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Time for a new era of Camden 'chasing

Posted: April 17, 2017 4:10 p.m.
Updated: April 18, 2017 1:00 a.m.

It started out as a series of whispered rumors before gaining a full head of steam.

By last Thursday morning, the cat was let out of the bag that the Marion duPont Scott Colonial Cup meet, which had been run at the Springdale Race Course for each of the past 47 years, would cease to exist.

The unceremonious end to the running of the Camden fall classic caught most people within and outside the equine industry off guard but maybe, it should not have come as a shock.

Granted, there are those who prefer the more family-friendly Colonial Cup day to the hoopla and craziness which is part of the spring Carolina Cup. In the end, however, as is the case with putting on almost any event, the bottom line plays a major role in how things are run or, in this case, come to an end.

To those shedding a tear at the loss of the fall meet, it came down to a numbers game. If the Colonial Cup drew anywhere close to the gathering of patrons to Springdale as the Carolina Cup does, we would not be having this discussion. But the spring race had to not only had to hold up its end of the bargain --- in terms of generating revenue --- but also had the pull the weight for the fall meet.

You did not have a be a graduate of USC’s Darla Moore School of Business to discern that the Colonial Cup was a financial drain on the two Camden steeplechase meets. Race leadership from past to present beat their brains out trying to figure a way to increase attendance in the fall race with limited success.

Colonial Cup day was flip-flopped from a Sunday to a Saturday but nothing worked as the elephant on the race course was the popularity of college football season in the Palmetto State. You were not going to sway fans, who loved watching the Gamecocks, Tigers and the other state college programs, into taking in a day of racing in November.

It was not as if the Carolina Cup Racing Association (CCRA) did not try different methods to draw fans in the fall. They did everything to try and give the infield a county fair vibe. Organizers set up a merry go round and a petting zoo for kids. For the older set, this, past year, a micro-brew tent with hot dogs and a large screen with college football games were tried but did not draw the hoped-for crowds.

In 2010, the Colonial Cup took a new approach in saluting the military as present and retired service members were invited to come out to Springdale. They received free infield spaces and complimentary tickets in what amounted to window dressing as the infield looked more full and robust but those patrons did not have to purchase tickets and did little to help get the race out of its financial doldrums.

In a front page interview in last Friday’s Chronicle-Independent detailing the reasons for closing down the Colonial Cup, former champion jockey, race director and now vice-chairman of the CCRA, John Cushman, made it painstakingly clear as to why the board’s collective hand was forced to make the gut-wrenching decision. The board  members did so at a special meeting called last Tuesday to address what needed to be done in order to assure the viablilty of racing in, “The Steeplechase Capital of the World.”

The numbers just did not add up. The CCRA had to come up with in excess of half a million dollars each fall in order to stage the Colonial Cup. That figure did not include the purse money which, last fall, amounted to $315,000 for seven jump races. That comes out to nearly one million dollars in expenditures and, trust me, gate receipts did not make for a profitable day.

Next spring, by combining the $150,000 Colonial Cup feature onto the Carolina Cup card --- which still includes the $75,000 race for novice jumpers --- is the best of both worlds. Patrons will see the up and coming stars of the National Steeplechase Association sharing the spotlight with the best jumpers in training. And as for the CCRA, they do with without the additional financial burden.

Trimming the Springdale slate to one race day is a sign of the times. All you have to do is look east to Darlington Raceway, a track which used to host two Sprint Cup events each year which is down to one, the Southern 500.

It is equally, if not harder, to stage more than one hunt meet a year and, when you are small town such as Camden, finding sponsors to come on board for one meet is difficult enough, never mind having to scour the bushes in order to acquire the financial resources needed to stage two successful race days.

The initial shock and, in some sectors, the grieving process, of losing the Colonial Cup should be over. Now, it is time to forge ahead and with Cushman and CCRA CEO Nick Ellis joining forces, as soon as the announcement was made last week, the two men were already in the planning stages for what needs to be done to take the Carolina Cup to an even higher level.

Cushman is just the man to do it, too. Remember, when he took the reins from Dale Thiel as race director in 1990, there was just a wide expanse of unused territory on the backside of Springdale. Now, you have College Park in that area. That same year, he instituted a $250,000 bonus for any horse which could win both Camden feature chases in the same calendar year. As luck would have it, Lonesome Glory’s connections enjoyed a huge payday by backing its Carolina Cup win in the spring with a victory at Springdale that fall.

With Cushman back in the fold, there is no telling what lies ahead for the Camden spring classic which will now include a Grade I jump race. All we know is when Cushman was asked what plans he had working in his brain, he cast a Cheshire Cat-like smile and said “People need to stay tuned … there are going to be some big changes made.”

Buckle up folks, with Cushman’s fertile imagination, a track record of success  --- both on and off the track --- and with a finger on the pulse of what  people want and what the equine industry needs, this could be one heck of a fun ride.



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