A Day at the High Hope Steeplechase

Spring in the Bluegrass is full of many pleasant things but among those at the top of my list are the variety of equestrian events that usher in the season.

For me, the Keeneland Spring Meet is the real turning point when it comes to waving winter goodbye, and the Rolex Kentucky Three-Day Event is the weekend where we officially kick it out the door. After attending my first High Hope Steeplechase meet at the Kentucky Horse Park last weekend, I realize that there’s one more step to spring—our first weekend of actually getting to enjoy the season without the remnants of winter.

Of course, Mother Nature had to play some games by making it rain off and on all weekend but that didn’t break my enthusiasm and I headed to the Horse Park a few hours early to get the lay of the land.

I’d been told by multiple people through the years that High Hope is a huge social event but I never really grasped how big it was until I parked shortly after the gates opened. Tailgaters already had pop-up tents set up hours before the races started with very impressive food spreads under them and coolers full of beverages. High Hope also provided a kids’ area to keep the littlest attendees occupied and a vender area for those who wanted to burn a hole in their wallets.

©Melissa Bauer-Herzog

Before long, it was time for the races to start and that was a learning experience for someone who has never been to a steeplechase before.

While I am used to horses being saddled in a paddock in front of fans, the horses were saddled back in the barn then circled in the on the front side of the track fully tacked up before the jockeys mounted. I was lucky enough to go into the barn area with a friend later on to watch the pre-race routine back there and it was a lot different than what I’m used to.

The horses were fully relaxed as they were tacked up in their stalls then circled calmly outside the barn before walking over. While a few of them pranced a little bit on the long walk from the barns to the front side, most of them acted like they were just going for a stroll. Obviously there are a number of flat racing horses who act like these guys did in the pre-race preparations but the relaxed atmosphere seemed to keep everyone calmer.

©Melissa Bauer-Herzog

However, when the jockeys mounted, it was game on for everyone. It was obvious the horses still had the same fire as their flat racing counterparts as they galloped to the start.

The first race was full of horses by big name sires like Malibu Moon and Distorted Humor, but it was A.P. Indy who took the spotlight. His son Indy’s Legacy was sitting in second watching the as the leader ran 15 lengths ahead of the field then pounced when the time was right. Battling with Needle in the Hay over the last fence, Indy’s Legacy won by 1 ½ lengths. Not too bad for a horse who sold for $600,000 as a yearling!

Indy’s Legacy wins the first race at High Hope on May 22, 2017 after battling Needle in the Hay.

The second race was one I’d been looking for since I’d seen the entries because of my favorite jumpers was in it. Orchestra Leader is a horse I’ve followed for a while now so I was thrilled to see him in person. He’s the kind of horse you know will go to the lead and grind it out until the wire and more often than not it has worked for him lately. Coming into this race, he’d won three of the last five races he’d finished and I was wholly biased in hoping he’d do the same in Kentucky.

Orchestra Leader on his way to winning the second race at High Hope on May 21, 2017. ©Melissa Bauer-Herzog

In true Orchestra Leader style, he took the lead from the start and was extremely game. Near the end of the race, it was a little nerve wracking with a few horses making bids at his lead as he came down to the wire. But Orchestra Leader won by half a length to take his earnings up to over $200,000, a big feat for any horse.

I headed to the backside for the last two sanctioned races of the day but was a little bummed thinking it meant I’d miss the Parade of the Hounds on the front stretch. But fate decided to be kind and I was within feet of the hounds as they came down the backstretch to return back to their trailer after the parade.

The hounds head back afte the Parade of Hounds on May 21, 2017 at High Hope. ©Melissa Bauer-Herzog

The final sanctioned race of the day was over timber jumps instead of hurdles and luckily for me, High Hope had put one of the jumps next to one of my favorite trees at the Horse Park. It probably sounds weird to hear someone say they have a favorite tree but this one also usually has a Rolex jump during the three-day event and always provides a great picture opportunity for me. It didn’t let me down here, helping me get one of my favorite picture of the steeplechases.

©Melissa Bauer-Herzog

Unfortunately for the shot, All of the Above (the horse leading at the time) didn’t win the race but it’s still one that I’ll always love.

While the steeplechases were over after that, the fun was just beginning. I made it back to the front side just in time to catch the final of the stick horse races and the races weren’t just for kids. Eight adults lined up to race, though I think there should have been an inquiry because some of the adults just carried the horses instead of actually riding them.

©Melissa Bauer-Herzog

As a rider myself, I was intrigued by the saddle seat races because I know how hard it is to ride horses at a gallop when astride and couldn’t imagine riding side saddle. I can fully say I could never do what the ladies who lined up for both the flat and jumps race did. I almost guarantee I would have fallen off at basically every point in the races but definitely would have come off at the jumps.

Finn McCool and Sarah Martin win the Ladies Sidesaddle Over Fences race at High Hope on May 22, 2017. ©Melissa Bauer-Herzog

I felt like my parents missed the boat when I was a kid by not knowing pony races existed because High Hope reminded me just how entertaining these races are for people to watch and fun for kids to ride. I’m in love with Monica Seitz’s pony Blizzard, who won both the flat and jumps race. I’ve had some bad pony experiences in the past and usually not a fan, but he’s making me change my mind!

Blizzard and Monica Seitz win both pony races at High Hope on May 21, 2017. ©Melissa Bauer-Herzog

As for entertainment value, this little guy’s rider fell off (both child and pony were fine) and decided he should finish the race by himself. He had every excuse in the world to stop, including a track made of grass, but kept going so I think he likes to run just a bit!

Loose pony at High Hope on May 21, 2017. ©Melissa Bauer-Herzog

Overall, I’d say my first High Hope Steeplechase experience was a success and I’ve already got the meet on my planner for 2018. If you are looking for a fun day at the races in a relaxed, family friendly atmosphere, I highly recommend looking to Lexington in mid-May for next year’s family vacation.

About the Author

A native of Vancouver, WA, Melissa Bauer-Herzog followed her passion for all things equine to Central Kentucky. She is a frequent contributor to America’s Best Racing, and publishes a blog on international bloodstock, All Equine All The Time.