03/04/2005 1:00AM

Ranch features racing for charity


A crowd of 25,000 or more will gather this afternoon to watch the seven scheduled races at the Little Everglades Ranch, located in the neighborhood of Dade City, less than an hour northeast of Tampa, Fla. Four of the races will be over the national fences (hurdles) and the other three on the flat. The Little Everglades Stakes, contested under National Steeplechase Association rules, is the afternoon's featured event. The race is for 4-year-olds and older at 2 1/8 miles and carries a purse of $35,000.

Little Everglades Ranch covers 2,000 acres of possibly the most eye-catching geography in Florida. The topography is similar to that of Virginia or Pennsylvania - rolling hills of surprising height and valleys with pristine ponds and lakes. Whereas Hialeah Park is known for its colorful flamingos, Little Everglades Ranch has an abundance of stately sand hill cranes and other exotic animals roaming freely about.

The park is the creation of an environmentally conscious retired business couple, Bob and Sharon Blanchard. Bob Blanchard, who at one time was one of the biggest tractor dealers in the Southeast, has had a love for horses since his Arkansas youth. The Blanchard family races horses under the NSA rules and also raises show-horse breeds.

Having close ties to the business community in Tampa Bay, the Blanchards created one-day family outings of horse racing and related activities to raise money for Tampa General Hospital and other worthy causes. This will be the fifth year for the Little Everglades Steeplechase day at the races.

"I always liked being around them and working with them," Bob Blanchard said of horses. "Our kids feel the same. We have six steeplechase horses, no big horse, but we've won a few races. I am friendly with Tampa Bay Downs owner Stella Thayer, and she is going to counsel us as I get into the Thoroughbred end of the business. I don't think I'll do much racing; more likely we'll become commercial breeders. I really enjoy being around the young horses - makes me feel young."

The $35,000 Little Everglades Stakes is the year's first NSA-sanctioned race and drew a full field. The three flat races on the afternoon card are headed by a $10,000 event at 1 1/4 miles on the turf for Florida-breds, which has a field of 11. It is for 3-year-olds (130 pounds) and older (140 pounds).

The three gates to the park will be open at 9 a.m., and first post will be at 1:30 p.m. Admission is $10 for an individual ticket purchased on raceday.

Among the other activities on the day is an elegant- and funny-hat contest. Antique and classic auto displays, pony-style trotting exhibitions, and a parade of carriages are also on the program. While no dogs are allowed in the park, races for Jack Russell breeds are part of the show.

"Our goal is to raise money," Blanchard said. "This day at the races is getting bigger every year. It also had another beneficial effect: it brings people back to the natural. They can see and enjoy the beauty of nature and learn that preserving it is worth the effort."