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Custom wines in time for steeplechase

At the Kentucky Derby, the mint julep is king.

At the Preakness, spectators sip black-eyed Susans.

Even the Tampa Bay Derby, at Tampa Bay Downs, has its (nearly) famous strawberry jubilee.

And at today's Little Everglades Steeplechase, partiers this year will have their own nouveau-traditional choices: red and white wines custom blended and bottled for the big day, and the fruity and frozen Little Everglades pink flamingo, made with Margaritaville tequila.

Richard Hudson, official volunteer sommelier and beverage consultant for the steeplechase at Little Everglades Ranch, said it took a year of planning to come up with the custom wines, which are expected to be a hit with the horsey set.

"We had a lot of time to really get it right," he said. "We wanted to have something that's a crowd pleaser, not something too oaky and heavy. We were looking for something light and fruity, a warm weather wine."

The wines, a merlot and a chardonnay, were blended for the race by California's Mandolin Vintners. Along the way, volunteers and Little Everglades hosts Bob and Sharon Blanchard tasted different selections before choosing the race's official wines.

For something a little different, Hudson selected Florida troubadour Jimmy Buffett's personal tequila label, Margaritaville, to blend with triple sec and strawberry juice.

"It's something very cold and refreshing," Hudson said. "It's going to be warm here."

The frozen drink will be available for first tasting at the Bunker Club tent, reserved for guests of the exclusive lawn boxes and sponsorship tents, but Hudson said volunteers were scrambling Friday to find ways to make the cocktail available to spectators in the infield as well.

The wine, however, will definitely be on sale in the infield, Hudson said.

Both the red and white will be available by the glass or the bottle. Prices for a bottle are expected to be about $10, with proceeds benefiting the race's two charities: the YMCA and the Pioneer Florida Museum and Village.

The Little Everglades Steeplechase is today. It includes five horse races, four with horses challenged to leap 54-inch fences along 2-mile routes, and a more traditional flat race along the 1\-mile track. National Steeplechase Association series points are on the line, as well as $115,000 in prize money.

The day also includes a variety of music and art presentations, antique cars, amateur horse racing, elegant tailgating, a vendor village, Jack Russell terrier racing, hat and period dress contests, and antique horse-drawn carriages, with a live band and party in the infield after the last race.

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