DADE CITY — Go figure. On an almost summery afternoon, at an event known well for its ornate headpieces, Wanda Wilson found out that few people were in the market for a new hat.
Yes, even the owner of Happy Hats is having a downer of a year.
"I'm barely breaking even," said Wilson, leaning back in a chair underneath her small tent. "This customer base today … they just can't afford it."
Unlike previous years at the Mercedes-Benz Little Everglades Steeplechase, people didn't have quite as much money to spend on colorful hats, equine-themed clothes, trinkets or much of anything else.
The crowd was noticeably lighter Sunday, a decline that organizers and patrons have pinned on the nation's sputtering economy. Officials with the event said they were expecting a turnout of about 13,000, down from about 16,000 last year.
"It's not quite as heavy with people," said Jack Oberding, executive director of Diabetic Charitable Services, one of three local charities that receives funds from the event. "Things are down and I think it's the economy. It's too bad because anybody who comes out here loves it."
A spring staple since 2000, the Little Everglades Steeplechase takes place on a picturesque 2,000-acre ranch north of Dade City. The event is purportedly centered around the steeplechase, a hybrid sort of horse race that lasts 1 1/4 miles and is broken up by six hurdles on the lush, green ryegrass track. Speed is important, but for the thoroughbreds, the jumps matter the most.
Getting the word out
But as usual, the event lived up to its billing as a colorful and eclectic social scene.
On the infield, visitors had no shortage of options, either taking stock of the antiques, stopping to enjoy a jazz band, munching on hamburgers, watching the Jack Russell terrier races or taking pictures of their children riding horses.
The aristocrats were inside the VIP tents ringing the track, many of them well-coiffed men in blazers and women wearing slinky, tight-fitting dresses and big, flowery hats.
"It's wonderful out here and the weather is always nice," said Pat Zwolsky of Dade City, who stepped out from under one of the tents to watch a horse race. "I look forward to it. It's a great day to see friends and have some fun."
Walking with her award-winning terriers Norma Sue and Paula Anne, Laurie Phillips of Lakeland said the smaller crowd at the event was a little unsettling.
"We need to get the word out better, maybe," Phillips said. "It's not just for horse people and dog people. It's so laid back and relaxing out there."
Despite the unusually small crowd, Chelsey and Austin Hill might have found one item immune to the concerns of the recession: fried food. The Hills of Marysville, Ohio, were selling funnel cakes at an event for only the second time since buying a trailer — and the previous owner's secret recipe — in November.
They've found business to be pretty good.
"We decided to try it and it's actually been pretty easy," said Chelsey Hill, while her husband and father scrambled inside the trailer to accommodate a line of customers. "In this economy, maybe people are saving money and looking more forward to fairs and events like these."
Now, if only people would buy more hats.
"This is a hobby for us," Wanda Wilson said, eyeing a couple of girls who were a little too grabby with a hat topped with ostrich feathers. "If I had to depend on this for a living, I'd be hurting."
But "you can't blame families for cutting back," said her husband, Ken Wilson. "You don't have to have a hat."
Joel Anderson can be reached at email@example.com or (352) 754-6120.
2,000 Acreage of ranch where the steeplechase takes place.
1 1/4 Total number of miles that are covered in the horse race.
6 Number of hurdles on the track for the thoroughbreds to jump.