Aiken’s Groat is synonymous with horses and steeplechase racing
National Steeplechase Association steward and Aiken resident Steve Groat developed his love for horses early in life, and his passion grew while attending Aiken Preparatory School.
“I rode there, I was a whip there,” said Groat. “I fell in love with horses there, and because of that horses have always been a big part of my life.”
The horseman’s parents had a home in Camden, and during the winter he had the good fortune to be surrounded by jump horses. He had the opportunity to get to know a number of trainers and riders, and during that time, Groat competed in a number of disciplines, having evented and exhibited show horses. His experiences also saw him participate in two timber races.
“I wasn’t a steepelchase person,” said Groat. “I knew the people. I loved the horses, and I was the Master of the Hunt for the Aiken Hounds back in the late 1960s and early 1970s.”
Groat’s entry into the world of steeplechase racing came as the result of making a career transition.
“I was working at a brokerage firm in Wilmington, Del. for Mr. Bissel, another Aiken person, and when the company merged, I quit. I was looking for a job, and George Strawbridge was a friend. They were looking for someone to run Fair Hill, and even though I didn’t have experience running races, they hired me.”
It was during this time Groat would form a partnership with bloodstock agent and future National Steeplechase Association president Frannie Abbott.
Groat would continue to expand his horizons, adding to his resume, by accepting additional responsibilities. He is one of the NSA’s senior stewards.
“George Strawbridge sent me to the Jockey Club School for Racing Officials, and I got accredited to be a NYRA official,” said Groat. who also went through the National Steeplechase Association’s stewards accreditation program, when it was first established.
The NSA rules dictate that a senior steward is to be at every steeplechase meet, and that three NSA stewards are to be present at the major steeplechase meets. Groat was one of the stewards at the Far Hills meet in Far Hills, N.J. on Oct. 20, worked this past weekend in Aiken, will be at the 28th annual Steeplechase at Callaway in Pine Mountain, Ga. this Saturday, and will be one of the senior stewards presiding at Springdale Race Course on Colonial Cup day in Camden on Nov. 17.
“I’ll be the only senior steward there (Callaway Gardens) this week,” said Groat.
It was while Groat was working at Fair Hill that he came up with an idea that helped to change the complexion of the sport.
The State of Maryland had assigned Fair Hill five racing dates, and at the time whey were making use of only four dates, said Groat.
Delaware Park, at the time Groat accepted the position at Fair Hill, would honor the racing dates at the Fair Hill meet by not running their meet concurrently. An ownership and management change at Delaware Park would have both meets running simultaneously, which made a significant impact on Fair Hill’s handle.
“We started running against Delaware Park in the fall,” said Groat. “We weren’t making what we thought to be enough money for our charity, Union Hospital. One day, I was driving, and I thought, ‘Why don’t we do the Breeders’ Cup Steeplechase.’”
The idea was born and embraced, and a number of parties became involved in the process, said Groat.
“There was D.G. Van Clief and the Breeders’ Cup side of things, George Strawbridge, the State of Maryland built stands for us, we built a detention barn and quarantine barn,” said Groat. “It was a lot of fun.”
The races were run on the same day as the Breeders’ Cup flat races at Santa Anita Park, Nov. 1, 1986, and at the time the 1986 Breeders’ Cup Steeplechase was the world’s richest steeplechase event. George Chase’s Census would score a 1 1/2-length victory over Dogwood Stable’s Kesslin in the inaugural event. Census was conditioned by future Hall of Fame trainer Janet Elliot, and was ridden to victory by Jeff Teter.
“It was a lot of fun,” said Groat. “We ran the races at the same time the flat races were going on in California. There was a foul claim (Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies, with Brave Raj prevailing), in the race before the Breeders’ Cup Steeplechase, and by the time that was ajudicated, we had let our horses go. We couldn’t hold them at the start anymore. We dropped the flag just as the race in California became official. They picked (the television broadcast) us up right at the start. That was the scariest part of the whole thing. It was a lot of fun. The number of volunteers involved was amazing.”
The Breeders’ Cup Steeplechase was the most exciting event Groat has been involved in with the sport.
“I’ve always told people, other than my family, steeplechase racing has provided me with some of the most fun times in my life,” said Groat. “I had the opportunity to go to England, Japan, Ireland, Australia and New Zealand. I’ve had the chance to make friends all over the world, and have been really active in the sport. It’s been very rewarding for me personally. The people who are involved with the sport are wonderful.”
He’s also designed a number of racetracks during his career, and played an unheralded role in helping steeplechase racing at a New England-based racetrack.
“Rockingham Park wanted to do a couple of jump races, and for some reason, they called me,” said Groat. “I told them I would do whatever I could to help. They didn’t have any wings (the panels on the sides of the hurdle that help to direct the horses to the jumping effort). I paid to have the wings built and delivered them.”
However, it was an honor named after a steeplechase owner with Aiken ties that Groat received in 2004 that still resonates with him today. Groat was the recipient of the F. Ambrose Clark Award, presented by the National Steeplechase Association. The award is given to those individuals who dedicate themselves to improve, promote and encourage the sport of steeplechase racing. He received the honor the same year he was diagnosed with cancer.
“My friend Frannie Abbott was on the board, when the decision was made, he called me,” said Groat. “That’s the highest honor the sport can give you. It means a lot to me. It’s a very special award.”
The Aikenite received another honor this spring, when the Queen’s Cup Steeplechase in Charlotte dedicated their Steward’s Tower to Groat.