The Steeplechase of Charleston is deeply rooted in the history of its home city. Charleston’s passion for horse racing goes all the way back to the early years of our country. With the beautiful historic town becoming the prime seat for racing in the South following the revolution, it's only natural that one of the oldest spectator sports in the world remains popular here.
The Jockey Club
The first American horse racing track was created in 1665 on Long Island. It wasn’t until 1734 that the sport came to South Carolina (69 years before the beginnings of The Post and Courier.) It was in that year that the South Carolina Gazette published the first record of racing in the state. And that same year, the South Carolina Jockey Club formed.
America’s first jockey club, composed of wealthy horse owners and breeders, was organized in Charleston, South Carolina, in 1734.
This Jockey Club even predates by 16 years the formation of the English Jockey Club, which still organizes English racing today. The United States did eventually found its own national-level Jockey Club modeled on the English organization.
Organized races in South Carolina began to take place in Charleston, Edisto, Jacksonborough, Pocotaligo and Strawberry Ferry. Following the American Revolutionary War, racing continued to greatly increase in popularity.
The Washington Race Course
Charleston was the home of the Washington Course, which ran around what is today called Hampton Park. Thousands of spectators would come to the site every February, kicking off the winter social season.
It was this particular race that boosted horse racing in Charleston to a level that has lasted generations. The course was first used in 1792 for the Jockey Club Purse. This race consisted of four heats, each run with the same horses and riders. Spectators would spend time between heats making new wagers and exploring the racetrack grounds.
The South Carolina Jockey Club continued to be the exclusive club for elite members of southern society for decades. Described as the “carnival of the state,” race week in Charleston was home to shops, stands, new restaurants and real estate auctions. It was also the place to purchase newly imported horses from England.
When the nation entered into its Civil War, thoroughbred horses were lost in great numbers. A massive economic decline followed the war. Horse racing in South Carolina was all but dead because of this and the Jockey Club was disbanded for good in 1899.
The rise and fall of racing
Various wars and legislation caused American horse racing popularity to fluctuate over the years. Anti-gambling sentiments and the first World War wiped out the races tracks. But when state legislatures legalized betting in exchange for a cut of the wagers, the sport had a major turnaround.
This surge in popularity was also short-lived, as World War II led to a decline in racing during the 1950s and 1960s. But the sport pushed on during this dry spell and eventually found a series of American Triple Crown winners in the horses Secretariat, Seattle Slew and Affirmed. The excitement around these winners led to a resurgence in the 1970s which lasted nearly two decades.
Popularity again began to wane from the 1980s up until today. We have had two triple crown winners in recent years, American Pharoah in 2015 and Justify in 2018. Racing is again becoming the major social event it once was.
Steeplechase of Charleston today
Through partnership with Charleston’s The Post and Courier, Steeplechase of Charleston is set to ignite the excitement and tradition of horse racing in the south. During the height of the South Carolina Jockey Club, members hosted required parties, dinners, galas and all manner of festivities. Steeplechase of Charleston brings all of these gatherings to one place.
The Steeplechase of Charleston 2019 is a day full of activities and experiences for all ages. The event centers around five races that finish off the season for steeplechase horse racing. Just as the Jockey Club Purse once consisted of multiple race heats, so too will the Steeplechase of Charleston. This makes for a full-day event to enjoy the marketplace, food trucks, tailgating and more themed activities.
There could be no more fitting home for the conclusion of race season than the city that once held the prime seat of horse racing for the entire country. Steeplechase of Charleston is proud to keep that tradition alive in 2019 and beyond.