Photo Courtesy of Johnny Deal
The lead horses in one of the races from the 2017 Carolina Cup.

Three hundred sixty-five days out of the year, the small city of Camden has about 7,000 people in it. Every year on the last Saturday of March, it is about nine times that.

The Carolina Cup, an annual steeplechase held in Camden, holds the National Steeplechase Association attendance record of 71,000 people.People are drawn to the horse races for a full day of tailgating. The gates open in the morning, but the first race does not start until the afternoon.

The executive director of the Carolina Cup Racing Association, John Cushman, says he “first thought it was about the sport but then realized people come for the entertainment.” Now a huge event, it takes seven to eight months of preparation.
A former Carolina Cup champion jockey himself, Cushman said he now enjoys the planning side of it.

“You’re only as safe as your last ride,” he said. “I needed to be thinking about what’s next, and it’s the 85th year of the Carolina Cup – that’s a long stretch.”

However, the racing association only has four full-time employees and they work in a town where Uber drivers don’t even exist. Where do they find the resources to pull this off?Interestingly, the association has nothing to do with running the horse races.

“We’re just in charge of controlling the traffic,” Cushman said. The National Steeplechase Association is the enforcing body of the sport and they come to town to handle all of that.

Bringing this many people into Springdale Race Course calls for crowd control. “There is so much that goes on during the day that the public isn’t even aware of,” Cushman said. “One year we had an ultralight helicopter land on the race course. The pilot ran into College Park to have a little fun and police were waiting by his plane when he came back out.”

To manage this issue, the Camden Police Department needs more officers on duty than its staff can provide. “We will send 40 deputies from the Kershaw County Sheriff’s Office to work alongside the Camden Police Department, Highway Patrol, and SLED officers from the state,” Kershaw County Sheriff Lee Boan said. “Of those, 75 percent will work crowd control inside the event and 25 percent will work DUI enforcement outside of the event.”

Boan said the Carolina Cup has gotten a lot easier to manage over the years. A section that used to be known as “College Park” has been rehomed as “The Meadow,” an open field where large groups can buy multiple spaces together. One year, 220 buses of college students brought in 14,000 people.

But even with a heavier police presence, Cushman said they get help from other organizations, too.

The Camden Jaycees, a local community service organization, make working the Carolina Cup the Jaycees’ biggest fundraiser. As cars pull up to the entrance gates, guests will see a group of men checking tickets and directing traffic. They do this to help raise money for the Jaycees’ annual Christmas stocking fund. Jaycees member Carson Morgan says it is something the groups looks forward to. “It gets hectic, but this event is what Camden is known for, and we are just happy to be a part of it,” he said.
The Junior Welfare League works the souvenir stands, and numerous volunteers from the community work food stations, activities, and anywhere else they are needed. Because CCRA is owned by the State, the inmates from Wateree Correctional Institute come to clean up. Cushman said it takes anywhere from 10 days to two weeks to get everything back to normal.
So, is all the hard work worth it?

A Camden native, Lisa Moore, says it is the best event of the year. Like her, some people have been going to the Carolina Cup for almost 50 years. Moore said one of her favorite memories was being there in 1976. Everyone wore old revolutionary clothing to the race course to celebrate the United States Bicentennial. Another year she said, she was there in the snow.
Others say it acts as an annual reunion for them and their friends from out of town. “Sure, there will always be parties, concerts, and festivals to go to,” Moore said. “But it’s not every weekend that you get to bet on horse races just a couple of miles from your house.”

The Carolina Cup generates about $750,000 each year. According to the CCRA website, any profits made are donated to Kershaw Health, Camden’s local hospital. Surrounding gas stations, restaurants and hotels say it is the busiest weekend of the year.
Cushman owns a local tack shop just a couple of miles from the race course.

But the big event has little impact on his business. “There is absolutely no effect. But if we sold beer and fried chicken, there certainly would be,” Cushman said.

Boan said, “Seeing so many people get a chance to visit our county and learn what Camden is all about makes every tough moment worth it.”

His advice for any newcomers to the Carolina Cup is to “have fun but be responsible. And don’t break the law.”
The Carolina Cup has been identified as an Uber hotspot for drivers in the past, so attendees can anticipate booking rides home.
Hosting an event like this certainly has its challenges, but the CCRA knows exactly how to show the small city of Camden a good time.