Among the 10,000 folks expected to gather Saturday for the Steeplechase at Callaway Gardens, nobody's enjoyment would be more important than that of Joe Rogers Jr.
In its 28th year, the Steeplechase is on pace to cross the $3 million mark in total funds raised for Chattahoochee Valley nonprofit organizations: the Columbus Museum, the Columbus Symphony Orchestra, the Historic Columbus Foundation, the Ida Cason Callaway Foundation, the Springer Opera House and the College of Veterinary Medicine at Auburn University.
Now, the event's fate is left to Rogers, chairman and chief executive officer of Norcross, Ga.-based Waffle House.
In July, one of his companies, Lands' South Ventures LLC, bought roughly 4,500 acres of the 13,000 acres the Callaway foundation owns. The $8 million deal has helped Callaway reduce its debt, which had grown to $44.5 million in March 2011. That parcel includes the 200-acre tract where the Steeplechase horses race and families frolic amid fall foliage, a highlight on the local social calendar.
Rogers said in July that he bought the land as a timber investment. He said he plans to lease the property for hunting but doesn't expect to develop it.
Rogers said he never has attended the Steeplechase, but he intended to speak to the event's organizers.
"I'm sure it's for a worthy cause," he said in July. "So hopefully I can get by there and find out what a Steeplechase is all about. The only thing I've heard is that they wear interesting hats."
Thursday, however, Rogers said he hasn't decided whether to allow the Steeplechase to continue on the property he bought.
He also said he hasn't discussed it with event organizers in four or five months and isn't sure whether he will attend Saturday.
Rogers said he has been busy this week checking on the 15 Waffle Houses in the Northeast affected by Superstorm Sandy.
Asked for his best guess about the chances of the Steeplechase returning to his property, Rogers said, "I haven't given it 2 minutes of thought, to tell you the truth, since we closed on it. It hasn't gotten on my list."
No wonder Steeplechase executive director Lucy Knight is chomping at the bit to impress Rogers.
And she hopes to send this message: "We want to continue the tradition we've had for 28 years. All of the beneficiaries greatly appreciate the money we've raised for them.
"As you well know, especially in these economic times, they desperately need the money. The benefactors are all anxious to meet him."
Race chairman Mason Lampton Sr. is the event organizer who best knows Rogers' thinking.
He wasn't available for comment, but his son, co-chairman Mason Lampton Jr., said all indications are positive, despite being indefinite.
"My dad has spoken to (Rogers)," Lampton Jr. said. "He wants to evaluate it this year but hasn't made any decisions He basically wants to be very anonymous and doesn't want attention, so I want to respect his privacy."
Steeplechase organizers will need Rogers' answer by March to have enough time to properly plan next year's event, Lampton Jr. said.