Thousands gather to cheer, tailgate at Aiken Trials

  • Posted: Sunday, March 16, 2014 12:01 a.m.
    UPDATED: Thursday, March 20, 2014 7:51 a.m.
Staff photo by Maayan Schechter
Celebrating the 72nd Annual Aiken Trials for the first time,  Xavier Walker, 11, and father Michael Walker were all smiles on Saturday afternoon.
Staff photo by Maayan Schechter Celebrating the 72nd Annual Aiken Trials for the first time, Xavier Walker, 11, and father Michael Walker were all smiles on Saturday afternoon.

Thousands of spectators soaked in Saturday's sun, kicking off the Triple Crown by tailgating and cheering on their favorite horses in the 72nd Annual Aiken Trials.

Many tailgaters enjoyed food spreads on decorative tables, some brought out their grills to barbecue. Families played games like cornhole, and tossed back a few beverages while embracing the sun and the sport.

The Aiken Trials always bring back a little nostalgia for resident Brian Katonak.

“My mom worked at Aiken Standard from about '72 until the late '90s as a kind of feature writer,” Katonak said. “She would bring me every year to the Aiken Trials and Steeplechase, and let me hang around. It was a fantastic experience.”

Katonak was surrounded by several St. Mary Help of Christians Catholic Church parents and their children. Katonak's daughter Amy, 7, played cornhole with Luke Hamrick, 12, and Kaylee McElwain, 8. Later on in the day, other St. Mary's families joined them, creating one of the larger groups at the Trials.

“One of the things I like most about the Trials is that it's become such a family-like atmosphere,” Katonak said. “With events like Steeplechase, it's more for the adults. But this is a great experience for parents and kids to hang out and watch some racing.”

Saturday's weather was nothing short of sunny and hot with many female spectators lowering their embellished hats over their eyes. A variety of smells from barbecue to hamburgers and hot dogs wafted throughout the Aiken Training Track.

For some spectators, it wasn't the smell of food that was the most enjoyable.

“I love the smell of the horses,” Sylvia Hiers said. “I've come several times, and I just like the smell.”

Aside from food, some vendors sold wine and beer, others selling odds-and-ends such as goat milk soap and equine art.

The Aiken Trials brought out a variety of families familiar with the Triple Crown experience. But for others, it was pretty new. All smiles, Michael Walker and son Xavier, 11, experienced the Trials for the first time.

“This is great,” Walker said. “It's all new, so we're just walking around and enjoying all of it.”

Horses may have been the reason for coming to the Trials, but the overwhelming theme of the day was green to celebrate St. Patrick's Day on Monday.

Emily McBurnett, 8, and best friend Jessica Gartman, 8, were decked out in all green with matching green sandals, green shirts and matching tiaras.

Right before the races started, Aiken County Councilman Andrew Siders delivered a beautifully pitched “Star Spangled Banner.” All attendees stood and applauded loudly, some waving their hats in the air.

As the day went on with eating and cheering, Grace Sims, 9, and Abby Davis, 10, hung around handing out programs to any wanting passersby.

“We both like meeting new people and this is a good way to do it,” Grace said. “It's a great day to spend time with your family and friends, but then also meet a ton of new people.”

The second and third legs of the Aiken Triple Crown will be Aiken Spring Steeplechase on March 22 and Pacers & Polo on March 29.

Maayan Schechter is the local government reporter with Aiken Standard.

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