The busiest time of the year at the Aiken Training Track is about to begin, and preparations are being made for the annual influx of yearling thoroughbreds that will be prepared for racing there from roughly October through April.
A renovation of the 1-mile oval on Two Notch Road is underway. It began Wednesday and the track is scheduled to be closed to horses through Oct. 1.
“We are completely redoing the track,” said Training Track Chairman Chad Ingram. “It involves taking off the surface all the way down to the clay base. It (the base) will be repaired if needed. Then the sandy loam (which makes up the surface) will be spread back over it evenly.”
Depending on the amount of work required, the project will cost $5,000 to $10,000, Ingram estimated.
“We had a meeting with the trainers,” Ingram said. “They thought it needed to be done, and we told them that we would do it. Probably our No. 1 priority is the condition of the track.”
Ingram has been the chairman of the training track since April, when the facility’s board of directors voted to make him the chief executive officer.
Over the years, the number of horses using the training track has decreased.
During the early 1980s, more than 400 thoroughbreds spent the winter at the Aiken Training Track, which was established in the early 1940s. From October 2018 through August 2019, approximately 140 different horses galloped and breezed at the facility.
During an interview soon after he was elected, Ingram told the Aiken Standard that the track wasn’t “like a sinking ship,” but admitted it was “facing a lot of challenges.”
The training track has two main sources of income. One is the fees paid by horsemen for their thoroughbreds to use the track and/or stalls in the barns owned by the facility.
The other source is the money generated by the Aiken Trials, an event in March that attracts thousands of spectators and is the first leg of the Aiken Triple Crown.
One of the most important concerns for Ingram from the get-go was to find new trainers willing to bring the horses in their care to Aiken.
“I was optimistic at the time, and I still feel that way, but even more so,” Ingram said. “I really like the energy of our board. Everybody seems to be committed to helping out the training track, and everybody seems to be working together more. The whole vibe around the place feels better.”
There are two new trainers with one horse each, and another, 28-year-old Justin Rivera, is getting ready to bring eight to 15 horses to the track.
His parents, Tirso and Beth Rivera, are in the thoroughbred business in California. They are based at Golden Gate Fields racetrack, which is near San Francisco and Oakland.
“I’ve worked for a lot of farms and broken young horses for my dad,” Justin said. “I’ve owned horses with my mom and my dad, and my mom breeds her own horses.”
Logan Bearden, an eventing rider, is Justin’s partner in his Aiken-based horse venture.
“My goal, ultimately, is to have a place for my parents to retire to because they are getting to the end of their race track days,” Justin said. “They want to work with younger horses, so they could run my feeder program and I would be at a bigger track, maybe in Maryland.”
The training track also has two additional new trainer prospects, who would have around 15 horses each, but “they are unconfirmed at this point,” Ingram said.
And there’s more good news.
“All the trainers that we had last winter are coming back,” Ingram said.
They include Canada-based Mike Keogh, the private trainer for Gustav Schickedanz, who died in June.
Year-around trainers Cary Frommer and Legacy Stable’s Brad Stauffer and Ron Stevens will be getting new horses.
During a Sept. 10 meeting, the training track board elected a new president, Bill Gutfarb. He replaced Alice Knowles, who had been the president since April.
“He is making sure our financials are compiled accurately, and he also is helping us with our budgeting, our tax returns, our insurance renewals and those kinds of things,” said Ingram of Gutfarb. “Anything I’ve asked him to do, he’s jumped right on.”
Gutfarb, who is retired, worked in financial management for the Yawkey family, whose patriarch, the late Tom Yawkey, owned the Boston Red Sox.
Gutfarb is still a trustee for two of the Yawkey family’s foundations.
“The training track is a great place, and this is a great community,” Gutfarb said. “I don’t know if we’re going to be able to get the track back to what it was 50 years ago, but we can certainly try to make what we have to offer better known.”
Gutfarb and his wife, Wendy, are thoroughbred owners, and they are among the partners in Mosaic Racing Stable.
Wendy is a joint master of foxhounds for the Aiken Hounds.
In addition to a new president and new trainers, the training track has three new employees – one in the office and two who work in track maintenance.
There also is a new website, aikentrainingtrack.com.
“It is a lot better technically, they tell me,” Ingram said. “It’s quicker and easier to update.”
Earlier this year, the training track expanded and upgraded the clockers’ stand, which was named in honor of Dogwood Stable’s late founder and president, Cot Campbell.
Further improvements are planned, including the replacement of the pergola with a larger covered structure that will provide shade and shelter from any rain for more people.
Meanwhile, graduates of the training track have been enjoying success this year at the racetrack.
In July, on the same day, Henley’s Joy captured the $1 million Belmont Derby Invitational Stakes, and Concrete Rose scored in the $750,000 Belmont Oaks Invitational Stakes at Belmont Park in New York.
More recently, Killybegs Captain won the $250,000 Frank J. De Francis Memorial Dash Stakes and Dubini triumphed in the $100,000 Laurel Dash Stakes on Sept. 21 at Laurel Park in Maryland.