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'10 STEEPLECHASE WON'T EVEN GET TO STARTING GATE

Sponsors drop out, so organizers call off the Little Everglades event.

Every spring since 2000, Little Everglades Steeplechase has attracted thousands to a picturesque hilltop for a day of horse racing and people watching.

But not this spring.

Organizers have decided to cancel the event in 2010 after determining they could not line up sufficient sponsorship money.

Bob Blanchard, who with his wife, Sharon, owns the 1,700-acre Little Everglades Ranch, said Friday that the decision was a difficult one.

"We don't have the money to put on a first-class event," said Blanchard, 82. "A lot of people are disappointed, and we're among them."

This past spring, organizers had to cut their $1 million budget by a third as car dealerships, which are the biggest sponsors, scaled back donations amid the recession.

As planning for 2010 got under way, it became clear that next year would be equally harsh. One big blow: The Mercedes-Benz dealership that was a major sponsor bowed out for 2010, Blanchard said.

Blanchard was hesitant to say whether the event would return after 2010.

"My crystal ball is fuzzy," he said. "At this point in time, I'm not overly optimistic."

For horse enthusiasts, the steeplechase was a prestigious event, one that quickly gained popularity because of its purse, around $95,000 in recent years. (Last year, as part of an attempt to cut costs, organizers reduced the prize money to $45,000.)

But the event has also been an eclectic social event, featuring VIP tents where guests wore extravagant, flowery hats and dined on bourbon-glazed pork and other delicacies. Meanwhile, the infield was full of spectators wearing jeans and noshing on funnel cakes.

"There really isn't anything like it outside of the metropolitan area," said former Dade City Mayor Hutch Brock.

"It was a premier event for our little town," said Dade City Commissioner Curtis Beebe.

Steeplechase proceeds benefited local charities, including Diabetic Charitable Services and the Pioneer Florida Museum. When the event has just broken even, organizers have given the charities money from their own pockets.

The Blanchards have poured their own money into the steeplechase event - "I'm embarrassed to tell you how much," Bob Blanchard said with a soft chuckle - and are widely credited with keeping it going, even as economic times turned difficult in recent years.

"It's been more of a personal commitment on their part than a business decision," said Brock. "The time and sweat equity they've put into it is really something. ... I'm sad. Disappointed isn't the right word. I'm sad. (But) I certainly do understand the economic reality."

Jodie Tillman can be reached at jtillman@sptimes.com or (727) 869-6247.

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