- October 19, 2015
Aiken, South Carolina, is horse country. From fox hunting to horse drawn carriages, Aiken is home to unique and beloved equine traditions complete with infrastructure, professional training, veterinary medicine and other support services. For over a century, the town has produced dozens of champion thoroughbreds. Aiken also participates in every popular equestrian discipline. It is home to a number of exciting Hunter/Jumper and U.S. Equestrian Team events as well as a thriving polo community. Its equine culture dates back generations and has attracted horsemen from across the country, which included Chicago area native Bruce Duchossois, who moved to Aiken 20 years ago. Duchossois first gained national fame as a horseman in 1973 and over the next 40 years, became one of the country’s leading exhibitors in the competitive Adult Amateur Hunter Division and one of the sport’s most important supporters, both nationally and internationally.
Duchossois lost his battle with cancer in 2014. But in the last few years of his life, he was able to set the wheels in motion for the transformation of a 66 acre field and steeplechase track in Aiken into something remarkable — Bruce’s Field.
Fifteen years ago, after learning that developers were interested in turning the field and steeplechase track into a housing development, Bruce and his partner Jack Wetzel bought the property, located in the heart of Aiken’s equine district. In the years that followed, steeplechase events and an occasional horse show continued to take place on the property. During this time, Bruce dreamed of transforming his property into a world class equestrian facility that would bring back the traditional elements of a horse park, something he saw as missing in too many of the newer equestrian facilities.
“This is Bruce’s dream,” says Scot Evans, a director of the Aiken Horse Park Foundation that owns and operates Bruce’s Field. “Bruce knew exactly what he wanted: a world class equestrian facility combined with the park-like atmosphere that he loved so much throughout his life. He also wanted the park to be connected with the community with a focus on children, education and charity. And he wanted to build a team and an organization that would help create and operate the facility far into the future,” said Evans.
In 2013, Bruce pushed his planning into high gear. He and Jack brought Evans together with the Firm’s John Stephens and tasked the two trusted advisors to facilitate the process of building the organization that would bring the dream to life. Evans fondly recalls the day when Bruce said that his lawyer, John Stephens, could really help get this project off the ground. “Since that day, John’s expertise and leadership have been critical to the Foundation’s success,” said Evans.
The next step was to assemble a uniquely qualified board of directors, with each member sharing Bruce’s passion and commitment to Aiken’s equestrian traditions. With the help of board member James “Burr” Collier and the Firm’s Mary Kruit McWilliams, the Aiken Horse Park Foundation was quickly granted status as a 501(c)(3) charity by the IRS.
Once the Aiken Horse Park Foundation was launched and the plans for Bruce’s Field were approved, it was time to break ground in November of 2014, just a few months after Bruce lost his battle with cancer. Bruce died in July of 2014 at the age of 64, but not before finalizing plans for the new facility.
Over the next year, the Foundation faced and overcame a variety of obstacles, including zoning opposition and regulatory hurdles, as well as the competitive challenges that make it difficult for any charity competing with the for-profit venues that dominate the equestrian world today.
Integrated within and around the steeplechase racetrack, Bruce’s Field provides exhibitors with the feel of a horse show from a bygone era, while featuring state-of-the-art footings, stabling and support services. The Aiken Horse Park’s facilities are designed to accommodate the town’s many equestrian activities as well as charity events, educational clinics, training for amateur athletes, exhibitions, and competitions.
“Bruce loved horses and he also loved Aiken,” said Richard Duchossois, Bruce’s father and chairman of The Duchossois Group. “Building this park was something he always wanted to do. It was his hope and ours as well that the park would become a major attraction in Aiken that would provide an economic boost to the region.” Duchossois added: “Our family is delighted with John Stephens and his colleagues at Burke Warren. John knew what Bruce wanted and he was able to build a team to complete the park in the most professional way possible.”
While Bruce’s Field hosted the Aiken Fall Festival this September, the official grand opening will take place in May 2016, when the Aiken Horse Park Foundation will host the Aiken Charity Horse Show I (May 4-8) and Aiken Charity Horse Show II (May 11-15.)
“Our mission today as a group with support from the community, is fulfilling Bruce’s dream,” said Evans. “A walk on the field today gives the feel of gratitude and respect. With an equestrian tradition so firmly in place, this is a fitting legacy for a man who loved bringing people together.”
For more information on Bruce’s Field and the Aiken Horse Park Foundation, please contact John Stephens at 312/840-7017 or firstname.lastname@example.org.