The 47th renewal of the Aiken Spring Steeplechase will gallop into town on Saturday, and the Aiken Department of Public Safety is asking racegoers to follow gate instructions and get out early in order to avoid traffic and congestion before the event.
Last year's event drew about 30,000 people to Ford Conger field despite the threat of rain.
“It backs up,” said Cpl. Jeremy Hembree of Aiken Public Safety. “We do have officers that are assigned to assisting traffic control leading up to the start of the races and help alleviate any congestion.”
Racegoers will enter through one of three gates: red, blue or green.
“Make sure they're aware of what gate their parking pass will allow them to enter,” Hembree said. “This is the most popular event of the Triple Crown, so there is a large amount of people coming to the area with only three points of entry.”
“You can imagine trying to get 25,000 or 30,000 people inside with three points of entry,” Hembree said.
Motorists who fail to pay attention to the signs directing traffic could face longer delays, and they may be rerouted to get to the correct gate.
Red gate access is from Audubon Drive near Two Notch Road. Green gate access is from Powderhouse Road near Pine Log. Blue gate access is from the Powderhouse Road side of Audubon.
Gates open at 9:30 a.m.
“Our parking on the field sold out weeks ago,” said Girl Conger, of the Aiken Steeplechase Association.
Parking will still be available at the Powderhouse polo field on Powderhouse Road for $15 beginning at 9:30 a.m. Saturday, and at the Aiken Training Track on Two Notch Road for $10 after 10 a.m., Conger said.
Hembree said Audubon Drive will be closed to through traffic before the races, and traffic on Powderhouse will be moving “very slow.” He advised people not attending the event to avoid those areas.
Aiken Public Safety will have officers at the intersections of Powderhouse and Pine Log, Powderhouse and Audubon, Two Notch and Audubon and on Powderhouse closer to the entrance to the field.
Law enforcement typically doesn't have issues with people parking illegally, Hembree said.
“Homeowners and officers will usually direct patrons as far as where to park so they don't do it illegally,” he said. Officers will try to contact the owner of an illegally parked car; however, if they can't be reached, the car will be towed at the owner's expense.
Officers know people will be drinking at the event, and Hembree said Public Safety will have additional officers out to make sure people celebrate safely.
“We will have a more concentrated effort toward the end and after Steeplechase to detect impaired drivers, seat belt violations and intoxicated pedestrians,” he said. “It is such a big event and there are numerous after-parties afterward. It'll be an increased effort throughout the entire evening.”
Hembree urged racegoers to make arrangements for getting home ahead of time if they plan to drink.
“We have seen an increase in people leaving the races with their containers, walking around on the roadway, going and getting in their cars and driving away,” he said. “Alcohol is allowed freely within the confines of Ford Conger Field, but once they leave the gates, all alcohol laws are enforced.”
Teddy Kulmala covers the crime beat for the Aiken Standard. He is a graduate of Clemson University and hails from Williston.