I’m not really a morning person. Then again, I’m not really a night owl either. I guess I just really appreciate sleep. However, some things are worth foregoing an extra few minutes of slumber. I talk a lot about South Carolina’s vistas because we are blessed with such an abundance of beauty across the entire state. But I would argue that no view is more stunning—or worth the effort—than one you take in gradually as the sky carefully colors itself over the course of a sunrise.
I haven’t seen many sunrises, so the ones I have seen tend to stand out a little more in my memory. My most recent sunrise was a wonderful by-product of a visit to Aiken, South Carolina. I got to watch the gradient of hues, ranging from blue to orange to yellow to white, highlight the morning mist hovering a few feet above the grass at the Aiken Training Track. It was spectacular!
I say this sunrise was a by-product because I actually visited the training track early one Thursday morning to experience a different kind of view, though equally inspiring. Aiken has been a hub for horse training for generations, and I simply had to see what all the fuss was about for myself. And the best time to see a true thoroughbred stretch its legs? Bright and early, folks.
I met up with Lisa Hall at Legacy Stable to get my first glimpse of the breed that serves as the namesake for this region of the Palmetto State. Lisa is the museum coordinator of the award-winning Aiken Thoroughbred Racing Hall of Fame & Museum and she is a walking encyclopedia for Aiken’s equestrian roots. Also familiar with many of the trainers and several of the horses themselves, she took me on a backstretch tour to understand just why they call this Thoroughbred Country.
Even for someone with little knowledge or experience of horses, I could tell there was something exceptional about the magnificent animal that meandered past me across a field to take its morning exercise. There are distinctive physical features that set thoroughbreds apart from your average horse. But even more than that, to truly earn the title, a horse must be able to have its lineage traced back to just three stallions imported to England in the late 17th- and early 18th-centuries.
So, these are not your average horses, and they are literally born to run. Aiken became a haven for the breed because of its mild climate and soil that proved perfect for hooves. Wealthy owners would migrate south each year bringing their animals with them. When you see the names of the owners and the winners that were trained in Aiken on the walls and trophy cases of the Hall of Fame, it’s incredible to realize their success was born in a small city in South Carolina.
The horse that I came out to watch? He was a grandson of American Pharaoh, the 12th American Triple Crown winner in history. I was literally in the presence of horse royalty, y’all! As you can probably imagine, riding a horse with such a pedigree is out of the question, something that many might find confusing when they first hear the moniker of the region. Although we can only admire these creatures from afar, it’s fun to know they enjoy a treat just as much as the next guy.
Aiken has long celebrated the equestrian history and tradition that is forever entwined in its culture, from the horse statues peppering the downtown to the horse crossing signs on Aiken roads (where a horse ALWAYS has the right of way). But the town is worth visiting even if you don’t have an equestrian interest. With its beautiful gardens, stunning architecture, delicious dining and glamorous history, there’s a whole lot to discover in this South Carolina gem.
Of course, no trip to Southern Living’s "South’s Best Small Town of 2018" would be complete without a brush with its horse heritage. I’d be remiss if I didn't encourage you to experience a steeplechase race or polo match for the first time, take a backstretch tour or simply wake up at the crack of dawn to watch a horse do what it was born to do.
Filming for this show was done in part prior to Covid-19 and SCPRT recommends following local guidelines for social distancing and your personal protection. Some of the activities depicted in the “Go For It’ series might be affected, or even unavailable, due to Covid-19. Please check with the local provider or attraction for the latest schedules and hours of operation.