The 47th Aiken Spring Steeplechase has six races on its program today at Ford Conger Field. Five are over jumps, including the $50,000 Budweiser Imperial Cup, and one is on the flat.
If you're interested in keeping up with all the action on the course, Sam Slater, president of the National Steeplechase Foundation, has some advice.
“Most of the races are 2 miles in length, so don't get too excited if a horse goes way out in front early; it doesn't mean he's going to win,” said the Aiken winter resident.
Instead of keeping your eyes glued on the leader during a race's opening stages, you should check out the other horses that are competing, according to Slater.
“If a horse looks like he's jumping well and going smoothly – even though he's not right near the front – it might tell you something about how he's going to be doing at the end,” Slater said. “You also should try to watch all the horses go over a fence unless the field is really spread out. If there is a fall, it's probably better to keep watching the race and not worry about the fall, even though many people are fascinated by it. Almost always everyone is OK afterward.
“It is the arm of American steeplechasing that is involved in fundraising, safety and the promotion of amateur riding,” he said.
In addition, Slater is a former member of the National Steeplechase Association's board of directors, and he has served as the organization's treasurer.
Slater also is the executive producer for HCP Sports. The company will be generating video images of the Spring Steeplechase's races for the National Steeplechase Association and operating the photo-finish equipment.
“I do a lot of watching of races,” said Slater, who co-founded HCP Sports.
Over the years, he's learned that the critical point in most steeplechase contests is when the horses are heading down the backstretch for the last time and nearing the final turn.
“Horses that are among the first three or four and battling while approaching the last two fences usually have a really good shot,” Slater said. “If a horse is way behind, it's hard for him to make up a lot of ground.”
Slater is a member of one of steeplechasing's best known families. His mother, Jill Fanning, trained Cancottage, who captured the Maryland Hunt Cup in 1980, 1981 and 1983, and Freeman's Hill, who won the prestigious event in 1988. Fanning also bred Freeman's Hill and another Maryland Hunt Cup winner, Bewley's Hill (1984).
Slater's grandmother, Joy Valentine, owned Cancottage in partnership with Fanning. Slater's sister, Joy Slater, rode Cancottage in his 1980 and 1981 Maryland Hunt Cup victories. She was the first female jockey to win a Maryland Hunt Cup.
“I'm not a licensed participant in American steeplechasing, but I'm still quite involved,” Slater said.
“It's a fun thing to be around.”
Gates open for the Spring Steeplechase at 9 a.m. Post time for the first race is 1 p.m.