By Tod Marks
More than a decade has passed since the last steeplechase was run in Florida. The Little Everglades meet, in Dade City, had a checkered history, beginning as an NSA-assisted point-to-point in 2000 and continuing with and without sanctioning through 2009. Through its decade-long run, though, one thing was constant. The beautiful venue in sunny Florida gave horsemen hunkered down in wintry climes something to look forward to as a starting point for the season ahead.
On March 5, jump racing returns to the state in the form of a point-to-point – with backing and guidance from both the NSA and Temple Gwathmey Steeplechase Foundation – at the Florida Horse Park in Ocala. The meet is the brainchild of former NSA jockey Archie Macauley and his partner Jessica Berry. It also has generated strong support from Mason Lampton, who runs the Steeplechase at Callaway Gardens in Pine Mountain, Ga., and whose family has a rich history in the sport, along with Michael Hankin and Brown Advisory, one of steeplechasing’s pre-eminent sponsors.
Tentative plans call for a six-race card, three over hurdles, with a 12:30 p.m. post time. Entries close 11:00 a.m., Monday, March 1. For ticketing and other information, visit www.Thefloridasteeplechase.com.
“We stand behind the meet and will support it in any way we can to create an exciting new event opportunity,” said NSA President Al Griffin. “The goal is to make it part of the calendar in 2023 as a properly sanctioned meet. For now, it’s a nice opportunity for trainers and owners to school younger horses and for us to check out the facility.”
Berry, who serves as the meet’s vice chair, said that the seeds for the event were planted when she and Macauley became friends with eventer Buck Davidson, who is on the board of the Horse Park. Davidson told the couple that the park would like to host a steeplechase and put them in touch with its director, Jason Reynolds. Reynolds invited the couple to visit. The team began putting the pieces together early in 2020, with the aim of scheduling it after the Steeplechase of Charleston in mid-November.
Then Covid struck, which put the project on hold until this past fall. “The Horse Park had the first weekend in March available,” Berry said. “We knew it was ambitious to try and put this together in essentially three months. But we also believed that it was a good date because it fell at the beginning of the jump-racing season, it was still within the winter season of the other equestrian disciplines in Ocala, and it was just before the two-year-old Ocala Breeders’ Sale. It started to sink in that this was really happening when we launched the website in December, and from there we haven’t had any time to question it because we’ve been flat out organizing it.”
Berry said the local community has been very supportive, as has the Horse Park itself. “They’ve gone above and beyond to make this happen. Jason and his team have used their machinery and expertise to help us design, create, and maintain the course. The Ocala Chamber of Commerce was also one of our first points of contact, and its Director of Equine Engagement Louisa Barton has been a tremendous help by introducing us to members of the local equine community and having us on her show to talk about the event back in December. The local businesses and horsemen we have spoken to are all looking forward to the event and we are hoping for a big turnout and to establish the steeplechase as an annual feature in the community’s calendar.”
NSA horsemen have expressed their interest, too. “Every owner and trainer we have spoken to so far has been supportive of the event and many have already offered to bring runners,” Berry added. “There are also some former steeplechase horsemen who live in the area who are keen to get involved and participate. In addition, we are also thankful for the support of the Temple Gwathmey Foundation, the NSA, and SOTA (Steeplechase Owners and Trainers Association).”
The steeplechase course is situated within the existing cross-country course. It’s fully irrigated, about 1 1/16 miles around, and slightly undulating. It’s not an oval, but there is a long straightaway leading into the stretch that offers spectators a great vantage point to view the final fence and race to the wire.