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Steeplechase grows up

The Little Everglades Steeplechase meet has come a long way. This year’s event features 39 horses, an improved track and a $125,000 purse.

By CHASE SQUIRES

© St. Petersburg Times, published March 9, 2001


DADE CITY -- An overwhelming response to the Little Everglades Steeplechase meet on Sunday forced race organizers this week to add a fifth race and more money to the event, while trouble overseas diverted one of the sport's hottest horses to the featured race.

photo
[Times photo: Joseph Garnett Jr.]
Tropical Sun, a thoroughbred from Augustan Stables in Unionville, Pa., rolls in the sand after a midmorning stroll around the track at the Little Everglades Ranch as Joy Cooper of Fair Hill, Md., hangs on.
Thirty-nine horses are entered in five races, vying for an increased purse of $125,000 as they gallop twice around a 1 1/4-mile track over brush-topped hurdles.

The front stretch, in which horse and rider charge toward the finish line, is going to be tough. As they make their way across the final two hurdles at a sprint, horses will be charging uphill, testing their conditioning and how well their riders conserved energy for the final burst.

National Steeplechase Association Field Coordinator Frank Hopkins was at the course Thursday putting finishing touches on what he said has evolved into a prime turf course -- a far cry from last year's makeshift track with only two or three entries per race and no prize money.

"This year, it's full-blown racing," he said. "I think people who come out here are going to be really surprised. This is a very good course, and these are very competitive races."

The showcase race, the $50,000 Little Everglades Stakes, is a graded event and a stepping stone to steeplechase racing's triple crown, which kicks off at Kentucky's Churchill Downs the week of the Kentucky Derby.

Entered in the stakes is a horse named Segregation Lane. Last year's 3-year-old American champion hurdler was on course to tackle Europe's best in a March 15 race in England when an outbreak of foot and mouth disease there canceled races, fox hunts and even dog shows.

Steeplechase Times editor Joe Clancy said Segregation Lane becomes the horse to beat in Dade City. He's been tuning up all winter for the English race, comes to Florida after winning three of four races last fall and is in top shape, Clancy said. The horse will be ridden by jockey Matt McCarron, nephew of Hall of Fame thoroughbred flat racer Chris McCarron.

But all eight of the entries in the stakes race will be tough competitors. Segregation Lane could be challenged by Hall of Fame trainer and all-time win leader Jonathan Sheppard's War Talk, a 6-year-old gelding ridden by top jockey Arch Kingsley, Clancy said.

Another jockey Clancy is watching is Gus Brown, who scored 25 wins last year and earned a record $686,326 while becoming the sport's champion jockey for the 2000 season.

Steeplechase racing lost two of its stars last year when jockey Jonathan Kiser, leading the points series at the time, died in July in a freak accident when he fell from a rope swing. Clancy's brother, Sean, retired at the end of the year.

Race coordinator Karen Streaker said Thursday that ticket sales have exceeded expectations, with well more than 3,000 general admission tickets sold and 80 luxury lawn boxes, starting at $2,500 each, sold. She expects Sunday's crowd to eclipse the 5,000 curious spectators who ventured out to the Little Everglades Ranch last year for the inaugural event.

As painters on Thursday put the finishing touches on the race officials' tower, crews moved portable restrooms into place, watered the course and erected tents.

"Everything is going great," Streaker said. "With this weather, everything will be perfect."

In addition to professional steeplechase racing, the day will include a carriage parade, amateur races, miniature horse, hat and tailgate contests and Jack Russell terrier racing, as well as a vendor village, and food and drink concessions.

Spectators at steeplechase events typically don their finest attire and bring out lavish picnic lunches.

Race officials expanded their portable stalls this week to make room for the swell of entries, and by Thursday jockey David Bentley and handler Fenneka Worley were already set up with five horses they brought down in a 17-hour drive from Maryland for the races.

"We like them to get acclimated, used to their surroundings a bit," Worley said. "Sometimes they don't feel at their best after travel, so we like them to get a chance to settle in, eat and get used to things."

Bentley had already walked the course by Thursday and approved of the setup.

He'll be atop a horse named Woods Landing for the feature race Sunday and said he is prepared to take on Segregation Lane.

"It's a good course," Bentley said. "I've gone out, looked at it, walked it. I think we're going to be very happy with it."

If you go

There are a few reserved infield spaces available for $175 for those who call race coordinator Karen Streaker on Friday at (352) 458-0256. Advance general admission tickets may be purchased Friday from 1-5 p.m. at the Pioneer Florida Museum for $5 each. At the gate on Sunday, general admission tickets will be $10 each or $40 a carload. The Little Everglades Ranch may be accessed by Jordan, Ashbrook and Gould roads off U.S. 301, about a mile north of Dade City. Gates open at 9:30 a.m.

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