Destination: Aiken, South Carolina

The equestrian epicenter kicks off the spring season with the Aiken Triple Crown
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The sport of kings at Aiken Polo Club
The sport of kings at Aiken Polo Club

Photograph by George Buggs

Unbridled equine excitement permeates the air in this charming 1,000-horse town. Journey east on U.S. 78 a half hour past Augusta, and you’ll find yourself clopping through the Carolinas’ equestrian epicenter. This is primo sandy-soiled horse country, where sheikhs with dreams of Derby glory train their prized ponies, and the hottest to-dos are typically thrown in an infield under a tent. The spring season starts next month with the Aiken Triple Crown, three consecutive Saturdays of racing, steeplechase, and polo action; the galloping zeal continues through June.

The Willcox
The Willcox

Photograph courtesy of the Willcox

Where to stay
The white-columned Willcox brims with antebellum charm and a guest roll gilded with luminaries from Winston Churchill to Elizabeth Arden. Golf nut looking for an opulent perch during the second weekend of April? This 22-room boutique books two years in advance of Masters week. From $189

Where to eat
Graze on grits, country ham, eggs, and other down-home staples at Track Kitchen (420 Mead Avenue, 803-641-9628), a low-key breakfast joint where you’re liable to bump into a jockey or trainer. For a formal yet unpretentious dining experience, visit Malia’s for nouveaux American cuisine.

Hopelands Garden
Hopelands Garden

Photograph courtesy of city of Aiken PRT department

What else to do
The golf exhibit at the Aiken County Historical Museum  provides a glimpse into the Palmetto Golf Club, an elite haunt. The Alister Mac-Kenzie–designed course is private, but during the Masters, you can play for $225 a round.

Stroll through the azaleas of the 14-acre Hopelands Garden, then visit the quaint on-site Aiken Thoroughbred Racing Hall of Fame & Museum. For rail buffs and those with children, the Train Museum at the Visitor’s Center is a must-see.

Horsing around
During the season, Aiken Polo Club holds court every Sunday at Whitney Field, the oldest continuously used field in the U.S. If your closest experience with polo is the Ralph Lauren logo, it takes only a couple of chukkers (periods of play) to warm up to it. $5–$25

The Aiken Spring Steeplechase (March 21), a riveting test of speed and jumping, is the Super Bowl of Aiken’s calendar, drawing upwards of 30,000. Admission starts at $25, but for upscale eats, optimal sight lines, and hobnobbing, spring for the Tent Party by the finish line ($120).

Following that, the Highfields Event Center hosts the Aiken Spring Classic Finale (April 22-26), a United States Equestrian Federation-sanctioned premiere hunter-jumper show.

Photograph by Tiziano Scaffai
Photograph by Tiziano Scaffai

Dress the part
Rider or not, look like one in custom Franco Tucci polo boots. $1,525

This article originally appeared in our February 2015 issue.

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