A trip to Camden, South Carolina, revives memories of long ago
By John P. Sparkman
Among many vivid memories of my first trip to Chantilly, France, in 1974, one particular image recurred like an afterimage on my retinas this week.
As our small group of weary Kentucky travelers stood at the edge of the vast Terrain des Aigles (Eagle’s ground) grass gallops on that October morning long ago, four two-year-olds circled calmly in a clearing at the edge of the Foret de Chantilly. As the early morning mist began to lift, a shaft of sunlight filtered through, framing those graceful juveniles in a golden halo.
The stimulus that evoked that gilded memory this week was my first trip to Camden, South Carolina, in more than 25 years. The training facilities at Camden are perhaps the closest thing we have in the U.S. to the magnificence that is Chantilly.
The late Marion duPont Scott purchased Springdale Race Course in the mid-1930s, along with several adjacent properties and is almost entirely responsible for developing the nearly 1,000 acres now included in Springdale and the adjacent Camden Training Center. Springdale is now the headquarters of American steeplechasing as the site of the Carolina Cup and the Colonial Cup Steeplechases, both founded by Mrs. Scott.
Upon Mrs. Scott’s death in 1982, her will bequeathed the 600 acres comprising Springdale to the state of South Carolina and decreed that the 359 acres, including the principal dirt training track, should be sold. That is when I made my previous visits to Camden. My then employer, William duPont III, was Mrs. Scott’s nephew and wintered horses in Camden until it was sold to Will Farish in 1985. The training center later passed on to Henrietta Alexander, and now is owned by Carlyle Development LLC.
Thus, my visit to Camden this week evoked many memories. Camden has not changed all that much. Yes, there are now Wal-Marts, Lowe’s, and Ramadas nipping at Camden’s flank, but horses still hack through the woods between Springdale and the Camden Training Center, work riders still stop traffic on Knights Hill Road by punching the horse crosswalk button, and the two-year-olds are as beautiful and promising as ever.
A visit to Camden also means driving by Mrs. Scott’s estate, Holly Hedge, as well as a night spent at Springdale Hall Club, where the guest cottages are named for past steeplechase champions. We stayed in the Zaccio cottage, courtesy of trainer Kip Elser and his wife Helen Richards, with Rick Nichols of Shadwell Farm next door in Flatterer, and other guests occupying cottages named for Mrs. Scott’s all-time great Neji, Victorian Hill, Elkridge, and many other jumps champions.
Camden may be the most picturesque, but it is hardly the only American training center, although none serve the same function as Chantilly does in France or Newmarket in England.
Sadly, both Camden and Aiken Training Center, less than an hour southwest of Camden just on the Carolina side of the state border from Augusta, Georgia, are too far from major racetracks
to serve as anything more than winter quarters for America flat racers.
Maryland’s Fair Hill is probably the closest thing we have to a Chantilly in providing starters directly to racetracks, although Palm Meadows and Payson Park in Florida and San Luis Rey
Downs serve a similar, though more limited, function in providing an alternative to the sometimes frenetic pace of training at the racetrack.
Camden’s facilities now are occupied mostly by steeplechase trainers or stables that want to give their just-turned two-yearolds a quiet start to their careers in training. Neither horses nor trainers have any excuse for getting either too bored or too anxious at Camden. Like Chantilly and Newmarket, and unlike almost any other facility in America, Camden provides an unmatched
variety of experiences for educating the young racehorse.
I still have that photograph of two-year-olds at Chantilly somewhere, but I no longer need to fumble through old boxes under the eaves searching for it. My visit to Camden was evocative enough to stir the embers of memory of that golden morning so long ago. That trip to France changed my life for the better, just as a trip to Camden, Aiken, or other off-track training facilities can change the life of a racehorse for the better.
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