A steady rain and temperatures in the 40s weren't enough to stop the party at the 47th renewal of the Aiken Spring Steeplechase on Saturday.
Steeplechase — the second jewel of Aiken's Triple Crown — is widely known for its elaborate tailgates which are similar to those seen at college football games, and this year was no exception.
Kathy Garrity of Akron, Ohio, and Kerry Kelty, of Pittsburgh, Pa., came to the Steeplechase with Karen Vijuk of Aiken.
“We've got our gloves, we've got our scarves and we've got our beverages,” Garrity said holding up her Bloody Mary. In addition to Bloody Marys, their tailgate also had mimosas, wine, fried chicken and potato salad on the menu. And for dessert — a pink cake in the shape of a large, wide-brim hat, which women commonly wear at the Steeplechase.
“We're already working our way through it,” Garrity said of the food about noon on Saturday. “What is there to do but drink and eat at this point?”
At the Aiken County Young Life tailgate, Daniel Peterson and Russell Maddrey were setting up a television to watch college basketball while waiting on the horse races to start.
“We've been coming out here many years, but this is our third year doing it more elaborate like this,” Peterson said. “Young Life is an outreach to high school kids at Aiken and South Aiken. We set up a tailgate so that kids have a chance to come and hang out. We've got a bunch of food and invited a bunch of kids.”
Many tailgates played music throughout the day, and some tailgaters even danced under the rain-soaked tents.
From Journey and The Who to Adele and Jay-Z, the sounds of Steeplechase tailgating were just as eclectic as the smells and tastes.
With Tim McGraw blaring in the background at their tailgate, Amber Wren, Alison Leonardi and Patrick Warrick prepared a “Lowcountry Boil,” a concoction of corn on the cob, potatoes, sausage, onions and shrimp.
In addition to the boil, they also prepared salmon dip, taco dip, tortilla roll-ups, vegetable dip, barbecue and pigs-in-a-blanket.
Shortly after the first race at 1 p.m., the rain lightened up and eventually stopped. Applause could be heard around Ford Conger Field and some people even honked the horns in their vehicles when the sun made its first appearance of the day.
“Now, that the sun's out, I'm enjoying it,” Amber Wren said. “But you know what, we have a good time no matter what, even if it's freezing cold and raining. You just change your wardrobe and you're with good people that you love. That's all that matters.”
James Kennedy, of Augusta, has been coming to Steeplechase for three years. He described the event as “a well-dressed NASCAR race.”
“Some friends invited me and said it'd be a good time. I didn't know what to expect,” he said while holding his hands above a small fire under their tent. “They said to dress preppy, wear a nice shirt and all this. It's been a good time. It has.”
Kevin Gibbons, of Aiken, has been coming to Steeplechase for at least seven years. He and Kennedy both said the best part of the event is the camaraderie among Steeplechase-goers.
“You get to walking around and everybody's friendly, versus in their normal lives where they're like, 'No, I'm not gonna do nothing with you,'” he said while popping the top on a can of beer. “But here, you can drink beer with anybody and everybody's gonna have a good time. That's what Steeplechase is about. You might see a horse.”
The Aiken Triple Crown continues Saturday with Pacers & Polo.
Teddy Kulmala covers the crime beat for the Aiken Standard. He is a graduate of Clemson University and hails from Williston.