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Festive fans delight in day at the races

Elegant tailgating, terrier races, pony rides and other festivities complemented the five horse races.

[Times photo: Dan McDuffie]
Segregation Lane, center, ridden by Matthew McCarron, leads as the horses pass the grandstand for the first time during the Little Everglades Stakes on Sunday. About 8,000 attended the event, organizers say.

By CHASE SQUIRES

© St. Petersburg Times, published March 12, 2001


DADE CITY -- Ponies, puppies, picnics and parties made for a day in the country Sunday, luring thousands to the Little Everglades Steeplechase and the sport's only custom track in Florida.

Photo gallery
photo
[Times photo: Joseph Garnett Jr.]
Jennie Hyndman of Bayonet Point is dressed for the occasion as she waits for the start of the hat contest Sunday.
Organizers estimated about 8,000 people turned out for the $125,000 festival of steeplechase horse racing. Spectators said they came as much for the pageantry and parties as they did for the sight of leaping horses.

"It's a wonderful day out in the country," said Maggie Douglas, who came up with a contingent from sponsor Dimmitt Land Rover. "It's fabulous. It's so British."

Douglas and friend Laura Daniel took in the morning's Jack Russell terrier races in the track's infield, laughing out loud as the mischievous dogs spent as much time shoving and wrestling as they did racing over a course of low hurdles.

"They're such incorrigibles," Douglas said with a laugh. "They're a handful. Jack Russells are definitely a handful."

Across the course, away from the lawn chair and plastic cooler set, men in ties and ladies in garden party attire filled boxes. Guests shared mimosas and dined on a buffet stocked with tea-smoked salmon on watercress, charred tenderloin and strawberries and cream.

photo
[Times photo: Dan McDuffie]
Three Jack Russell terriers leap over hurdles as they race toward the finish line during exhibition races at the daylong event.
And, lining the course in elegant tents, spectators held their own private shindigs, welcoming guests as they moved from spread to spread.

The "Champagne Ladies," Liz Gauntt, Cheryl Ciccarello and Laurie Someson, were decked out in top hats and hunting attire as they set up a lavish feast on their finest Sunday place settings, complete with a taxidermy fox watching over the hunt club-themed presentation.

As defending champions from last year's tailgate competition, the crew said they were proud of their crystal trophy and displayed it prominently. But they needed another to make a pair.

"We've got to defend our title," Gauntt said.

They did, snagging first place in their division.

Of course, tailgating wasn't the only attraction at the 1,700-acre Little Everglades Ranch. Vendors offered equestrian-themed gifts, as visitors went on pony rides and took in hat contests, miniature horses and a parade of fancy English carriages. And then there was the racing.

Thirty-seven horses lined up in five races, sprinting two miles -- twice around the turf track -- leaping 52-inch fences as they dueled for $125,000 in prize money and National Steeplechase Association season points.

Sunday was the second steeplechase at the ranch, but last year's inaugural event -- on a temporary course -- was just a trial run without prize money or points. This year, racers and horse owners said they were impressed with the new, $750,000 course.

"This is just an absolutely gorgeous place," jockey Matthew McCarron said.

Stella Thayer, owner of Tampa Bay Downs and a partner in the Dade City event, said she looked forward to the race's growth in Pasco County. Teaming up with Tampa Bay Downs by holding a steeplechase there on Saturday gave fans the best of two opportunities, she said. There was wagering at Saturday's race, while Sunday's Dade City races provided a relaxing day.

The event benefited the East Pasco YMCA and the Pioneer Florida Museum.

Ranch owners Bob and Sharon Blanchard said they look forward to many years of racing at their track. They even ran their first race horse, a 5-year-old gelding named Mosquero who made a game effort but tired against more experienced competition.

Bob Blanchard said he wasn't disappointed with his venture and vowed to press ahead with his newfound sport.

No matter what, he said, the little idea that came up among fox-hunting friends a few years ago is here to stay as an annual event on Dade City's calendar.

"It was our vision, our dream, that this would become tradition," Bob Blanchard said. "It's our dream that this would become our legacy in the community."

The winners

Winners in the Galloway Gallop tailgating division were the law office of Steven Herman; Caldwell Banker; and Sandhill Farms.

In the Paddock Promenade division, winners were Evans, Jordan, Hobby and Pittman; Community National Bank; and Johnson, Auvil and Brock; and in the Osprey Point division winners were the Champagne Laides; the Patriot; and the Indiana Country Picnic.

In the ladies hat competition, winners were Diane Heiler, Leila Clewis and Linda Hopper.

In the men's division, winners were Dan Konst, Randy Skaling, and Bill Pyott.

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