A new exhibit at the Aiken Thoroughbred Racing Hall of Fame and Museum offers a historical perspective on the evolution of the facility and its importance to preserving the history of equestrian sport and the equine industry in Aiken.
And although the museum has been a fixture in the city since opening its doors to the public in 1977, it was one organization in particular that turned the vision into a reality.
The Aiken Jaycees approached the city with a proposal to recognize the accomplishments of the prominent Thoroughbred racehorses who had trained over the Aiken Training Track.
The project began in 1975, under the leadership of the then-president John Surles. The criteria used for induction and enshrinement in the Hall of Fame is that a horse had to have been recognized as a national champion, and at that time, a total of 22 horses who trained over the Aiken Training Track earned the distinction, a number that has since grown to 39. It was also hoped that the Hall of Fame might also recognize the accomplishments of other outstanding horsemen and horses from other equestrian sports.
Initially, the Jaycees took on the responsibility of gathering racing memorabilia and materials to be placed in the Hall of Fame as part of the museum’s permanent collection. The City approved establishing the Aiken Thoroughbred Racing Hall of Fame and Museum in Hopelands Gardens in April 1975. Aiken City Council took $5,000 from the City’s coffers to renovate the carriage house on the 14-acre estate that had been bequeathed to the City by C. Oliver Iselin.
But it was through the efforts of Aiken residents Whitney Tower, the celebrated turf writer, former turf editor at Sports Illustrated and co-founder of CLASSIC magazine, and his wife, Joan, that additional funding was raised to make the dream a reality.
Joan’s championing of the initial idea helped to generate additional funding for the project as her steadfast support convinced a number of prominent horsemen to match the donation made by the City to keep the idea of the Hall of Fame moving forward. Trainers John Gaver, Mack Miller, Peter and Barry Ryan and W.C. “Mike” Freeman, as well as owners Mr. and Mrs. Whitney Stone and Aiken Steeplechase Association President Charles Bird Jr. were among those who contributed to help insure the facility was able to open its doors on Jan. 23, 1977.
The exhibit takes an in-depth look, in chronological order, of how the museum evolved from its early stages to its current state. The display showcases the careers of the 39 national champions, the attic fire caused by a short in the wiring, on Dec. 28, 2000, that delayed the facility’s re-opening for 10 months, prominent visitors to the Aiken Thoroughbred Racing Hall of Fame and Museum; horses who have been named the Aiken Trained Horse of the Year, a display demonstrating the facility’s global impact with the nations of the world represented by those visitors who have signed the guest book rolls since the Hall of Fame’s opening in 1977 and a map of the United States, as residents of all 50 states have gone through the exhibition hall’s doors during its nearly 36 years of existence.
Admission to the Hall of Fame is free, but donations are welcome. The facility will be open during Christmas in Hopelands. Normal hours are Tuesday through Friday and Sunday from 2 to 5 p.m., and Saturday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Private tours are available. For more information, visit aikenracinghalloffame.com.