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Farewell to the Colonial Cup

A first triumphant, then bumpy road

Posted: April 13, 2017 5:02 p.m.
Updated: April 14, 2017 1:00 a.m.

Known as America’s “First Lady of Steeplechasing," the late Marion duPont Scott had a profound impact on the sport she loved and for a race she started in Camden.

A part-time resident who lived at her Holly Hedge residence in downtown Camden, Mrs. Scott brought worldwide equine attention to Camden when, in 1970, she bankrolled the inaugural Colonial Cup International Steeplechase. With a total purse of $100,000, it was the first six-figure payday in the history of jump racing, and the first edition of the Camden fall classic was hailed as an immediate success by those in the industry.

Seeking to make the race a truly global event, Mrs. Scott bankrolled a major share of the costs for owners and trainers who shipped horses from Ireland, France, Scotland, England, Australia and Switzerland to the first edition of a race which drew attention across the globe from both racing and non-sporting publications. 

Held on Nov. 14, 1970, which coincided with the peak of international racing season on Veteran’s Day and the Washington (D.C.) International Race in Laurel, Md., the first Colonial Cup attracted a starting field of 23 jumpers.

At day’s end, Mrs. Ogden Phipps’ Top Bid, trained by D. M. Smithwick and ridden by Hall of Fame jockey Joe Aitcheson Jr. made their way over the 17 Colonial Cup fences and won the two-mile, six and one-half-furlong race in a time of 5:20.

The race was run over the unique, packed brush Colonial Cup fences which workers at the Springdale Racecourse rebuilt in time for each Colonial Cup and Carolina Cup race day. In 2011, after much discussion by the Carolina Cup Racing Association (CCRA), the move was made to do away with the rigid fences to bring down the cost for the building, repairing and man-hours that went into getting the Colonial Cup fences back into shape for the races.

The last Colonial Cup champion to make its way over the old jumps, which gave way to the National Fences used in most NSA jump races, was Slip Away in 2010. The last jumper to win over the Colonial Cup fences was Sunshine Numbers, owned by Camden’s Sue Sensor and trained by Camden-based conditioner Arch Kingsley Jr., in winning the 2011 Carolina Cup.

While the event, which regularly brought the curtain down on the NSA season, was a hit with owners and trainers, it never generated the buzz the Carolina Cup has sustained throughout its 83 runnings. As time went on, fewer foreign entries made their way to the event whose name was later changed to the Marion duPont Scott Colonial Cup. 

In a football-crazed state, the Colonial Cup never gained a foothold in the state -- or the region’s -- sports consciousness.

For years, the Colonial Cup was held on a Sunday, thereby keeping it away from Saturday afternoon college football games. The race was held the Saturday after Thanksgiving on at least one occasion and the result -- attendance-wise -- was, in a word, dreadful.

 In more recent times, the races were moved to the Saturday before Thanksgiving in the hopes that having a regular place on the fall athletic calendar would give a bump in attendance. In order to try and bring more patrons to the Springdale Racecourse, Colonial Cup officials turned the infield into a family friendly village featuring such attractions as Jack Russell Terrier races, pony rides, a petting zoo and a Merry-go-Round for the young and young at heart. 

One year even saw College Park, which is not used for the Colonial Cup, hosting a rock band on Colonial Cup day in order to try and bring in the college-aged crowds which have usually stayed away from the fall race.

Seeing as how the Colonial Cup occurred near Veterans Day, the CCRA invited present and retired military members and their families to the races; at one time providing free tickets and infield parking passes as part of the day’s proceedings were a Salute to the Military.

Over the past two falls, sporting exhibits, a craft beer tent and a large screen television beaming college football games have been tried in order to attract patrons.

Given the event’s proximity to Christmas, the Paddock Shops, featuring booths selling everything from art to seasonal clothing, was established in the area behind the grandstand.

In short, race officials from Raymond G. Woolfe to Dale Thiel to John Cushman to Jeff Teter and now, to CCRA CEO Nick Ellis have spent countless hours in trying to increase attendance at a race meeting which, in terms of the quality of horses, dwarfs the Carolina Cup. In all too many times, their efforts have fallen upon deaf ears as the number of empty infield spaces in the fall substantially outnumbered those which were occupied.

In his parting interview following his retirement as race director in 1990, the late Dale Thiel was asked if he had any regrets as his 15-year tenure overseeing both Camden hunt meets was coming to an end. Leaning back in his chair while taking a long drag on his cigarette, Thiel straightened up and put his hands on his desk after thinking about his answer. “(The Colonial Cup) has been the bane of my existence,” he said.

Some 22 years later, in what is believed to have been his final interview with the Camden Horse & Equestrian Magazine, Thiel never wavered when reminded about that quote and if his words still held up.

“It still is,” he said of the Camden fall classic and its inability to create its own niche with the non-jump racing segment of the population. “Damn it; here it is the biggest and most important race in the country and we can’t get it popular.

“We’ve tried everything. We’ve had all these things for the kids and nothing’s seemed to work; it didn’t seem to change it very much.”

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