Long an important part of America's equine world, Aiken, S.C. turns to steeplechasing Saturday with the 37th annual Aiken Steeplechase Races. A crowd in excess of 25,000 is expected.Like the opening Little Everglades Steeplechase in Florida two weeks ago, Aiken attracted solid entries despite delays experienced by most trainers in Pennsylvania, Maryland and Virginia. Forty-seven horses will hit the program for the two training flat races and five hurdle races.The featured Regions Bank Imperial Cup, a $30,000 stakes, drew six entries reflecting a mixed assortment of hurdlers including two division champions from the NSA"s 2002 season.Little Bay Racing Stable's Pals Pride, the NSA 3-year-old champion last year, makes his debut vs. older horses for trainer Kevin Pallister. Pals Pride spent his winter at Pallister's Southern Pines, N.C. farm and could use Aiken as a springboard to the Steeplechase Triple Crown or other major races. Last year, Pals Pride won the $50,000 Gladstone Stakes at Far Hills, N.J. in October. Regular jockey Tom Foley will be aboard.Pallister knows his horse is stepping up in class, but also thinks he belongs."He's in great form, and is doing very well," said the trainer. "He needs one race to get all the way fit, and Aiken fits the schedule even if we are taking on older horses. After that, I'm not sure where we'll go. He's a bit one-paced so the longer distances are what I want for him."Gillian Johnston's Snowball Flannagan won the NSA's first claiming championship with four victories in eight starts and earnings of $57,650. Trained by Janet Elliot, the 8-year-old makes his stakes debut but could be considered the race's favorite. Last season, the son of Affirmed won by 17 lengths. Rob Massey, who won two races with Snowball Flannagan in 2002, has the mount.Brigadoon Stable's Brown Lad and Edie Dixon's Indispensable bring solid stakes credentials. The former was bred in France and was purchased at England's Doncaster Bloodstock Sales by trainer Toby Edwards. In his fourth U.S. season, the 10-year-old has won a pair of stakes (both at Tryon, N.C.). He comes off a third in the Little Everglades Stakes. Arch Kingsley gets the riding assignment. Indispensable, trained in Maryland by Jack Fisher, has won four races and $160,000 in his steeplechase career. Jockey Gus Brown, who spent six weeks riding in England this winter, will be aboard.
Whitewood Farm's Yoke looks to shake off some rust for trainer Richard Valentine. The French-bred won his hurdle debut in 2001, but hasn't run since. The 8-year-old spent the winter in Camden, S.C. Valentine knows he's stepping over several conditions, but has confidence in his horse."He had two years off, but he's very good right now," said trainer Richard Valentine early this season. "He trained very well in Camden this winter and we'll see how it goes."The field (with jockey) in post position order: Pals Pride (Tom Foley), Indispensable (Gus Brown), Snowball Flannagan (Rob Massey), Yoke (David Bentley), Brown Lad (Arch Kingsley), Swoop And Soar (Jody Petty).