DADE CITY — Five years ago, someone asking to use Bob Blanchard’s sprawling ranch as a backdrop for a mud race or foam race or anything along those lines would’ve evoked laughter from the 87-year-old Arkansas native.
“If someone had come to me with a business plan five years ago about having mud runs, I would have thought they were crazy,” Blanchard, owner of Little Everglades Ranch in Dade City, said.
“Why would anybody pay to do something like that? But they come out; they’re happy to pay — the public is — and you look at the smiling faces. When they get muddy, they get scratched, they sprain an ankle, whatever it is, they have a great time.”
Blanchard’s steeplechase course, as well as other portions of the ranch he owns with his wife, Sharon, is occasionally transformed into tortuous, muddy corridors of glee.
Little Everglades has hosted its share of extreme races. Its most recent was Saturday’s “Savage Race,” its fourth event at the ranch.
Additionally, “Dirty Girl,” “5K Foam Fest” and “Rugged Maniac” races have found a home there.
The ranch’s first foray into hosting extreme races took place in 2011 with Tough Mudder. That was the first time the obstacle course challenge was held in the state, drawing 18,000 people.
Kevin Campbell and his wife, Andie, have worked for the Blanchards for about 10 years. Their backgrounds are in event hosting, and it was clear, at least to them early on, the facility could be used for more than horses.
“Bob and Sharon built a horse race track and facility, but what they really built is a world-class events venue,” Kevin Campbell said. “I’ve been in the event business for well strong of 30 years, closer to 40 years, and this is one of the finest event properties there are in the country, let alone Florida.”
They’ve also hosted an NCAA regional cross country meet, several boys and girls high school cross county state championships as well as the American Cancer Society’s “Making Strides Against Breast Cancer” and a Bull Run, reminiscent of Spain’s event.
The steeplechase facility was a hobby of sorts. Bob Blanchard bought his wife a riding horse and it needed a place to run. Then friends convinced the Blanchards they should build a facility.
That evolved into the Little Everglades Steeplechase event in 2001.
Little Everglades Ranch, is exactly that, a working ranch. There are about 250 cows, which includes brood and Belted Galloway, 24 chickens, as many as 18 horses, and 12 bulls. Deer have found a sanctuary there since Bob Blanchard doesn’t allow anyone to hunt them on his property. There also are turkeys that roam the land. Alligators have found a home in the many bodies of water there.
Driving around the 2,050-acre expanse — filled with live oak trees, elevation changes, and a full spectrum of wildlife — one can witness a very active peat mining project.
Peat is a type of organic soil filled with nutrients from decayed vegetation. It can be used for potting soil, and in some countries it’s used as fuel.
The ranch, which got its name from the original owner, William Larkin, who served as a private and county attorney in Pasco County for more than 50 years, grew to prominence when the Blanchards began hosting the Little Everglades Steeplechase.
The event was used as a fundraiser to help charities in the area, packing in roughly 15,000 spectators each year.
A good portion of that crowd traveled from locations outside Florida.
As the economy tumbled, sponsors began to pull out of the event, which had always been subsidized by Bob and Sharon’s own money. The final steeplechase event was held in 2009.
The shedding of sponsors, about five of which were car dealerships, including title sponsor Mercedes-Benz, prompted Bob Blanchard to visit each one.
“When we lost all of those (sponsors), I went to see them all because they were laying off people, cutting salaries, doing everything they could to survive during the economic downturn,” Blanchard said. “I told them if I was sitting in your chair, I’d make the decision you made. You were our friend before; we want you to be our friend from now on.”
The Blanchards bought the ranch in 1996, trading their South Tampa home for rural life. It didn’t bother Bob Blanchard, considering he grew up on a farm in Northeast Arkansas.
The Blanchards built their home on a spot that has the highest elevation on the ranch. The location once was a peaceful picnic spot for the couple.
A recent tour of the ranch revealed strategically placed obstacles — spackled in black or blue paint — with creative names such as Colossus and Sawtooth Bars.
The obstacles are part of the extreme racing that has infused new energy throughout the ranch.
“It’s similar to being in a big park, a state park or a national park,” Lloyd Parker, chief operating officer and co-founder of Savage Race, said. “It’s open; you can drive for quite some time without seeing any buildings or anyone. It’s pretty impressive.”
Parker said they change the course and obstacles each time they hold an event, and the ranch has the space to allow them to tinker.
“In Florida (Little Everglades Ranch) is really, really impressive,” he said. “Some of our other locations as you get further north, it’s ski resorts (or places like that). It’s different from state to state.”
On the days races are held on the property, the Blanchards usually hop into their golf cart and take to the ranch’s back roads.
They show their thanks to as many racers as they can.
“I’ve never seen a happier crowd of people at one thing or at one place in my life,” Bob Blanchard said. “They were laughing; you could see the camaraderie building up as they came around. They would help each other cross over the obstacles.”
Now when talk arises of his ranch hosting an extreme race, his once cynical laughter has since transformed into an appreciative smile.