Don’t Scip A Check isn’t skipping much of anything as he tears across the turf.
“Now setting a strong pace, leading out by two-and-a-half lengths,” the announcer incants in his breathless Irish brogue, describing the gelding’s take-charge start in the first race of the day. It’s a sunny afternoon and sixty-five degrees, the Lowcountry fall air feeling frisky and festive, and the Steeplechase of Charleston crowd is all in.
Don’t Scip A Check’s chestnut-brown engine of equine muscle and speed is striding strong, soaring over the first of eleven fences in the two-and-a-quarter mile race, but here comes Change Maker moving up on the outside, with Eyeing Victory and Lead Investor close behind. Then another loping circuit around the Stono Ferry racecourse and out of nowhere comes Moss Code—his muscular neck lurching forward and silky haunches unfolding behind him with every thrumping gallop. “It’s a three-horse affair with three-quarters of a mile to go, with Moss Code coming on strong,” the announcer says, just before declaring him the winner, which puts Moss Code’s rider, Darren Nagle, in the lead for the Jockey’s Cup season championship.
“That’s one of the great things about the Charleston race, it’s our final meet of the year, and sometimes it all comes down to the wire here,” says Toby Edwards, race director for The Steeplechase of Charleston, one of the thirty annual races sponsored by the National Steeplechase Association (NSA). Steeplechase is a thoroughbred horse race, but unlike the Kentucky Derby, the horses must jump over obstacles. The season begins in March and wraps up in November in Charleston, with stops at marquee tracks like Saratoga Springs and Belmont Park along the way. This past year the NSA Jockey Championship and the Trainer Championship were both decided at the Charleston finale.
Most spectators at the annual Stono Ferry affair, however, have never even heard of the Jockey or Trainer Championships, much less that the season title depends on what unfolds on this Hollywood turf. But that hardly matters. For many of the six thousand or so who attend, the Steeplechase is an excuse to trot out hunt-inspired fashion and their finest millinery; for others it’s a cocktails, tailgate, and corn-hole affair; and others still appreciate that a day at the races is a family-friendly event, with an infield village of vendors, booths for kids, beers and food trucks for the adults, and adrenaline-pumping horse racing for everyone.
“Horse racing is a sport that you are born loving, or you will soon grow to love,” says Edwards, a Brit who grew up riding ponies and plants himself firmly in the former category. His father served in the British military and was moved to Germany, where Edwards’s mother was able to get her jockey license. “That’s one of my formative memories, watching her win a race in 1968,” says Edwards, who went on to follow in his mother’s footsteps, or stirrups, rather. He raced throughout England and Ireland before visiting the U.S. and falling in love with and settling in Camden, South Carolina. Edwards has done everything from jockeying to training thoroughbreds to directing steeplechase events, as he does in Camden for the Carolina Cup, in Tryon, North Carolina, and in Charleston.
Meanwhile back on the Stono Ferry course, the start official walks out with his red flag held high, a line of nine horses skittering behind him, their jockeys reining them in until the flag falls, signaling that the second race of the day is on. Another two-and-a-quarter mile race, with horses at full throttle—reaching speeds nearing forty miles per hour while clearing eleven four-foot fences—four minutes and forty-five seconds of riveting speed and grace. Nostrils flare, manes fly, and whips whack. Ultimately Dynaformersrequest prevails, winning the $30,000 prize.
All in all, some forty-eight horses and their jockeys vie for part of the Steeplechase of Charleston’s $75,000 purse. The winning horses from each of the day’s five races circle up in front of the grandstand, their coats glistening with sweat, as jockeys, trainers, owners, and sponsors pose for a victory photo. A proud moment—and a big chunk of the payoff.
“Steeplechase is not a get-rich sport; it’s more like a get-lucky sport,” says Bill Gallo, Director of Racing for the NSA and a Kiawah Island resident during the steeplechase off-season. It’s expensive to train a horse, maintain a barn, transport horses to races up and down the East Coast, and all in all, there’s $6 million total in purse money annually up for grabs. By comparison, the Kentucky Derby alone awards a $3 million purse. “But you don’t get into steeplechasing to make money, you get into it because it’s a wonderful experience for people who love horses,” Gallo adds. And most NSA events, including the Steeplechase of Charleston, are charitable events, with a portion of proceeds benefiting community organizations. “It’s about the thrill of it, the camaraderie of participants, and the close-knit community of trainers and owners. And we get to go to places like Charleston, which does a great job making the Steeplechase of Charleston charming and welcoming, an event where riders and owners want to come,” Gallo says.
Horse racing is one of the world’s oldest sports, and steeplechase is a cross-country version of it, dating back to early-eighteenth-century Ireland and England, where horsemen challenged each other in four-mile races from one village to another, with many stone fences to jump along with way. Church steeples were often the most visible point-to-point landmarks, hence the moniker.
Here in the many-steepled Holy City, horse racing was popular among the colonial plantation elite, and in fact, Carolina planters here formed the first known organized club, the South Carolina Jockey Club, in 1734, sixteen years before the more famous English Jockey Club was created. Races were held at the York Course in present-day North Charleston, and at as many as ten other tracks in the tri-county area, historical records suggest, with the most prominent being the Washington Race Course, established in 1792. What was once an eight-furlong racecourse is today the popular recreational loop around Hampton Park, where walkers, runners, and bicyclists make tracks. The stone gates that once marked the entrance to the Washington Race Course now grace the grounds at famed Belmont Park, home of the Belmont Stakes. With the Steeplechase of Charleston as the penultimate race on the National Steeplechase Association calendar, the long tradition of horse racing in America has come full circle, so to speak.
As legendary English horseman John Hislop once observed, “Steeplechasing has about it rather more glamour and excitement than the flat [racing], a trace of chivalry, a spice of danger, and a refreshing vigor that the smooth urbanity of flat racing lacks.” There’s no starting trumpet call, not much fussy pomp and circumstance, no official wagering—it’s all sport. Sheer equine and human athleticism. And on a beautiful fall day in the Lowcountry, where better to watch professional athletes do their thing? Horses and jockeys racing neck-to-neck, swooshing over jumps, wowing onlookers with their physical majesty, agility, and might.
“The Steeplechase of Charleston is an important niche on our calendar,” says Gallo. “There’s a great racing history here, and the drama of being the last race of the season makes it special.” — S.H.