Many Charlestonians are preparing their tailgating displays for the Charleston Cup, a steeplechase race taking place on Sunday, November 11th. While it is exciting to participate in the pageantry of the race, spectators are also taking part in a long Charleston tradition. Charleston has a long history of horse racing, starting all the way back in 1734 and Charleston has ties to Belmont Park, one of the world’s most famous racetracks. Charleston Place’s own Thoroughbred Club was even designed in an equestrian style to reflect the rich history of horse racing in Charleston.
The first horse race in Charleston was held in 1734 and quickly became a favorite pastime of the Charleston elite. That same year a group of South Carolina planters organized the South Carolina Jockey Club – 16 years before the formation of the English Jockey Club. Races were initially held at the York Course in present day North Charleston. Surviving documents and records suggest that there were as many as 10 tracks in the tri-county area with the most prominent being the Washington Race Course, which was established in 1792. It is what we know today as Hampton Park with Mary Murray Drive being the site of the original eight-furlong track.
During the Civil War, the track was used as a prison for Union soldiers. Many valuable racehorses were lost during the war, when they were used as cavalry horses. Racing did not resume until 1875 with races being held until February 1878. After the Civil War and depressed economy of Reconstruction, interest in horse racing and horse breeding declined. The Washington Race Course was leased as farm and pasture land in 1884 and eventually sold to the City of Charleston by the Charleston Library Society who acquired it after the South Carolina Jockey Club disbanded in 1899. In 1901 the grounds were used for the South Carolina Inter-State and West Indian Exposition. It was there that a wealthy New York banker, August Belmont Jr., noticed the four stone pillars at the entrance to the Washington Race Course. The City of Charleston offered them as a gift and they were shipped to New York to be used at Belmont Park, the location of the Belmont Stakes. Even today, those stone pillars mark the entrance of Belmont Park.
In 1984, the charter of the South Carolina Jockey Club was revived; and, in 1986 developers at Stono Ferry Plantation in Hollywood began the Charleston Cup steeplechase races. The 19th running of the Charleston Cup is scheduled to take place on Sunday, November 11, 2012. Sanctioned by The National Steeplechase Association, the Cup has become one of the premier sporting events in the Carolina Lowcountry. The nation’s top riders, trainers, and owners will be competing for purses totaling $50,000. Spectators will experience an exciting day of steeplechase and flat races.
So we invite you to spend the afternoon tailgating and enjoying the race. Afterwards, stop by Thoroughbred Club to order a “Run For The Roses” drink and some “Suffolk Downs Crab Cakes” and impress your friends with your new knowledge of Charleston’s horse racing history.