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Races a big winner with carefree crowd

Looking this relaxed doesn't come easy.

Marie Salta and her retiree gal pals got up at 6 a.m. Sunday to pack their china and silverware, wrap up the grapes and cheeses and tiny sandwiches and make the hourlong drive from Spring Hill.

But it was worth it. By 10 a.m. they were sipping Andre's champagne with strawberries under a giant green umbrella along the homestretch of the Little Everglades Steeplechase course.

"We're here for the day with our table and our china and our champagne," said Mary Leonard, the blue sash from her straw hat twisting in the wind. "It's just a beautiful outing in paradise."

"I think it's a charming, elegant, carefree, wonderful day to spend enjoying yourself," added Salta, who clipped a few roses from her garden for the table's centerpiece.

A little afternoon rain didn't keep the Little Everglades Steeplechase from being a big hit with thousands of visitors. Organizers estimated that between 15,000 and 20,000 attended.

"The crowds love it," said Bronson Thayer, one of the event's organizers, looking at the sea of elaborate tailgating tents in the infield. "They're kind of new to the game, but they're getting into it."

And why not? It's not every day that a wealthy family invites the public to its 1,700-acre cattle ranch to watch horses compete for $115,000 in prize money.

Bob and Sharon Blanchard built the steeplechase course in their back yard several years ago. Now in its third year as a nationally sanctioned, cash-prize event, the Little Everglades Steeplechase kicks off the steeplechase racing season in the United States.

With people paying from $6 for advance general admission tickets to $2,500 for a lawn box, the event also doubles as a fundraiser for the Dade City YMCA, the Tampa YMCA and the Pioneer Florida Museum.

"I think the pattern is set, and now we just need to spread the word," said Thayer's wife, Stella, another event founder. "It should come, in time, to be a major event for the area."

Al Skywalker, a veteran favorite, took home the trophy in the day's main race, the $40,000 Founders Cup.

But the day boasted more than simply horse racing.

Vendors sold everything from beaded necklaces and bracelets to Austrian crystal ornaments. Model T's and other classic cars lined the infield.

Women donned flowery, feathery or frivolous hats for the hat contests. And the scrappy Jack Russell terriers, wearing tiny muzzles and frilly collars, drew hundreds of spectators to their exhibition races in the infield.

"Afterward they almost like the dogs better than the horses," said Camerton Hall Kennels owner John Fawkes, grinning.

The event also drew an upper-crust crowd, including U.S. Rep. Adam Putnam, R-Bartow, Ringhaver Equipment owner Lance Ringhaver, Bank of Tampa president Jerry Divers and University of Tampa president Ron Vaughn.

The VIPs snacked on an elaborate spread at the Bunker Club Hospitality Tent, featuring herb-crusted roasted turkey breast, apricot bourbon glazed spiral cut ham and pan-seared mahi mahi.

The offerings were no less elegant among the tailgaters who brought their own food.

Tampa residents Liz Gauntt, Deborah Tamargo and Cheryl Ciccarello laid out Cuban sandwiches, marinated shrimp, deviled eggs, chilled champagne and a bloody mary pitcher in their finest silver and crystal ware.

Their spread captured first prize in the gourmet category for the Paddock Promenade II tailgating area.

Tamargo is already making plans for next year's menu, and she won't let a little thing like the lack of electricity in the infield get in the way.

"I want to figure out a way to serve espresso at the end of this great meal," she said. "We need to get a battery-operated cappuccino machine."

Dale Romagnoli of the Austin Carriage Museum in Weirsdale sounds the coach horn to announce the start of the first hurdle race Sunday.

A golden dog-shaped headpiece earned Pat Sullivan of Tampa more than her share of attention Sunday at the Little Everglades Steeplechase in Dade City. Despite a light rain in the afternoon, 15,000 to 20,000 people attended the event, according to organizers' estimates.

Horses clear a hurdle in the 2000 Maiden Claiming Hurdle Race at the Little Everglades Steeplechase in Dade City. Despite a light rain, 15,000 to 20,000 people attended the event Sunday, organizers said.

Jack Russell terriers also hurdled fences during exhibition races at the steeplechase. "Afterward they almost like the dogs better than the horses," Camerton Hall Kennels owner John Fawkes said.

Although it helped shield her from the rain, Kris Kelley's umbrella was more essential as a prop for the vintage clothing contest held at the steeplechase. The Sarasota woman was one of many who were decked out in fancy attire with feathers and flowers for the day.