American Pastimes: Retracing the High Style of the Sporting Life to Aiken, South Carolina
A JOCKEY, IN A GREEN uniform with yellow polka dots, greeted me upon arrival at The Willcox in Aiken, South Carolina. No taller than my waist, the ceramic structure held a lantern in one hand and kept watch over his patch of manicured grass near the historic hotel’s stately, white-pillared front porch.
Located along Interstate 20 just east of Augusta, Aiken is a place where horses traveling on roads have the right of way. It’s an easy detour for Northsiders en route to Charleston, South Carolina — but to be clear, it is also a destination in and of itself, particularly for polo players and thoroughbred breeders.
Later, I would learn the jockey’s colors and pattern represented Dogwood Stable, whose partnerships since establishment in 1969 have led to 80 stakes winners, eight trips to the Kentucky Derby, eight millionaires and the list of accolades goes on.
The legacy of The Willcox and its town, however, date back much earlier. When you enter inside its lobby, replete with original wood from 1898 and cozy furnishings, you take the same steps as past presidents and influential names like Franklin D. Roosevelt, Winston Churchill, Elizabeth Arden, Joseph Pulitzer and Harold Vanderbilt.
In 2009, new ownership sought to bring back its former Gilded-Age glory, and recent recognition from Travel + Leisure and Condé Nast Traveler as the No. 1 hotel in the South heralded its return. A saltwater pool and spa round out the hotel’s amenities today, both of which I can only assume come in handy after spending an afternoon on horseback.
By the time the lawn jockey’s lantern illuminated at dusk, I had learned that each ornate detail in Aiken carried a story that could be traced for generations — if you were looking closely enough to see it.
To appreciate Aiken’s finer points with more than a casual glance, it helps to start with a broad overview. With a little luck, those visiting on a Saturday morning can claim a seat on the Aiken Trolley Tour, which departs from the Visitor Center & Train Museum at 10 a.m. The tour tends to sell out early and even has a waiting list for cancellations, as it’s only scheduled once a week.
Typically preferring to steer clear of seemingly commercialized tourist magnets, I was pleasantly surprised as I found this wasn’t one. I settled in my seat and listened to our guide explain that the town’s beginnings and name are both credited to William Aiken, once president of the South Carolina Canal and Railroad Company, and one of the state’s richest rice and cotton merchants.
The tour’s two-hour route continued through a live oak canopy, the Civil War’s Battle of Aiken and famed equestrian sites that resulted from its “Winter Colony” era. The term alludes to a period between the 1870s and 1930s after the Civil War when wealthy families from the Northeast were first lured to the area by sporting culture and a mild climate. The historic garden estates built during that era exude timeless charm as they were influenced by different architectural styles, but most share at least one commonality: paddocks.
Talk about house envy. Outside my trolley window, we passed Rose Hill, whose walls encapsulate an entire downtown city block. Those wanting a closer look can make a dinner reservation at The Stables Restaurant, inside the repurposed, original horse stable, on Tuesdays through Saturdays starting at 5 p.m.
The trolley also makes a stop at Hopelands, a 14-acre, former winter estate repurposed as public gardens. If you stroll the grounds in June, you may catch one of the free concerts, theatrical productions or weddings frequently happening here.
Year-round visitors enjoy free admission to the Thoroughbred Racing Hall of Fame and Museum, located in the Hopelands’ carriage house, where an impressive collection of silver trophies celebrate the tradition of racing and Aiken’s esteemed role in it.
CHAMPIONING A SPORTING LIFE
Today, Thoroughbred Country is home to 55 polo fields, fox hunting, Steeplechase events in the spring and fall, the Aiken Trials and world-renowned horse shows. There are also state-of-the-art training facilities like Stable View Farms that still attract riders from the Northeast, most notably Boyd Martin (a 2014 and 2012 U.S. Olympic rider) and his wife Silva (a Grand Prix dressage rider) who rent space during the winter season for training. Experience Stable View for yourself by attending one of their many year-round events. The view of rolling pastures alone is worth the 10-mile drive from downtown.
How did the area become the equestrian mecca it is today? Since many of the original Winter Colony members’ lifestyles didn’t include a need for paid work, per se, they often invented careers for themselves through sports — some of which were newly debuting in America. Aiken’s well-garnered reputation can be traced back to the Hitchcock and Whitney families. Each recognized how the area’s sandy soil could be ideal for training horses and capitalized on the notion.
Once a private playground for friends and family, Hitchcock Woods is a preserved urban forest nearly three times the size of New York’s Central Park and open to the public — but only by foot or hoof — so as not to spook the horses.
Still, equine endeavors were just the beginning of sporting in Aiken. Thomas Hitchcock and W.C. Whitney also laid the foundation for Palmetto Golf Club, designed by acclaimed early course architect Alister MacKenzie.
A couple miles down the street, the exclusive Aiken Club’s Court Tennis Building remains in care of the Whitney Trust and is one of only nine in the U.S. All games played with a racquet are derived from court tennis, originally created for monks in medieval France. Nicknamed “the sport of kings,” its niche audience won’t find equipment in any stores, but instead must custom order.
Aiken’s lifestyle of leisure doesn’t exist only behind private doors; it has a public presence, too. Boutiques like Equine Divine and Aiken Dry Goods along the downtown’s Lauren Street are not only filled with gifts and home décor that celebrate horses, but polo gear and essentials for chic sideline entertaining. Back at The Willcox’s Lobby Bar, I watched people take a seat in riding pants and locals confirmed this attire is equally appropriate at the grocery store.
It’s also worth noting that, unlike The Willcox’s early days of high society and exclusivity, the hotel now takes pride in its open doors, positioning itself as the living room of the community. While sipping a cocktail on a Saturday evening, I saw a parade of both sophistication and informal glamour trot by the grand piano and into the hotel’s acclaimed restaurant.
THE ALLEY’S ABCs
If The Willcox is the community’s living room, then you could say that The Alley is its backyard. A 7-minute walk out the door, The Alley was once used for stables and blacksmith shops and has been revitalized with a mix of watering holes, modern fare, yoga classes, live music and more.
Anchoring one end is Aiken Brewing Company. With a diverse food menu and tables that spill out onto the pavement, it’s the place to get a locally crafted pint, with a rotating list of suds on tap and 20 years of experience to their name.
A few doors down, the newer Alley Downtown Taproom offers a different approach. With a digital wristband that tracks your ounces, you can sample and sip from a wall lined with taps of wine, beer, coffee, kombucha and crafted sodas. Turn your wristband in later to pay your tab. The space is also filled with games and a few tables for munching on snacks brought with you (insider hint: The Willcox packs picnic baskets upon request) or from a grab-and-go menu.
I stuck to a pint of India pale ale dubbed “HopArt” from North Charleston’s Coast Brewery and saved my appetite for dinner at The Bradley. Located across the alleyway, The Bradley was opened by Londoner Kevin Bradley in early 2016 and blends inspiration from European brasseries and American comforts, compliments of Chef Katie Jajczyk. There is a true sense of community effort here, amplified by food sourced from local farms and the fact Jajczyk’s husband, Chad, is the general manager of Bradley’s Alloro, the modern Italian kitchen next door.
While a menu might initially catch my eye, what dining experience is actually delivered at a restaurant can be similar to what I’ve heard about raising a thoroughbred. Some simply stand apart from the pack, match well with certain people more than others and only time can tell how they will endure.
If my intuitions are correct, The Bradley very well may be a winner. My table was blown away by renditions of familiar dishes presented in creative and flavorful ways, belying their humble abode. There’s no pretense of fine dining here, but the quality at least matched that of which I’ve tasted in a few repeatedly acclaimed restaurants.
With a menu that changes seasonally, there’s also no guarantee you’ll be able to order roasted bone marrow with onion horseradish crust, lemon parsley salsa and crusty bread, or the jumbo lump crab and local sweet corn risotto, but odds are that whatever the Jajczyks have up their sleeve stands to impress.
When we returned to The Willcox with full bellies, the lobby was just as lively as we left it. On the front porch, guests traveling with their dogs occupied tables and rocking chairs. A neighborhood black cat, affectionately called “Mr. Willcox” after the hotel’s original proprietor, sat in his nightly post atop the porch’s steps. Both Willcoxes have seen social leaders from all over the country mingle from the same spot.
After checking out the next morning, there was one more requisite stop to make. A little farther beyond the iconic intersection of Whiskey and Easy Streets, turn down a dusty dirt road and park in the grassy lot at Whitney Field. Sunday afternoons in Aiken are for polo.
At least, they are for members of the Aiken Polo Club during each season, usually held from April to mid-June and from September through mid-November. This year marks the club’s 135th year of play at Whitney Field, and I’m told it’s a great family sport, whether you’re on the field or on the sidelines.
General admission is an affordable $5 per person with free parking. However, I noticed that the more popular options are field-side parking, where people set up chairs and coolers from the trunks of their cars, or a $30 ticket to the shady pavilion, which includes a catered lunch and full bar.
From my viewing spot under the pavilion, I found people were eager to share their knowledge of the sport with first-timers like myself. I’d guess most people today, myself included, are more familiar with Polo as the brand created by Ralph Lauren than the sport. For this reason, fans care about preserving its legacy, and don’t hesitate to explain the rules, equipment and scoring to newcomers.
The two teams on the field each have four players — in this case, men and women who have traveled from places as far as Connecticut, Florida, Argentina and the Dominican Republic to compete.
It didn’t take me long to get in the spirit, as one player’s mallet sent the ball soaring down the field and a thundering of running horses followed. At halftime, I joined fellow spectators on the pitch to “stomp the divots” — a bit of field maintenance that doubles as a time to chat with friends, show off your dress or your dog. I noticed the fabric on one woman’s brightly patterned sundress was the same fabric as the collar of her poodle.
While people-watching during the match is just as tempting, it’s a duty of a spectator to keep your eyes on the ball and the horses. Action can extend beyond the edge of the field, and you don’t want to miss a second of it.
You could say the same for the beauty of Thoroughbred Country. Building upon more than a century of traditions, Aiken awaits to be discovered by the next generation. Just look in the details.
[a version of this article originally appeared in Points North Atlanta | photography courtesy of THE WILLCOX; THOROUGHBRED COUNTY]