Monday, September 30, 2013

A Time to Build | 9/30/2013

Equestrian Facilities Going Up

By: Pam Gleason, Photography by: Gary Knoll

Aiken's builders, at least those that cater to the equestrian sector, are in agreement: demand for their services is rising. The real estate market is heating up, people are buying homes and land, and many people who have had real estate for a long time are ready to start building. Aiken's market is following national trends: According to the National Association of Home Builders, the number of building permits issued nationwide is up 25% this year over last year. The South Atlantic region is slightly ahead of the national average, counting 33% more building permits in 2013 than at this time in 2012.

How busy are Aiken's builders? Some of them are very busy indeed. Donnie Shaffer of Donnie Shaffer Homes says he has sold three equestrian "spec" homes since January, has five equestrian homes under construction and is getting ready to begin work on six more homes in equestrian subdivisions. JD Cooper of Cooper Home and Stable says that demand, which had tapered off a little in 2012, has come roaring back this year. Grant Larlee of Larlee Construction says he is working on new homes and barns as well as historic renovations. The recent trend has been to build smaller structures, especially when you are talking about houses, and builders agree that the people who want to build in Aiken tend to be educated consumers who are seeking quality work and attention to craftsmanship.

"Our clients really appreciate the details," says Todd Gaul of Designer Builders. "The people we deal with acknowledge the difference in quality, and that is what they are looking for when they hire a builder."

Do Your Homework

How do you choose the right team to make your Aiken home or barn a reality? Builders agree that is starts with doing your homework. Your relationship with a builder is very important, and you need to find someone you can talk to, and who understands what you want. Even more important, you need to find builder who will actually do what he says he is going to do, and who has a solid reputation in the community.

"Do good research on who you are dealing with and find out what their qualifications are," says Todd Gaul. "Look into their financial stability and their experience - what have they done, how much have they done. Talk to existing owners and people they have dealt with in the past. Ask for references and check on them. You don't have to just rely on the references the builder gives you to find out who they have worked for. Ask around, and listen to what people tell you. If you hear something bad, don't second-guess it. Things have a tendency to be consistent."

JD Cooper agrees.

"There is a good quality here in Aiken County," he says. "We have good contractors, good subcontractors. Anybody that moves into this area should have a good experience with regards to building." 

Builders who do good work should be eager to show it off, and their clients should be happy to recommend them.

"I don't have a single client out there that I wouldn't want you to talk to," says Grant Larlee. "I couldn't sleep at night if that wasn't the case."

Kenny Taylor, who owns and runs Taylor Made Barns, tells a similar story: "Every client that I have had has always told me that I can show their barn at any time, whether they are there or not, and whether I call ahead or not. That's important to me."

Doing your homework also means making sure that the builder you select knows how to construct the type of project you have in mind. Some home builders in Aiken are horsemen, or have worked in the equestrian industry enough that they understand how to build barns. Some home builders are not really familiar with barns, and might not know how to make things safe for horses. If you choose a builder for your home, and he offers to build your stable as well, be sure that he knows what he is doing.

"You might show your builder plans for a 12 X 12 stall," says Grant, whose father was a harness horse trainer and who grew up in the horse business. "You mean a stall that is 12 X 12 when it is finished. If you give that plan to builder who doesn't know horses, he might frame the stall out at 12 X 12, so that when it is finished it's a lot smaller."

Kenny Taylor says that he has been called in to fix problems in barns, but builders who don't know horses have a tendency not to finish out their edges," says Kenny. "I like to round out the edges so that there isn't a sharp edge on a post. The way they run their wiring might be different than what I would do - they might have it more exposed, and horses can get at it - they may not understand the reach of a horse. Finally, I've had owners that I have talked to who had their barns built by homebuilders, and sometimes the crews don't understand about nails and screws, and that they don't mix with horses. I've talked to two owners that have had nails go into their horse's hooves and the horses have gotten abscesses, all because the crews were not careful enough."

There are builders in Aiken who are ready and able to construct the home or barn of your dreams, but every builder in the city is not in that category, so doing your homework is crucial.

"You hear it, I hear it sometimes," says Todd Gaul. "People are upset with their builder. You have the opportunity to do your research, and the time to do it is before you sign a contract."

JD Cooper is too polite to discuss problem builders. He just laughs.

"You don't have to go there," he says. "People do sometimes, but you don't have to."

Design-Build, or Design and Build

Once you have decided what you want to build, there are generally two different ways to appraoch the home or barn building process. One way is to consult an architect, a farm planner or a designer first. Choosing this option, you would come up with your plans, which would be complete, or almost complete, and then take those plans to builders to have them bid on the job. The second way is to choose a builder first, and work with the builder on your plans and farm design.

Which way is best? That depends on whether you talk to a designer or a builder. Most of the more established equestrian builders are also designers, or have design consultants and draftsman who are quite capable of working with you to make whatever you desire. Most builders, even those that are accustomed to making the designs themselves are also open to working with plans that are already drawn up.

Karl Splan, a designer who owns and operates Aiken Residential Design, says that hiring a designer first is the right way to go, and is the best way to ensure that you get what you want in the most cost effective way. He recommends drawing up plans with your designer and then submitting them to three builders for bids.

"In commercial construction, architects design buildings," he says. "An invitation to bid is issued to select construction firms. Then the owners, with assistance from the architects, review the bids submitted and choose the contractor ... this system has proven itself to be the best alternative for commercial owners and it is also the best method of choosing a contractor for residential construction. It gives the owner the greatest leverage during the transition from design to construction."

Karl further argues that designers are selling a service, while builders are selling a product. "This creates a differences in perspective that has a profound effect on the design. The contractor or local builder will likely create a design that emphasizes profitability, as opposed to the specific wants, needs and tastes of the owner. It's the natural inclination of most builders to suppress creative solutions to individual owner's requirements during the design process in the interest of doing things in the standard fashion in order to insure profitability."

Builders have a different take on the situation. "There is a bid advantage in having those early discussions about the design with the person that is going to see it through," says Todd Gaul. "I sit down with the owners personally, and we discuss everything, and I know why things are the way they are because I was there from the beginning. So often I'll get a set of plans that people have drawn already complete, and they will sit down with me and find out that what is on the paper isn't even close to their budget. If we do it together, we can start pricing out the home or the barn before the drawing is complete. That way you can mold the budget and the design at the same time. It's the beginning of a relationship - you get comfortable. Ultimately, the builder is responsible for the product, so you might as well be involved in it from the beginning."

Forging Relationships

Home and barn builders are not just building physical structures, they are also building relationships with you, the property owner. If you choose right, it will be a good relationship. Builders agree that, as in any good relationship. Builders agree that, as in any good relationship, communication is key. Builders of Aiken horse properties are often hard at work in Aiken while the home owner is back in New York, Pennsylvania or Massachusetts, which means that builders have to keep their owners up to speed via telephone or email. This also makes it extra important that the owner knows he or she can trust the builder.

Whether the owner is in town and checking on the project every day or not, a comfortable and friendly relationship is important for both the owner and the builder. Owners need to be confident that builders will listen to their concerns and will do their best to create the property that the owner envisions. Builders know that if they have a good relationship with the owner, they will have more business in the future, both from referrals and from future construction - the owner might need a guest apartment, or an addition to barn for instance. 

The builders that we spoke to tend to go above and beyond to create good relationships, and those relationship often continue long after the project is complete. Because he does so much work for absentee owners, Grant Larlee says he often acts as a concierge service for his owners. He has several large storage buildings at his offices on Toolebeck Road, and he often uses them to keep furniture for his owners while he is doing removations, or even to store their cars, trucks and trailers when they are out of town. He might also make sure that those cars are filled with gas when the owner comes to town, or he might watch over the property during the summer months.

"Out motto is 'there's no such thing as can't,'" he says.

Builders today are looking forward to more good relationships. Those who work in the equestrian sector are getting busy, but they generally still have time to devote to new projects. They also agree that now is a good time to start one.

"Prices for materials are still low," says JD Cooper. "Lumber spiked up the beginning of the year, but those prices have been coming back down. Everybody has seen an uptick in building - most of my work has been from outside of town, but you're starting to see a return of activity in the subdivisions now, too."

Trends in construction generally follow trends in real estate: when land and homes start moving, builders and renovators are in demand. The previously sluggish Aiken real estate market in reviving, which means a building boom might be in the offing. Building materials are likely to get more expensive in the near future, and the desirable builders will have long waiting lists. If you have been biding your time to get into the building market until you felt the time was right, your wait is over. That time is now.

This article is copyrighted and first appeared in The Aiken Horse. It is reprinted here by permission.

Monday, September 23, 2013

Palace Malice Wins Again | 9/23/2013

Dogwood Stable's Palace Malice was the favorite going into this year's Jim Dandy Stakes at Saratoga on July 27, with good reason. The 3-year-old colt had won the Belmont Stakes on June 8 with supreme authority and, according to his connections, had only improved since that Grade 1 victory. With his entourage in tow, Palace Malice paraded around the paddock at Saratoga, slightly on the muscle with jockey Mike Smith in the saddle. Less than 15 minutes later, the pair was having their picture taken in the winner's circle.
Palace Malice delivered another major victory that afternoon, winning the 50th edition of the Jim Dandy by a length and in near-record time. (His 1:47.37 was the second fastest Jim Dandy in the history of the race).
"When you win a stakes race at Saratoga everyone knows it and appreciates it," he explains. "It's a racing crowd and they really understand the game. I love winning a race anywhere, but it's always special to win at Saratoga."
The Jim Dandy was named in honor of a 3-year-old colt that won the 1930 Travers Stakes at the incredible odds of 100-1, besting that year's Triple Crown winner Gallant Fox in the process. And for anyone who loves the history of racing, Palace Malice's win in the Jim Dandy was especially fitting. Another Aiken racing outfit - the famed Greentree Stable under the guidance of John Gaver Sr. - had won the very first running of the Jim Dandy in 1964 with a colt named Malicious. Rather similar names!

After the Jim Dandy win, the Travers (known as the Midsummer Derby) is the race on everyone's mind. With a $1 million purse, the 1 1/4 mile race attracts the top 3-year-olds in the country. Palace Malice will be there, as will Orb, winner of this year's Kentucky Derby. The Preakness winner Oxbow hurt his ankle in the Haskell Stakes on July 28 so it is highly unlikely that he will be entered, which is a shame. It's been 31 years since the winners of all three Triple Crown races have met in the Travers. It looked as if it might have happened again this year.

Another likely contender is Verrazano, who won the $1 million Haskell Invitational at Monmouth Park on July 28, by an incredible 10 lengths. Verrazano, like Palace Malice, is trained by Todd Pletcher.

The Travers will be at Saratoga on August 24 and Cot Campbell is more than excited.

"Our cold was terribly impressive in winning the Jim Dandy, and he has come out of that race better than ever," he says. "My wife Anne and I went to the barn around 9:00 the night of the race and he was bouncing around his stall and I couldn't feed him peppermints fast enough.

"Mike Smith felt that Palace Malice finished up the race with something in reserve. When you watch the race, you see that Mike let up on him the last five or six jumps. He could have won by a wider margin than he did, had he needed to."

Campbell, who stays in Saratoga for the duration of the meet, sees Palace Malice each morning, and is in constant contact with the colt's trainer Todd Pletcher. Mike Smith calls California home and is currently riding a Del Mar, but he will fly back East to ride Palace Malice in the Travers.

"I've spoken with Mike on the phone and he is genuinely sold on the fact that our colt is becoming a superior racehorse," Campbell says. "While we have great respect for Verazano, I would not want to concede favoritism in the Travers at this point. As Mike says, 'Palace Malice will be the horse to beat.'"

Palace Malice's victory in the Jim Dandy pushed his lifetime earnings to $1,231,135 and he became Dogwood Stable's seventh millionaire. Summer Squall is on that list, as is his daughter Storm Song. Southjet, Wallenda, Smok'n Frolic and Limehouse are the others - pretty impressive company.

When asked how Palace Malice compares to some of Dogwood's other top runners, Campbell says: "It's difficult to compare horses of different eras, and it is a dangerous practice. Those that were so great 20 or 30 years ago automatically lose a little luster when compared with the current ones. Still, I think given Palace Malice's personality, his class, looks and running style, he is certainly right up there at the top of the list of Dogwood stars."

This article is copyrighted and first appeared in The Aiken Horse. It is reprinted here by permission.

Monday, September 16, 2013

American Driving Society Meeting | 9/16/2013

Drivers Come To Aiken

By Pam Gleason

This fall the American Driving Society is coming to Aiken, where it will be holding its annual meetings and convention from September 26 through 29. The board of directors' meetings, which will be at the Willcox and will address important society business, are slated to take up an hour on Thursday and most of the day on Friday. There is also a members' meeting on Saturday afternoon and a few more sessions on Sunday morning. 
The remainder of the time, meeting attendees will be able to take part in clinics, seminars and organized drives in and around Aiken. There will also be receptions, lunches, cocktail parties and the annual awards dinner on Saturday night at the Green Boundary Club. In addition, the United States Lipizzan Federation, which is an ADS breed partner, is co-locating their annual North American Lipizzan Symposium with the ADS meeting. Members of the USLF will have their own business meeting at Newberry Hall on Friday, and join the ADS activities for the rest of the weekend.

"We're hoping for around 150 to 200 people," says Susie Koos Acker who is the executive director of the ADS. According to Susie, quite a number of people are coming from far afield, many of them arriving with horses and carriages. People are shipping in from as far as Vermont and Florida, and everywhere in between. Susie herself will be traveling here on a two-day trip from Wisconsin, along with her Welsh ponies: a pair and a single. She is also bringing a marathon vehicle and a pleasure vehicle.

"I don't think anyone else is coming from quite as far away as I am," she says. "But our registration doesn't close until September 6, so you never know. People are really excited about the meetings being in Aiken. That's why so many people are coming from so far away. We're really trying to showcase Aiken as a tourist destination for carriage drivers."

The ADS moves its annual convention around the country, which is a great way for drivers to familiarize themselves with different regions. This year, they wanted to meet somewhere in the Southeast region. Aiken, with its vibrant driving community, was a natural choice. People from the organization came for a site visit in February, and Peggy Dils, who is the president of the Aiken Driving Club, helped give them the Aiken tour.
"I showed them the sights and the possibilities and they were very impressed," says Peggy. "And then the City of Aiken couldn't have been August-September 2013 The Aiken Horse 11 better or nicer or more accommodating."

Elizabeth Harm who is tourism supervisor for the City of Aiken, and Lisa Hall, who is supervisor of the Department of Parks and Recreation, were eager to help make Aiken the destination of choice. In fact, they even helped the ADS get a grant from the city to help advertise the meeting in order to make it a highlight of the fall season for the driving community nationwide. Every year Aiken gives out a number of grants to help promote the city as a place to visit. These grants are funded by an accommodations tax, which is assessed on hotel stays throughout the city. The a-tax money is used to encourage more people to come to Aiken, where they will stay in hotels, patronize restaurants and enjoy Aiken's downtown boutiques. The grant that the ADS received enabled the organization to do more advertising, and they expect that this will pay off in terms of the number of people who come to meetings, as well as in enthusiasm generated in the driving world.

"Aiken has been amazingly helpful and welcoming," says Susie. "It's been better than any place I have ever held a convention in my seven year tenure with the ADS. With the extra advertising we have been able to do, we hope to encourage more people to come to the meetings, both people who members of the ADS and those who are not. The clinics and drives are open to members and non-members, and there are sessions that will be interesting for people who drive, and for people who don't drive but would like to know more about it."

For instance, there will be a featured session on teaching horses from other disciplines to pull a carriage. The clinic, which takes place over three days (Friday, Saturday, and Sunday) will be presented by Jeff Morse from Massachusetts, a trainer, ADS board member and founding member of some of the largest Morgan horse organizations on the East Coast.

"This is an opportunity for people to learn that if a horse has had another job, you can use the skills and the knowledge that the horse already has and take him into the new sport of carriage driving," says Susie.
The clinic is scheduled to take place at the Aiken Training Track. There will be two demonstration horses, both of them Lipizzans from North Carolina, which have been introduced to driving, but are not yet finished carriage horses.

"We don't want to portray training a horse to drive as a quick thing," says Susie. "Driving is a dedication, and it takes a while to do it. The seminar is about identifying what skills the horse already has and discovering the places where he is going to need more education."

Other activities include a pleasure drive at the Silver Bluff Audubon Center on Friday morning, a carriage parade through the streets of Aiken on Saturday morning and a drive through the Hitchcock Woods on Sunday. In addition there will be an "ask the judge" live demonstration on Saturday afternoon conducted by Shelly Temple and Muffy Seaton, both nationally known competitors and judges. Attendees who sign up for these sessions will be able to drive in front of the judges and get feedback on how they are doing. Drivers and spectators will be invited to ask questions, so that everyone will come away with a deeper understanding of what the judge sees.

"We want people to know that the meetings and events are open to anyone who has an interest in driving," says Susie. "And we'd like to encourage people to attend. You don't have to come for the whole meeting if that doesn't fit into your schedule - there is an "a la carte" option.

"We'd also like to let people know that driving is available for you. If offers an opportunity for a change. Maybe a change in life, maybe a change in passion. One of the neat things about driving is that if you are a person who has always been used to big horses, hunter/jumpers, for example, and maybe you have come to a time in your life where you can't physically handle a big animal like that, if you choose driving, you can go down to a pony and drive and still enjoy the horses, the equestrian community and the friendships that horses bring. Driving gives you the opportunity to do horses on a smaller scale."

After the ADS chose Aiken for its meetings, they enlisted Peggy Dils to be the local coordinator, and the whole Aiken Driving Club to offer support services. Elizabeth Harm and Lisa Hall continued to help with logistics, and many local volunteers are giving their time as well. Peggy, who helped design the program of clinics, says that she is excited that they driving world is coming in Aiken.

"I really wanted them to discover Aiken and have a good time here," she says, "If people are interested in driving, whether they are new drivers or more experienced drivers, we're going to be offering them a chance to walk away with something they didn't know before they came. I think it's going to be a great weekend."
For more information, visit or call 608-237-7382. Registration closes on September 6, but some sessions may be available on a walk-in basis. If you are not a driver, don't miss the carriage parade on Saturday, September 28. It is scheduled to run from 9:00 a.m. until noon.

This article is copyrighted and first appeared in The Aiken Horse. It is reprinted here by permission.