Orchestra Leader spurs steeplechase bug

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I knew as soon as I sent the money to buy into Orchestra Leader, I was in trouble.

I can’t tell you exactly when he became my favorite United States steeplechaser in training but I’d been following his career for years, making a point to check charts for his races every time one came through from my Equibase Virtual Stable. So when Keri Brion told me I could buy into him after he’d been claimed at Foxfield, I jumped at the chance. But I never knew how quickly I’d fall in love with U.S. steeplechasing just by buying part of a horse.

While I’m a huge fan of jumps racing in Europe – Cheltenham is one of my favorite weeks of the year – my only real exposure to U.S. steeplechasing to this point was watching it on live feeds from Saratoga every summer and going to the High Hope Races in Kentucky. That limited exposure led me to believe that steeplechasing here is much different than the racing I watch all the time in Europe so while “OIlie” enjoyed his winter break, I spent the time reading everything I could on the National Steeplechase Association website. If you’ve never visited the site, you’re missing out. Not only does it have a beginner’s guide to ’chasing but it also has newsletters and blogs from steeplechase personalities among much other information.

It’s safe to say, I had enough information to digest to get me through Ollie’s break and feel prepared when he returned to training with aims at a point-to-point to get him started early this year. If you know me, you know I get really excited when one of “my” horses is running. Since many of those are just horses I’ve foaled out and helped raise for other breeders, my excitement about Ollie went to another level and I posted about it all over social media as race day approached. By the time we reached post time for that point-to-point, I had friends messaging me asking how he did before the race even started.

While the race wasn’t live streamed, it was arranged to have someone film a Facebook Live broadcast for the partners so those of us who weren’t there could watch at least parts of the race. Ollie finished a good second and if I hadn’t already been hooked, I was now. Two starts later, that feeling was reinforced when he finished a good third in an undercard race at the Iroquois meet, one of the premiere meets of the spring.

However, the best part of that meet wasn’t Ollie’s finish but the camaraderie I felt in the lead-up to the race and after it.

After entries came out for the meet, people I had never met wished Ollie luck and told me they’d be cheering him on. On race day, I was watching the live feed from the other side of the continent and nearly felt like I was there thanks to other steeplechase owners and fans. Throughout the day, friends sent me photos not only of my horse and his race but everything else going on while on social media a small group of us were enjoying the live feed and having fun conversations about each race and horses who looked like potential superstars. While flat racing is much the same with the conversations on Twitter between races, these conversations had more of a laid-back feel, something you don’t usually experience on Twitter for big days in flat racing.

In my experience, that feeling is not limited to social media when it comes to steeplechasing. I’ve only attended High Hope but while I was there I felt like more of a family member than a spectator. Walking from my car to the finish line on the other side of the track was something I’d never experienced before with people I didn’t even know chatting to me as I passed by and offering food and drinks from tailgating spots.

Overall, it was a much different atmosphere than a day at a flat track. Don’t get me wrong, I’ll always love flat racing and spend every moment I can at the track but the laid-back, excited atmosphere at a steeplechase meet was a nice change from the frenzied excitement at the flat meets. Though it’s taken me some time to get used to post times being more “suggested times” (as a steeplechase friend put it) when waiting for a race to go off.

Ollie is getting another well deserve break now after a spring that had much of Team Ollie excited about what’s to come. While he enjoys eating grass and living a life of luxury this summer, I’m already planning my next move. My bank account has made it clear that it can only support one horse as I work to get my fledgling business off the ground, but I have no doubt that when Ollie heads off to his third career in a few years, I’ll still be involved in the sport as an owner, a step I’m already ready to embrace with open arms.

Kentucky-based freelance writer/photographer Melissa Bauer-Herzog has worked with The Paulick Report, America’s Best Racing, Three Chimneys Farm, PM Advertising, Horse Racing Reform and other media outlets in addition to her more hands-on Thoroughbred experience at Machmer Hall, Glennwood Farm and Hinkle Farm. This spring, she became a steeplechase owner as part of the Team Ollie syndicate which campaigned hurdle horse Orchestra Leader. Find out more at pyroismedia.com.