They were colorful, to say the least. They were old friends and new, family by blood and by choice.
They were picture-taking, tailgating, fun loving, from the North, the South and quite a few places in between.
They were, well, perhaps slightly inebriated. They were there for a good time.
The people of the Carolina Cup – more than 50,000 of them, most likely – made Camden the center of their world Saturday for the kickoff of the national steeplechase horse racing season.
But as most any Cupper, new or old, could tell you, the horses are a sidebar to what amounts to a giant outdoor cocktail party. And, mercifully, the rain held off.
Just ‘friends having fun’
Adam Ruonala and his pals could hardly make it through a conversation without being asked to have their picture taken. In five custom-made suits ranging from skulls-and-paisley to sky-and-clouds to Monopoly board-themed, they couldn’t be missed – which was kind of their plan.
“Every year we have to get louder and louder,” Ruonala said. “We literally start calling tailors the week after Cup” to prepare their outfits for the next year.
Ruonala and his friends, PJ Cross, Lee Huffstetler, Ron Cohen and Devin Taylor, convene each year at the Cup from places as near as Columbia and as far as Memphis and Detroit.
For the longtime friends, the day is more than a chance to dress wildly and meet new people, though that would be pleasure enough.
“It’s just a big group of friends having fun,” Cohen said. “We don’t get to see each other as often as we always want to.”
Hullabaloo and hats
With the din of dozens of fraternities’ sound systems filling the College Park field behind the racetrack, a group of College of Charleston ladies and others from the University of South Carolina were setting up a tent and soaking in their inaugural Carolina Cup experience.
“I just love any excuse to dress up and tailgate” said LeeAnne Lower, who traveled with a group organized by College of Charleston’s campus ministry.
The largely raucous college crowd, representing schools from across the Carolinas and beyond, takes tailgating to the extreme each year. Pastel-clad partiers by the busload crowded under tents and around coolers for a few hours of merrymaking that may or may not have included a glimpse of a racehorse.
Hundreds of law enforcement officers roamed among them Saturday to keep them safe and enforce alcohol laws. An average of 180 to 200 people are criminally charged each year at the Cup, Camden Police Chief Joe Floyd has said.
But Lower and her friends were looking forward to a simpler day of enjoying each other’s company, and, of course, their outfits.
“I think any any activity where you can wear a Lilly Pulitzer dress is a good activity,” said Jordan Willson. “And definitely wear a hat, or else it’s not really Carolina Cup.”
Far away from the thumping soundtrack of the college crowd’s revelry, 3-year-old Mary Caroline Christian pressed her nose to a chain link fence.
She was working to catch a glimpse of the race horses strolling through the paddock before post time for the afternoon’s first race.
“She’s been wanting to see the horses all week,” said her mother, Caroline Christian. “We’ve been coming out to the fields all week watching them practice.”
Mary Caroline, like her mother, has never missed a Carolina Cup in her lifetime. Caroline Christian has come for 29 years, since she was a child attending with her family. Originally from Camden, she and her family now travel from Greenville to reunite each year with their extended family at the Cup.
They tailgate in the same spot, right along the racetrack fence, every year with Christian’s grandparents, the Jordans.
“Seeing everybody have fun, dress up and bring great food” makes the Cup a fun tradition to pass down to her children, Christian said. “It’s so exciting. ... I hope we can keep coming forever.”
Reach Ellis at (803) 771-8307.