DADE CITY — The rumors started a decade ago, when the Dow Jones Industrial Average hovered around 11,000.
A society soiree disguised as a horse race was coming to the rolling pastures of Bob and Sharon Blanchard's 1,700-acre back yard. Organizers promised the Little Everglades Steeplechase could become an annual affair, luring thousands of spectators and equine enthusiasts to the pristine hills northeast of Dade City. Proceeds would benefit local charities.
Every spring since 2000, the Steeplechase delivered. At its height, more than 15,000 people came.
Horse enthusiasts praised the venue as one of the best in the country. But even if you didn't know your jodhpurs from your jeans, that Sunday in March, Little Everglades was the place to see and be seen. Members of Congress and senators hobnobbed in VIP tents while the working class cheered from the infield. It was a day to don the fancy hats and let the Dom Perignon or Natural Light flow.
Then three weeks ago, when the Dow teetered around 9,500, it all ended. Organizers canceled the event for 2010, and possibly beyond, after determining they could not line up sufficient sponsorship money.
"We are sorry we had to quit," said director Bob Blanchard, 82. "The economy isn't favorable —some people say it sucks, you can use your own term. But it is not a healthy climate to be out raising money for an event like Little Everglades Steeplechase."
Horse racing insiders say Little Everglades is the only known venue to close in the current recession, but most are tightening their belts as traditional sponsors like real estate agencies, car dealerships and banks reel in their funding.
Talk to local business owners and residents about the cancellation and their faces fall.
It is not just the business they'll miss. Steeplechase brought visitors to the county, but more hotel rooms were traditionally rented during the Bug Jam in November or the Dick's Sporting Goods Tournament of Champions lacrosse event in January.
There was a slight increase in foot traffic in the antique shops of nearby Dade City the weekend of Steeplechase, but most stores are closed Sunday, when the real crowds arrived.
The benefits of Steeplechase were more intangible.
"Classy," "premiere" and "tradition" are all words business owners and residents used to describe the full day of horse and Jack Russell terrier races.
Since first hearing about it six years ago, James Conides, 68, and 20 other residents from the Timber Pines community in Spring Hill trekked to Dade City in minivans loaded with grills, hamburgers and potato salad because "it was a first-class operation."
"It was our version of the Kentucky Derby," said county tourism manager Eric Keaton.
That mystique is part of the reason the Blanchards couldn't keep up the operation, they said.
With the decline in sponsorship money, it was clear the Steeplechase would not have the funding to live up to its reputation, even with the Blanchards pouring their own money into the event.
"We were unwilling to have an event that we wouldn't be proud of and the community wouldn't be proud of," Blanchard said. "So we decided to cancel for the foreseeable future, maybe forever."
If you looked, there were warning signs.
The fate of the 2009 race was on the line when major sponsor Mercedes-Benz corporate pulled out, leaving local dealers to foot the majority of the bill.
To compensate for the loss, Steeplechase dropped its purse from $97,000 in 2008 to $45,000 in 2009.
The charities that benefited from the race's proceeds also saw declining revenues over the years.
At its peak, Steeplechase funded as much as a quarter of the operating expenses for the nonprofit Diabetic Charitable Services, which works to find undiagnosed diabetes and help those in need control the disease, said Ann Torgusen, charity coordinator.
The Blanchards were known to dig into their own pockets to support the charities over the years as proceeds from the event declined.
But in 2009, Torgusen said her organization didn't receive any funding from Steeplechase, though the Blanchards provided them a tent at the race to court private donors and raise awareness.
Even if the same happened in 2010, Torgusen said Diabetic Charitable Services probably would have participated.
"We would have done it, that's how much we loved it," she said.
While the future of Steeplechase is unclear, the Little Everglades ranch will remain an active hub for the county.
The ranch is home to the American Cancer Society's "Making Strides Against Breast Cancer" walk and the Florida High School Athletic Association state cross country finals, among other events.
Though Steeplechase is off for next year, the Blanchards plan to host another horse competition in January.
Two years ago, before the fate of Steeplechase was on the line, the Blanchards started planning a combined driving event. The four-day competition includes a race and obstacle course and is a qualifier for the World Equestrian Games.
It will be low-key compared to Steeplechase, said Sharon Blanchard. Instead of catering tents and fine linens, spectators will eat box lunches and hot dogs on bales of hay.
But the Jack Russell terriers will be there.
Helen Anne Travis can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 435-7312.