SHAKOPEE, MN – On June 17 the fans at Canterbury Park are going to be able to witness – though not wager upon – one of the oldest forms of horse racing in the world. Steeplechasing traces its lineage back to 18th Century Ireland and it is said that the first race was the result of a bet between Cornelius O’Callaghan and Edmund Blake who raced church steeple to church steeple in County Cork in 1752. The most famous steeplechase race in the world is the Grand National, first run at Aintree in the United Kingdom in 1836 and known to American non-racing fans mostly through the classic Mickey Rooney/Elizabeth Taylor film, National Velvet.
The steeplechase exhibition is a fundraising event for the Hurdles Foundation, founded by former Minnesota Racing Commission Chairman Jesse Overton, with the primary beneficiary will be Bolder Options, a non-profit mentoring program founded by Golden Gopher all time leader rusher Darrell Thompson. Founded in 1993, Bolder Options works to provide one on one mentoring opprtunites for youth in Minnesota. According to their website:
Bolder Options is now recognized as an expert partner by Mentoring Partnership of Minnesota and hailed nation-wide for the innovative, one-of-a-kind programming. In 2014, over 2,300 youth actively participated in Bolder Options programming, which continues to achieve a success rate 50% higher than the national average.
“Back in 2012, I believe, we did a steeplechase demonstration over at the polo fields and then did another one the next year up in Medina,” said James Cullen, one of the event organizers, “And everone really enjoyed it. We met with Jesse and Randy [Sampson, President of Canterbury Park] shortly thereafter to see if we could do a demonstration at Canterbury, but as fate would have it, I moved to Boston for several years for work.”
The dream was put on hold until Cullen, a lifelong horseman from Ireland who still competes in equine competitions around the Midwest with his wife, returned to the Twin Cities.
“I came back this past fall and they were in the process of putting together a formal race, putting up money and so forth – and they’re still working on it,” said Cullen. “Well, they had this date on the calendar and I was back in town being a protagonist and advocate for the sport they asked me if I could pull together four to six people for the exhibition. We’ve got some very good eventing riders to do the demonstration including myself, my wife and three other people.”
In addition to the demonstration, one of the top steeplechase jockeys in the country will be on hand for the event. Minnesota native Annie Yeager, winner of the 2015 Grand National Steeplechase, will be the commentator for the day and share her experiences with attendees. Cullen will also host a presentation of the history of steeplechasing as well as where the sport is going.
Modern steeplechases are run all over the world but never at a racetrack in Minnesota. While the Saturday event at Canterbury is an exhibition and a fundraiser Cullen is hopeful that this could lead to other events at Canterbury culminating in eventually being awarded a NSA sanctioned event. In 2016 Saratoga, Monmouth, Belmont, Suffolk and Parx all hosted National Steeplechase Association events.
“We’re really looking forward to an exciting day,” said Cullen. “It should be a lot of fun and we’ll be able to raise money for great organizations.”
Tickets start at $75 and include all the festivities as well as lunch in the Triple Crown Room are on sale at the Hurdles Foundation website.