A Behind-The-Scenes Look at Steeplechase of Charleston

by Ryan Biddix

Edited by Pamela Brownstein

You arrive at the freshly-manicured green racetrack with your bowties securely tied and hats perfectly pinned. You socialize, walk the grounds and browse the market vendors. With a drink in one hand and a fan in the other, you take a seat in the foldable chairs you packed and wait in anticipation. You hear an announcer loudly exclaim on the intercom, the starting gun is fired and soon the horses are off to the races.

Spectators, with phone and cameras in hand, waiting to get the perfect shot. Photography by Caroline Herring.

This one day of impressive horseracing might feel seamless to the hundreds of spectators, but making it happen requires a massive amount of planning and teamwork. Steeplechase of Charleston Executive Director Chris Zoeller and Production Director Justin Smith reveal more about the behind-the-scenes of producing and organizing a horse race.

According to Zoeller, this year’s event is going to be different because The Post and Courier has amped up the winning prize to $100,000. “We’ve increased this purse to attract more horses, making for exciting horse racing,” she said.

Planning and coordination take place a year prior, Zoeller explained. “We start (planning) for the next Steeplechase horse race as soon as the last race finishes. As event planners, we are always thinking about how we can improve the event and the experience for our guests, and when you’re in the event itself, our minds are already ticking on how we can make it better for the next year,” she said.

The Steeplechase team, including Chris Zoeller (middle) and Justin Smith (left), enjoying the fruits of their labor. Photography by Alison Warburton

The event staff stays busy in the months leading up to the Steeplechase making sure all the pieces fall into place. From booking bands to creating merchandise to securing sponsors, there is not one detail that goes unnoticed.

As for the venue itself, preparation begins early. Smith said that set up begins a full week before the event and load out isn’t complete until a few days after. “In total, we will have approximately 75 staff, volunteers, and production vendors playing an important role in creating a memorable experience,” he said.

The venue sets the stage for how the horse race will look and play out, so location is carefully considered. When asked what makes a good venue, Smith explained: “It really depends on the type of race, but for a steeplechase, the racetrack at Stono Ferry is the ideal venue. There is a very large, flat infield for tailgating, entertainment, and catering. The race track is wide and well-groomed. The grounds crew and HOA at Stono Ferry take a lot of pride in the track and it really shows on race day.”

A candid photo of Executive Director Chris Zoeller (left) and Race Director Toby Edwards (right), discussing details of the event. Photography by Al Samuels.

There are so many other variables that go into producing a large outdoor event, especially one with animals. “Everything must be considered in the planning process,” Smith said. “What will the weather look like in the days leading up to the race? How can we load in vendors and infrastructure quickly and safely without damaging the grounds? Will the officials change any scheduled race times or distances before the event begins? Will our estimates for food and alcohol keep everyone happy? Will we have any major injuries or issues with the horses or jockeys? Will the band, DJ, singers, and announcers we have chosen work together to produce a cohesive show?”

However daunting this process may seem, it is nevertheless rewarding. “The most exciting part of producing a horse race is watching spectators, sponsors, officials, and staff having a great time at the event,” Smith said. “All of the hard work pays off when you see a smiling family cheer on their favorite jockey or a young athlete win their first race!”

The planning required to produce the Steeplechase of Charleston is nothing short of miraculous, and akin to that of a theatrical production. Once the “curtains are drawn” and the “lights” come up, spectators and staff alike marvel at the theatrics of the race. So, let’s give a round of applause to those who made this year’s Steeplechase event possible.