By BRANT JAMES
© St. Petersburg Times, published March 8, 2001
A sport most associated with green meadows and early spring mist makes its second season-opening trip to sun-baked west central Florida this weekend, as the National Steeplechase Association holds its first two events in Tampa Bay.
A $25,000 allowance hurdle race is scheduled Saturday at Tampa Bay Downs, with the second annual Little Everglades Steeplechase Sunday in Dade City.
The TBD event, the $25,000 Sport of Kings Steeplechase, has nine horses entered and top riders committed -- including Arch Kingsley Jr. and Matthew McCarron -- for a 2 1/16-mile contest over national fences.
The event at Little Everglades Ranch drew a large crowd to the small, unsanctioned event last spring, and installation of new facilities should increase the profile and comfort of the event. Sunday's card has four hurdle races and one flat race with purses totaling $110,000. The feature, a $50,000 Grade III novice stakes, is a prep for the Steeplechase Triple Crown.
NEW ROLE: Bobby Hurley is used to being in control. As point guard on two national champion men's college basketball teams at Duke in the 1990s, he knew the game plan, and it was his job to execute it.
For Hurley horse owner, it's a whole new ballgame.
"It's definitely more of a nerve-racking thing watching a horse run because you have no control of what's going on," he said. "You can't talk to a horse and see how it feels. You can't do anything."
His Kentucky Derby hopeful, Songandaprayer, who starts from the ninth gate in the Florida Derby at Gulfstream Park at 5-1 odds Saturday, has won three of four starts, including two stakes.
"I wish you all were there to see me when he won the Fountain of Youth," he said. "It stacks up with the feelings of all the good (Duke) wins.
"When you see a horse in a big race coming down the stretch and know he's going to win, it's the ultimate feeling."
That wasn't the case when Hurley phoned his wife to tell her that he had bought an 85 percent share of an unraced $1-million colt.
"She wasn't pleased at the time," he said. "She hung up on me. The initial blow was kind of hard for her to handle, but she came around.
"She was like a lot of people back in Jersey City. They can't understand paying so much for an animal. But if I feel strongly about something, I take a shot. And I'm glad I did."
NTRA POLLS:Tiznow (three starts, two wins, one second and the nation's leading money-earner at $798,880 retook the top spot in the weekly National Thoroughbred Racing Association all-ages poll Tuesday. Captain Steve (1-1-0-0), also a 4-year-old, fell to second, ahead of 7-year-old Kona Gold (1-1-0-0). Point Given, not scheduled to race until the March 17 San Felipe Stakes at Santa Anita, remained atop the NTRA 3-year-olds poll. Songandaprayer (2-1-0-0) moved from third to second, followed by Tampa Bay Derby-nominated Hero's Tribute (1-1-0-0). Hero's Tribute is slated to enter the other major Kentucky Derby prep this weekend, the Louisiana Derby at Fair Grounds on Sunday.
MUTUEL ADMIRATION: With no widely respected contender emerging for the Triple Crown, the mutuel field is a 5-1 favorite in the second round of the Kentucky Derby Future Wager. Point Given is second among the 24 betting interests at 6-1, followed by Risen Star Stakes winner Dollar Bill at 8-1 and Santa Catalina Stakes winner Millennium Wind at 10-1.
"The Derby picture remains as wide open at this stage as it has been in several years," Churchill Downs oddsmaker Mike Battaglia said. "Few of the top contenders have raced enough this year for the fans to form any strong opinions."
- Information from other news organizations was used in this report.