Steeplechase racing makes a successful return to Florida

The Happy Giant [Nancy Compton/Special to the Gazette]

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Posted March 9, 2022 | By Michael Compton
Special to the Gazette

Following a 10-year hiatus, steeplechase racing returned to Florida on Saturday, March 5, with the running of the inaugural Florida Steeplechase. 

In the works since 2020, the inaugural Florida Steeplechase proved well worth the wait for co-founders Archie Macauley and Jessica Berry, as well as for eager and curious racegoers who attended the festive event on a sun-splashed afternoon at the Florida Horse Park. Florida last hosted a steeplechase event in 2009 at The Little Everglades in Dade City, a meet that began in 2000 and continued through 2009.

Despite competition from other significant equine events in the area on the same day, the Florida Steeplechase drew its share of fans and tailgaters who turned out to watch the exhibition races. In addition to the racing, the day also featured a parade from the South Creek Foxhounds, Florida’s oldest foxhunting club (officially founded in 1965); an appearance from a team of Clydesdales; and a ladies’ Fashions on the Field competition.

“The day was a great success,” said Macauley. “Everything went well, everyone was happy with the races. The tailgating groups had so much fun all afternoon. It was just phenomenal.”

Berry added, “It was almost surreal to see the event come to fruition after so long and to see how well it was received by the local community. There were quite a few first-time steeplechase attendees that came, and we tried to encourage people to embrace steeplechasing traditions like tailgating and fashions on the field through our social media prior to the event. We were absolutely blown away by the response we received. From the unbelievable tailgates to the sheer number of participants we had in the fashion competition, it was fantastic to see everybody participating with such enthusiasm.”

Created by Macauley and Berry to fill a void in the sport’s schedule, the Florida Steeplechase was run with the guidance and supervision of both the National Steeplechase Association (NSA), the governing body of American steeplechase racing, and the Temple Gwathmey Steeplechase Foundation. Macauley and Berry are hopeful that the event has the potential to grow into a sanctioned event on the NSA calendar.

“We had small fields, but we anticipated that for this time of year,” Macauley shared. “While the fields were small, they were competitive. Every fence was exciting, and we had some thrilling finishes. We are already calling on sponsors for next year’s event. We started putting everything away today (Monday), and we are already planning for next year. We want it to be bigger and better next year, and have a sanctioned race meet with purse money. That will lead to even larger, more competitive fields.”

Support from horse owners, trainers, and riders, is critical for the long-term viability of the event. Macauley expressed gratitude for the support that the first event received and for the reception the Florida Steeplechase received from horsemen, sponsors, and fans.

“The horsemen were very happy, and our sponsors all had a great time in the tent,” Macauley said. “It was a positive day. We had volunteers who really looked out for us. Everyone came together to make it all happen. We are so pleased to have brought steeplechase racing to Ocala.”

Among the winners on the five-race card was Allison B. Fulmer’s The Happy Giant, who won the Brown Advisory Hurdle at the distance of two miles. Sixth in a maiden special weight race at Tampa Bay Downs in February, the 6-year-old gelded son of Frost Giant-Marquet Rate, by Marquetry, was ridden to victory by Mell Boucher, who made the trip to Ocala from Camden, South Carolina, where she is a freshman in college.

“I’ve ridden him a couple of times before,” said Boucher. “I love this horse. He’s been at a flat track (Turfway Park in Kentucky) all winter, so he hasn’t jumped. He is a horse who likes to come from out of it, but in a three-horse field, it was tough to keep him covered up. When I asked him a little bit at the last jump, he just took off. I am happy I got to ride him. My trip to Ocala was worth it.

“I’m thrilled that Archie and Jessica put this event together,” she added. “They are giving us all a shot at another place to compete. There aren’t a lot of places (courses) that offer steeplechase racing, so it’s a big effort to put something like this together. They’ve created a great atmosphere here, and I’m happy that so many people showed up to support the event. A meet like this has the potential to get a lot more people involved in our sport.”

Mell Boucher [Nancy Compton/Special to the Gazette]

While the inaugural event was run as a preliminarily sanctioned meet, the hope is that the Florida Steeplechase returns as a fully sanctioned meet in 2023.

“The turnout completely exceeded expectations, and we were delighted with how the event went,” Berry said. “All the races went off without a hitch, and we had some very exciting close finishes. Next year we aim to run fully sanctioned by the National Steeplechase Association and offer prize money. This year was a great introduction of steeplechasing to the Ocala community, and we will spend the next year planning to grow the event significantly in 2023.

“We would like to thank all our volunteers and sponsors, without whom this event would not have been possible,” Berry continued. “A special thank you is owed to Mason Lampton, who in addition to being a sponsor, has been a mentor, voice of reason, and a friend to us throughout this journey.”

Macauley echoed Berry’s sentiments, adding, “When everything was said and done at the end of the day, it was a tremendous relief and a feeling of achievement. We’re so glad that everyone had such a good time. This is just the beginning. We built the entire thing in a relatively short period of time, and we produced a product that everybody loved. What everyone saw this past weekend is just the start. There are bigger and better things to come.”

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