Since Chad Ingram became the chairman of the Aiken Training Track earlier this month, he’s met with one or more of his fellow board members nearly every day to discuss the future of the facility.
“We want be careful about the picture that we portray,” said Ingram during an interview in his downtown office. “We don’t want it to be all doom and gloom like a sinking ship, because it’s not. But realistically, we are facing a lot of challenges.”
In the thoroughbred industry in general, fewer horses are being bred and racetracks are closing.
Meanwhile, at the Training Track, where young thoroughbreds are prepared for racing and older ones enjoy a vacation from competition, the number of horses has declined dramatically.
During the early 1980s, more than 400 thoroughbreds spent the winter at the Training Track, but many of the horsemen who supported it then have retired or died.
In 2015, the facility suffered a major blow when Dubai’s ruler, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al Maktoum, shut down his large Aiken-based training operation.
This past winter, the Training Track’s monthly horse population peaked at 96 in February.
The trainer with the largest stable, the Training Track’s immediate past president, Cary Frommer, has said she wants to reduce the number of horses in her care to 20 or 25 from 60 or more in recent years because “I’ve gotten to the point in my life where I want to simplify things a little bit.”
And if that happens, it will have a big impact on the Training Track’s bottom line if new trainers willing to bring horses to Aiken can’t be recruited.
The Training Track, which opened in the early 1940s, has two main sources of income.
One is the fees paid by horsemen for their thoroughbreds to use the Training Track and/or stalls in the two barns owned by the facility.
The other is the Aiken Trials, which is the first leg of the Aiken Triple Crown and attracts thousands of spectators.
“We’re able to meet all of our financial obligations now,” Ingram said, “but we’re going to be working hard to look for new customers.”
Ingram, 46, grew up in the New Holland area of Aiken County. He is the president and CEO of the Garvin Oil Company.
The focus of that family firm used to be gas stations, convenience stores and truck stops. It changed to commercial property after the sale of many of those assets.
“I got involved in the Training Track because I purchased a barn across the street from my home on Two Notch Road,” Ingram said.
Trainer Mike Freeman, who died in 2013, owned the barn, which is on a dirt road that runs from Two Notch to the Training Track.
“I wanted to make sure that I had a good neighbor, basically,” Ingram said. “And if I purchased the barn and leased it out, I could guarantee it would be a good neighbor. I also bought the barn as an investment.”
The deal included shares in the Training Track, and Ingram began attending shareholders’ meetings.
He eventually became a member of the board of directors and later served as treasurer and then as vice president.
On April 4, the board elected Ingram as chairman.
He succeeded Bruce Johnstone, who had held the position for a year.
Johnstone is the manager of racing operations for the New York Racing Association.
“My reason for wanting to be chairman is that I think’s it’s a very critical time in the track’s history,” Ingram said. “I want something good to happen to the track because, one, it’s near my home, and two, it’s vital to the fabric of this community.”
His strategy is to motivate the board to address the track’s issues sooner rather than later.
Under Ingram’s direction, six committees were formed: Finance and Audit, Executive, Building and Grounds, Nominating, Aiken Trials and Promotion and Development.
“Bringing in new trainers and new horses is our toughest challenge, and we have not made a lot of progress on that front,” Ingram said. “There isn’t an easy answer, but we have some new board members that we hope will help us achieve our goal.”
Discussions have begun about ways to increase the Training Track’s income by making it a site for new events that wouldn’t necessarily be horse-related.
“A concert was one idea and an antique car show was another,” Ingram said. “Maybe the track could be a wedding venue, and people could use the Blue Peter tree (in the infield) as a backdrop for their wedding ceremonies.
“I want to emphasize, though, that we’re still in the brainstorming phase,” he added. “All we’re trying to do now is say, ‘Hey, what can we do to leverage our property and generate income to keep the track alive and help it thrive?’ ”
Ingram has asked the Finance and Audit Committee to come up with a long-range financial plan and a realistic budget.
“Instead of having financials that basically just show a picture of what happened in the past, I want financials that help guide us going forward,” Ingram said. “By that I mean, ‘Okay, we need X number of horses to balance our budget. If we don’t get X number of horses, we’ve got to have another source of income such as an event of some kind. And if we aren’t successful in doing that, then let’s figure out what our other options are.’ ”
For the 77th Aiken Trials on March 16, Ingram said, the Training Track cut costs by using the newly renovated clockers’ stand as a VIP hospitality site instead of providing a big tent in the infield for special guests.
“That reduced our expenses significantly,” Ingram said.