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The chase is on today in Dade City

(ran PC, PW editions)

It's time to saddle up and see what they've got.

Today's third running of the Little Everglades Steeplechase as a nationally sanctioned event promises competitive races on the course, experts say, and elegantly dressed spectators on the sidelines.

Gates open today at 9:30 a.m. through Jordan, Ashbrook and Gould roads off U.S. 301, about a mile north of the Dade City limits. Entertainment begins at 10:30 a.m., with amateur horse races and Jack Russell terrier races shortly after.

The first in a series of five professional races goes off at 1 p.m., with riders vying for $115,000 in prize money and National Steeplechase Association series points.

Joe Clancy _ editor of industry bible, the Steeplechase Times _ predicted a good day of racing as the NSA season's opening meet. A strong field in each of the five races will offer some exciting racing for those who are there to take in the sport, he said.

In the featured event, the $40,000 Little Everglades Stakes, Clancy said veteran steeplechase horse Al Skywalker is the horse to beat.

"Al Skywalker is a proven stakes winner. He's a legitimate horse," Clancy said. "He's a frontrunning horse, and everybody seems to like that; it's exciting."

But the layout of the Little Everglades course might test a frontrunner's endurance. The long final stretch runs uphill to the finish line. A jockey who took too much out of his horse in the early going might run out of gas, independent course consultant Frank Hopkins noted.

Sure to test Al Skywalker will be Irish import Pasteur, who at 5 years old is the youngster in the field and is virtually unknown on American soil. "They don't know that much about him," Clancy said. "They're going to find out."

Sunday's festivities also include lavish tailgating by spectators, who are encouraged to bring coolers, chairs, tablecloths and lots and lots of sunscreen. The day includes a fancy hat competition, period dress contests, carriage and antique car displays, musical performances and a live band and party in the infield after the final race.

There is no wagering.

Admission at the gate today is $10 per person or $40 per carload. Children younger than 12 are admitted free.