Horse racing

1730s –

Charleston was the seat of racing in these early years.

“The Sport of Kings” emerged in South Carolina as soon as colonists gained firm footing and began amassing property and wealth enough to emulate the lifestyles of England and the Caribbean. Before 1754 most horse stock in the colony was for general use. They were small, fleet, strong, and descended from horses brought to Florida by the Spanish and known as the Chicasaw breed.

Charleston was the seat of racing in these early years. The first record of any public running appeared in the South-Carolina Gazette in February 1734, announcing a race on Charleston Neck for a prize of a saddle and bridle. The same year, the city formed its first jockey club. In 1735 “The York Course” was set out, followed by “The Newmarket Course,” which hosted its first race in 1760. By then, rules of racing were established and prizes of silver or gold were awarded. Many of the early jockeys were slaves.

Interest in improving the breed was intense in the years before and after the Revolution. Horsemen from Charleston and inland river settlements began a campaign of importing fine stallions and mares from England and Virginia. Organized racing took place at Charleston, Edisto, Jacksonborough, Pocotaligo, and Strawberry Ferry. The Hamptons, Singletons, Richardsons, and others were among the inland families dedicated to enlarging the sport beyond Charleston.

Recovery following the Revolution brought a huge following to racing. Racing continued in Charleston at the new Washington Course, which coincided with a gala social season of fetes, balls, and dinners. Not to be outdone, the elegant setting and refined audience attending the racing scene at Pinewood claimed to rival that of the British course at Goodwood. St. Matthews, Pendleton, Greenville, Barnwell, Newberry, Laurensville, Deadfall, Beaufort, Georgetown, Camden, and Orangeburg all held races during the antebellum era, and some even had registered jockey clubs.

There is scant information on many of these old tracks with the exception of Charleston, whose past is best recorded. The Camden Jockey Club presided over three racecourses during its existence, while the Columbia Jockey Club oversaw events at the Congaree Course. Fans reveled in these glory days of South Carolina horse racing, but the Civil War brought racing in South Carolina to an end, with most properties sold and stables disbanded. Even the South Carolina Jockey Club dissolved and gave its remaining relics to the Charleston Library.

In spite of the hardships, the lure of the sport brought a revival at the turn of the century. Camden and Aiken made a pointed effort to entice moneyed sportsmen. Having little money but a wealth of land and historic homes, residents partnered with well-heeled northern visitors to create golf, shooting, and equestrian venues. In addition to the new racing centers built during the 1930s, an active South Carolina Turf Club held a circuit during World War II in Newberry, Eutawville, Summerville, St. Matthews, St. Johns, Colleton, Williamsburg, Elloree, and Camden.

In Camden, Ernest Woodward and Harry Kirkover built Springdale Race Course and created the Carolina Cup Race Meet for steeplechasers in 1930. Marion duPont Scott built Wrenfield, a flat track, in 1936 and hosted a few days of trials during the 1950s. She later added the Colonial Cup to the venue at Springdale, which she purchased in 1954. The Carolina Cup and the Colonial Cup continue as significant stops on the steeplechase circuit.

In Aiken steeplechasing began in 1930, followed by harness racing in 1936, and flat racing in 1942. All these events continue as Aiken’s Triple Crown in the spring. Aiken also hosts a fall steeplechase meet. The Elloree Trials began in 1962 and are still held. Horse racing returned to Charleston with the creation of the Charleston Steeplechase at Stono Ferry. Even with the absence of legal wagering, a day at the races continues to provide a favorite social and sporting occasion.

Hotaling, Edward. The Great Black Jockeys: The Lives and Times of the Men Who Dominated America’s First National Sport. Rocklin, Calif.: Forum, 1999.

Irving, John Beaufain. The South Carolina Jockey Club. 1857. Reprint, Spartanburg, S.C.: Reprint Company, 1975.

Citation Information

The following information is provided for citations.

  • Title Horse racing
  • Coverage 1730s –
  • Author
  • Keywords “The Sport of Kings”, Chicasaw breed, Charleston, early jockeys were slaves, Camden Jockey Club, Columbia Jockey Club, Carolina Cup Race Meet
  • Website Name South Carolina Encyclopedia
  • Publisher University of South Carolina, Institute for Southern Studies
  • URL
  • Access Date April 13, 2021
  • Original Published Date
  • Date of Last Update September 27, 2016
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