FORT BRAGG, N.C. - Against a backdrop of blue skies, the thundering of hooves turned Carolina Horse Park into a storm of activity on April 9. In its sixth decade of steeplechasing (jump racing), Stoneybrook pitted 15 jockeys and 35 registered thoroughbreds in five races designed to showcase the nation's top equine talent. The natural-turf course featured green fences cushioned with synthetic brush, and timing was everything as horses hurdled in full stride.

Those that misstep can seriously injure the jockey team and damage a high-profile reputation. So, in a sport where years of preparation determine a moment's outcome, it was fitting that Soldiers show up to cheer the champions.

"I've never been to a horse race before, so it's a new experience for me. The community has embraced us just like we were here every year," said Sgt. 1st Class Kenneth Mayes, station commander for the Hope Mills recruiting station, who accepted an invitation from event organizers. Mayes and his Soldiers handed out T-shirts, notebooks and water bottles and hosted pull-up contests. They even raffled off an iPod.

"A lot of retirees and a lot of active-duty, Reservists and National Guard members reside in (the Raeford) area. As Army representatives, we feel it's our obligation to be stewards to the community and that's why we're here today," said Mayes.

CHP, in partnership with Family, Morale, Welfare and Recreation Services and Leisure Travel Services, distributed 1,600 free tickets around Fort Bragg and Pope Field. In addition to the free tickets, anyone with a military I.D. received a 20 percent discount on pre-orders for Stoneybrook Steeplechase.

Festivities opened with a 5k Run for the Ribbons (cancer care fund run) at 9 a.m., followed by a Hawkins and Harkness hat contest, a stick horse race for the kids, a wine cellar tailgate contest and the much-anticipated opening ceremonies at noon. A call to the paddock at 1 p.m., began an afternoon of intense horse races where hurdling horses reached speeds of 30 miles per hour and jumped 14 times within two miles. Some spectators reserved parking spaces beside the track, and tailgate parties included everything from hors d'oeuvres and sweet tea to beer coolers and barbeque grills.

"I volunteer at the fire department down the road. We usually come out every year, but this year we didn't do it so I came out here with the military," said Amber Duffell, the daughter of a Fort Bragg Soldier. "I enjoy coming out and doing stuff like this - Family events. It's really nice," she added.

America hosts more than 200 jumping races annually, compared to the more than 3,000 races held in Great Britain. North Carolina is one of 11 states along the East coast to hold steeplechasing events, and ones like the Stoneybrook Steeplechase held at CHP gain in popularity every year.

The stakes were high at this spring event as some of the country's top horses and jockeys competed for more than $50,000 in purse money. Stoneybrook Steeplechase is Hoke County's largest sporting event, and organizers expected a crowd of nearly 9,000 spectators this year.
According to Jane Murray, CHP's executive director, "Most people come to see the horses, but they also come to make a day of it. It's an all-day Family affair and a lot of people come just to have a day in the country."