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Season opens with win for favored horse

Al Skywalker trotted into the Little Everglades Steeplechase on Sunday as the horse to beat in The Founders Cup, the day's keystone event.

The veteran loves to take an early lead. The question is always whether he can sustain it for the 2-mile, 10-hurdle course.

"That horse always goes to the front and dares everyone to catch him," said Joe Clancy, editor of the Steeplechase Times. "Sometimes it works. Sometimes it doesn't."

On Sunday, it worked.

Al Skywalker kept his early lead for the entire race, taking home the trophy and the bulk of the $40,000 purse for his owners, Michael Watt and Jennifer Majette.

It's a good sign he's starting the 2003 steeplechase season on the right, er, hoof.

"A lot of us are coming from up North where we still have 10 inches of snow on the ground," said Tom Foley, the jockey who rode Al Skywalker to victory. "So it's hard for the horses to be as fit this early in the season."

The Dade City event kicks off the National Steeplechase Association's season, in one of the few places where it's warm enough to race this time of year, Clancy said.

With a total $115,000 purse for five races, the event provides enough prize money to place it in the top third of steeplechase events nationwide, he said.

Points earned by placing at the event also count toward the horses' standings for the season.

Naughty Prince held on to an early lead to win the $25,000 George Sloan Memorial race. The horse's owner, Contrarian Stables, trainer Ricky Hendriks and jockey David Bentley have tasted victory at the Little Everglades before, winning last year's Founder's Cup with the horse Tres Touche.

Steeplechase is a speed and endurance race in which horses jump 52-inch hurdles staggered around an oval course. The thoroughbreds must be at least 4 years old to compete, and are generally older than flat-racing horses.

Though still new as a racing spot, the Little Everglades track is already popular with the equestrian community.

"This is probably the best course in the country, and it's only in its third year," Foley said. "It's irrigated, the ground is even. It's like riding on a golf course."

This year 44 horses sought a spot at the event, but there were only 40 openings to go around.

"Suddenly people love to come here," Clancy said. "It's becoming a very significant stop in such a short time. That's what's amazing to me."

The results

Here are the top three finishers in each of the five races:

FIRST RACE: $15,000 Maiden Claiming Hurdle Race: Regal Again, Close the Book, Run in the Park.

SECOND RACE: The George Sloan Memorial $25,000 Sport of Kings: Naughty Prince, Water Hunter, Justagallop.

THIRD RACE: The Founders Cup $40,000 Hurdle Stakes Race: Al Skywalker, Swoop and Soar, Brown Lad.

FOURTH RACE: The $25,000 Sport of Kings Unlimited Claiming Hurdle Race: Dancewel, Field Day, Ice Bullet.

FIFTH RACE: The $10,000 Florida Bred Flat Race: Eskimo Passion, AJ's Honor, High Approval.