Atlanta prepares for a day at the races as Steeplechase nears

What began as a horse race along the sandy banks of the Chattahoochee River in 1966 has now expanded to a 435-acre farm near Rome, Ga., surrounded by the Etowah River. The event, which takes place Saturday, April 14, now draws nearly 25,000 people, some decked out in Derby-worthy finery, and the combined purse has grown to $100,000. Ticket sales benefit Camp Southern Ground, Inc. and the University of Georgia’s College of Veterinary Medicine.

Ray Lambert of McDonough, whose father took him in 1967, has attended every single race except one, and is attending this year’s event with two of his children.

“For my family, the Steeplechase is the social event of the year and quite frankly, Atlanta’s best-kept secret,” Lambert said. “It’s just so exciting to see the horses run and the atmosphere is incredible. Everyone is so relaxed and friendly. The fact that it is a charity event just makes it all that much more special.”

Lambert advises arriving at 9 a.m. when the gates open and staying all day to take advantage of the many other activities besides races. There are pony rides for the kids, camel rides for the bold and a hat parade and air show for all. The races start at 1:15 p.m. with the final race scheduled for 4 p.m. Other four-legged activities include terrier races, a parade of hounds and a flying disc tournament. A trip to the Kentucky Derby that includes hotel and airfare is also being raffled off with tickets available online or at the event.

KNOW BEFORE YOU GO

To make the most of your day at Steeplechase, pack a cooler or picnic basket with a hearty lunch; fill the thermos with plenty of Mint Juleps and bring along a beach blanket or folding chairs for lounging.

Those who have been to the summer concert series at Chastain Park Amphitheatre may have seen the elaborate spreads with candles, cheese and wine. Steeplechase tailgating is a whole different pony complete with white linens and fresh flowers, crab claws and lobster salad and even strawberries for the champagne, though there’s nothing wrong with a cooler of PBR and PB&J. There are food vendors on site, but no alcohol sales except in the tent parties. Pack plenty of ice and sunscreen. No glass or dogs are allowed -- thanks to overzealous pooches that escaped their owners and ran the course.

But before pressing the seersucker, go over the different levels of ticketing options on the event website. There are options for every budget. Hillside seats with a table ($460 for four) provide a panoramic view of all the action including the finish line while infield seats ($270 for a car of six and parking) are closer to the actual track. The most economical option is general admission ($30 per person) and requires a little walking but less traffic upon departure.

EVENT

47th Annual Atlanta Steeplechase. 9 a.m. -- 5 p.m. Saturday, April 14. $30 -- $460. Kingston Downs, Highway 20, Kingston, Ga., 30145. 404-237-7436, www.atlantasteeplechase.org .

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