When the first horseshoes hit the ground at the Stono Ferry equestrian complex on Nov. 13, they will mark the 25th anniversary of the first Charleston Cup steeplechase race — but only the 18th running of the event.
Race Director Karl McMillan says he and other real estate developers originally organized the Cup to promote the sale of residential lots in Stono Ferry. When developers sold the last lot in 2003, the Stono Ferry Homeowner's Association took control of the racetrack, and a family took control of the stable. Since then, he says, the owners tried getting other groups to revive the event before finally coming back to him.
McMillan says he is selling tickets at a pace that could bring in a record-breaking 16,000 people this year. The previous record of 15,000 was set in 1989, less than two months after Hurricane Hugo crashed through the Lowcountry, and McMillan says he thinks people might come out in droves once again in the wreckage of the Great Recession.
"After Hugo, everybody had been so devastated just cleaning up, taking care of things, and I think the Cup really kind of gave them something to get up and look forward to, to see and be seen, to do something a little bit extravagant without spending too much money," he says.
Unlike flat-track races, which exhibit the raw speed of the horses, steeplechase races require horses and their jockeys to clear fences and ditches, leading to some visually striking jumps and the occasional devastating crash.
Of course, there's always more to a horse race than what happens on the track. At events like the Carolina Cup, a steeplechase race held every spring in Camden, tailgating has become an all-day affair, with the men resplendent in seersucker and linen and the women showing off their new sundresses and enormous hats. And while the races won't kick off until noon at the Charleston Cup, the gates open at 9 a.m., opening the field for picnics and trips to the concession stands.
Tickets are on sale now at charlestoncup.net. General admission is $25 in advance, and infield parking spaces can be reserved for $200 to $300.