alluding to recent spates of milder winters, “horses don’t have to leave the north anymore. The temperatures have changed and the ground doesn’t freeze as much. And, if you do have a hard winter, with the money that we’re talking about putting up in the spring, they will come down, they will be ready for this race … they aren’t going to let it go by.

“We think that there’s a great opportunity for us in the spring, now, to build that meet and to have really high quality racing here. Before, (Grade I-level) horses weren’t cranking up this early. There’s going to be a reason for them to crank up, right now.”

One interesting possibility in running the Colonial Cup and Carolina Cup feature races together on the same day is a possible bonus for an owner, trainer or rider who can win both events on the same day. In the 47 years in which the Colonial Cup and Carolina Cup races have been run in the fall and spring, respectively, only two jumpers (Lonesome Glory in 1997 and Alajmal in 2013) scored a Springdale sweep.

“We were having to spend 500,000 to 600,000 to put the Colonial Cup race meet on and then put up the purse,” Cushman said of the costs involved in putting on the fall meet in Camden. “Now, the only cost to us for the Colonial Cup is the purse money. The event costs have gone away. There lies the big savings for us and we’re able to keep the really important race (the Colonial Cup) in the sport.”

When reminded of his predecessor’s (Thiel) constant battles in trying to make the Colonial Cup as a big a financial success as it was in the quality of racing, Cushman said this measure put many hours, days, months and years of consternation and head-scratching to rest.

“For some reason,” he said, “neither Dale (Thiel), myself and the current administration … nobody has been able to come up with the formula to draw the crowds in the fall. That’s 30 or 40 years of trying. It just seemed like it’s time … you’ve got to evolve, you’ve got to change. We thought this was the best way to save the race that Mrs. Scott created and enhance the spring event.”

Not having to stage a stand-alone Colonial Cup meet opens the door for more opportunities on many ends when it comes to steeplechase racing in Camden. First, having one race takes some of the pressure and strain from the office workers, including Ellis.

When you have the Colonial Cup in November followed by all the preparation which goes into producing the spectacle which is the Carolina Cup, the three-plus months between races allows little time for rest and recovery before devoting their full attention to the next project. Having one grand event, both Ellis and Cushman said, will help in attracting sponsors.

Preparing and finding sponsors for one race also will allow Ellis to rest a bit easier at night.

“It takes a heck of a lot off my plate but in only one sense,” he said of having one race day. “I have a number of sponsors, both here and in Columbia, that have a single pot of money. I could have used it on two race meets or use it on one or the other. They don’t have two separate pots. You can bring that sort of thinking to a lot of what we can now do. We can make it a simpler deal with the one race meet. With only one game, it’s the only game in town.

“It will make it easier for businesses in Camden, which couldn’t find a place to play in either one of the meets before, to now have only one race meet they can be involved in and that’s an easy decision for them to make.”

Both Ellis and Cushman said one race meet limits the options of race patrons. Both know there are factions in and around the community who prefer the more laid back and family friendly Colonial cup atmosphere while other love the revelry and pageantry of the spring race. Having something for everyone is one of the challenges which the CCRA board is already working on for next spring’s races. At the same time, however, those involved with staging two races in the past can now channel all their energies into making the Carolina Cup race meet a special and unique day both on and outside the track. 

Two days after Tuesday’s vote, plans were already being made to help create something special next spring. 

“We’re going to have a variety of audiences at this meet whereas at the Colonial Cup, we had two; the families and the equestrian enthusiasts who came down for that last race of the year,” Ellis said. “Now, we have a broader menu to deal with in terms of what people are looking for and how we’re going to satisfy their interests.”

 “There’s a lot of the community who would rather go to the Colonial Cup while some would rather go to the spring race. We’re going to try and accommodate both those crowds, that family crowd and the infield crowd and the college crowd,” Cushman said with a grin. “People need to stay tuned. There will be some changes … there are going to be some big changes made.”

Having one race meet rather than a pair is a decision which affects race patrons in the region in general. That part of the population rarely knows or understands the other part of the Springdale equation.

Changes are also being made as to the Springdale Training Center, which operates under the umbrella of the CCRA.

As Cushman alluded to, many trainers who would come to Camden to escape the harsh northern winters have decided to keep their string of jumpers and runners at home rather then send them south while some barns have seen a decrease in thoroughbreds. The number of stall rentals on the Springdale grounds has taken a dip which has led to changes being made to the year-round training facility which occupies both sides of Knights Hill Rd.

As of May 1, Ellis said, some services provided to trainers at the training center will be scaled back simply because there are not enough horses training on the grounds.

“We are really going to mind our P’s and Q’s if we don’t have enough horses this summer,” Ellis said of the changes which are coming the way of the training center, which operates separately from the nearby Camden Training Center on Chesnut Street. “We’re not going to put it on hibernation mode but we’re going to try and tailor what we do out there based upon the number of horses who are there.

“As we get to the end of the summer and the beginning of September, then we’ll add in additional services as the horses start coming back into town.”

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