DADE CITY — It was a gorgeous day, the clear blue kind where the sun is warm but the breeze is cool and your soul feels a bit lighter, happier.
Bob and Sharon Blanchard, founders of the Mercedes-Benz Little Everglades Steeplechase held on their 2,000-acre ranch in Dade City, couldn't have asked for better weather for the event Sunday. It looked like the way things do after a rain: brighter, vivid, the thick, soft green grass, the white tablecloths, the red roses, the sheen and muscle of the horses.
Even the stands hawking cowboy hats and burgers and gyros were wrapped in the Steeplechase loveliness bubble. Maybe it's just the geography, turning off busy U.S. 301 and going on an asphalt road that turns into dirt and stretches on and on. It all makes you feel like you are in another, prettier world.
And there were many pretty people at the Steeplechase. The infield was for everyone: upper-crust gents in blazers and women in big flowered and feathered hats, and college-age debutantes in slim-fitted dresses and clutching a rebellious bottle of Bud Light, all sliding between gym shoe and denim people to get a peek at the Jack Russell terrier races or to listen to the music at the pavilion or wander the vendor booths.
There were sections that were gated and lavish: white tents with tiny pimento-cheese sandwiches on silver plates, strong whiskey in glass tumblers with ice clinking, men in turtlenecks and smoking big fat cigars.
"I've been looking for you," one man said as a woman approached.
"Hello, daahhhhhling," she said, a champagne flute in her hand. (Yes, she really said it like this. Seriously.)
The warm coma effect of the atmosphere seemed infectious. Even though it had some of the same things as fairs all over the place — same vendors, same bungee-bouncy game for kids, same chicken-on-a-stick — it seemed more civilized and pleasant.
Maybe that's because the proceeds go to charities, such as the Quantum Leap Farm, the Pioneer Florida Museum & Village and Diabetic Charitable Services.
More than 16,000 people were expected to attend this year. Mike Campbell, a spokesman for the event, said this might be the first year for the Steeplechase, begun in 2000, to make a profit. Races take time to make money, Campbell said. So far, the Blanchards have paid the charities from their own pockets; they donated more than $80,000 last year. As it's been only a day since the race, it's too early to tell how much of their own money they will be doling out this year, if at all.
In the afternoon, a man named Charlie Brown and his girlfriend, Patti Monte, held hands as they walked around the grass and did a jitterbug when they heard a song they liked. They are in their late 60s and have been dating for six months. This was Monte's third Steeplechase and Brown's first.
"I had no idea anything this awesome was here," said Brown, who originally is from Louisville, Ky. He said he's going to take Monte to the Kentucky Derby this spring.
The horse races seemed an afterthought to most in the crowd, though the girls of the Hooves, Paws, Claws & Saws 4-H group from Land O'Lakes who were volunteering at the event all made sure to cling to the fence and cheer as the horses passed.
"I could never live without animals," said Caitlyn Patterson, a 14-year-old from Citrus Park who is homeschooled. The 4-H group learns care of various animals: horses, cows, rabbits, chickens. They also do woodworking and some show their animals at competitions.
"People have no concept of what horses can actually do — their speed, agility and talent," said Debbie Goodman, the Land O'Lakes mom who started the group, which meets at the ranch she shares with her husband, two daughters, six horses, three dogs, four rabbits, one cat and one pygmy goat.
"And a fish," added her daughter, Breanne Goodman, 14.
The other daughter, Morgan, who is 12, has a favorite horse, named Oly, who is more like a friend than a pet or an animal used for sport. When Morgan is stressed, she can get on Oly and lie down, her back to his back, and close her eyes and Oly will keep on walking, slowly, smoothly, and Morgan feels all of her tension melt away.
Erin Sullivan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 909-4609.