Choosing a thoroughbread racehorse is like trying to draft a professional football team by looking at a group of 10-year-old kids,” says racing icon Cot Campbell of Aiken, South Carolina.
Campbell would know. The 89-year-old saw his first race when he was 12. After a successful advertising career, he founded Dogwood Stables in Georgia and created the practice of syndicating horses—making ownership more accessible by allowing multiple investors to share the cost, which is steep. When Campbell and his wife decided it was time to simplify, they moved to Aiken, a horse-loving town rich in tradition.
You don’t have to spend much time at this photogenic spot less than an hour northeast of Augusta, Georgia, to see why any horse lover would gravitate here. As you drive through the tunnel of live oaks on South Boundary Avenue and make your way to Two Notch Road Southeast, you’ll need to slow down—way down—as you pass what Campbell considers some of the finest training facilities in the world. (A word on etiquette: Never enter a private stable without an invitation from the owner, drive very slowly near stables and training facilities, and always give horses the right of way.)
In Aiken’s horse district, you might get lucky and hear the thunder of hooves at the Aiken Training Track, where the Aiken Trials are held every March. The solitary live oak on the track marks the burial spot of Blue Peter, a 1948 champion Thoroughbred from Aiken.
Horses come here to prepare for legendary tests of strength and speed—races like the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness, the Belmont Stakes, and the Breeders’ Cup. Granted, there are more lucrative events than the Derby, with its $2 million purse. (The inaugural run of the Pegasus World Cup at Hallandale Beach, Florida, in January of this year carried a $12 million purse.) Even so, Campbell says owners still consider the Derby the most coveted race of all, because “It’s the one race that every human being has heard of.”
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There’s something about a horse town like Aiken that makes you want to join the club—or at least pretend you have. Check into The Willcox, a historic inn (and part of the Southern Living Hotel Collection) that once catered to the well-to-do who wintered in South Carolina. Within walking distance of downtown, it has impressive rooms; equestrian art; a hospitable staff; and a dreamy, tucked-away swimming pool. The whole lobby can transform into a community gathering spot when live music is offered, so if you plan to tuck in early, ask for a room at the back, on either end of the inn.
At Rose Hill Estate, which occupies an entire city block, you can book a room in the historic mansion—now The Inn at Rose Hill—and tour the gardens. Long-ago lady of the house Mrs. Sheffield Phelps helped organize The Garden Club of South Carolina here. Her daughter, Claudia Lea, worked with a friend, Girl Scouts founder Juliette Gordon Low, to organize Aiken’s first Girl Scout troop.
While you’re at Rose Hill, you might hear the story of misguided tennis-playing guests who requested that cocktails be sent down to the court on a Sunday afternoon. Not only did the devout Mrs. Phelps refuse to serve alcohol on the Sabbath, but she also had a tree planted in the middle of her tennis court.
Once a self-contained estate, Rose Hill is now especially popular with golfers—some of whom come over from the Augusta National Golf Club—and with brides. The original horse stable has been reinvented as a fantastic white-tablecloth restaurant named, appropriately, The Stables Restaurant. (Do not miss the braised collard greens—trust us.)
In downtown Aiken, you’ll find all kinds of shopping, dining, and nightlife along Laurens Street. The Alley, just off Laurens, has a slew of great food at places like The Bradley, where you can make a meal of pimiento cheese toast with sweet chutney, she-crab soup, and other appetizers. At Trio Bar & Kitchen, find burgers so juicy you’ll need a bib, or sample the fresh breads and locally sourced Italian fare at Alloro. Beyond The Alley, locals will point you to Malia’s Restaurant, a great place to “do lunch”; the Aiken Brewing Company for local beers and pub fare; The New Moon Café for high-octane coffee; and Cyndi’s Sweet Shoppe for orange truffles.
Northern transplant Dini Jones, owner of Equine Divine on Laurens, not only outfits riders with clothing and boots but also sells the kind of sporty fashions that spectators like to wear to events, along with gifts and housewares that have what she likes to call “sporting flair.” Jones has lived in Aiken for about six years now. “Being a horse person, I came here and just found so many like-minded people,” she explains. “There’s every bit of opportunity to ride and do fun things with your horse every day. I came from Ohio, where we had such cold, gray winters. I can understand why so many riders and owners who live in places like Vermont and New York love to winter here in Aiken.”
Spring and fall are high seasons for the horse set, with world-class polo and Thoroughbred racing, not to mention fox hunts, dressage, year-round hunter-jumper competitions, and more. FYI, lodging can be scarce during major equestrian events, so reserve early.
Book lessons and/or guided rides at Seahorse Stables to explore Hitchcock Woods, a stunning 2,100-acre urban forest with 70 miles of sandy trails. These woods are home to the Aiken Horse Show. Get into the equestrian spirit at the 101st annual event, set for March 31 through April 2.
“I think horse people are an unusual lot,” Campbell muses. “They have some sporting blood, and they’re essentially gamblers. They’re characters, a lot of them—colorful and interesting—very interesting.”