NASHVILLE, Tenn. – Much like the Kentucky Derby has been staged the first Saturday in May for 139 years, the Iroquois Steeplechase has had May’s second Saturday reserved for seven-plus decades as a signature Music City event.
Part social gathering, part world-class competition and part downright party, Saturday’s 72nd annual staging of the Iroquois Steeplechase has grown into a rite of passage each spring.
Some 25,000 or so will find their way Saturday to Percy Warner Park to witness eight steeplechase horse races at differing lengths and degrees of difficulty, including the featured race – the Calvin Houghland Iroquois Grade 1 Hurdle Stakes. With a total purse of $150,000, the Iroquois is the second-richest race on the National Steeplechasing Association’s spring circuit.
“We attract the best quality of horses that are competing in the spring,” Iroquois race committee chairman and former winning jockey Dwight Hall said. “We have a combination of world-class horses, one of the best and safest racing surfaces in the country, and offer the second-biggest purse of year.”
Hall should know, having raced steeplechase horses — they run on a grass track of varying elevations and attempt to clear 4-foot, 6-inch artificial hurdles of brush and timber — since 1960 as a high schooler in Pennsylvania. He won the Iroquois in 1977 on an Argentinean horse named Alvaro.
After 26 years, he retired from racing in 1986, but has been on the Iroquois race committee for more than two decades, including the last five as chairman.
“It has great prestige and history and tradition,” Hall said of the Iroquois, which has run every year but one since 1941, skipping 1945 because of World War II. The Iroquois is named after the first American-bred thoroughbred horse to win the prestigious British Epsom Derby.
“It has a little bit of southern flavor to it with great hospitality shown to the owners, trainers and jockeys,” he said. “They enjoy coming to Nashville every year for this event.”
And, yes, it is an event.
Oh, sure, the number of races had to be bumped up by one this year to a total of eight because of the 68 entries across the various races, including seven contenders for the Iroquois. But much like the Kentucky Derby, it is also a social event that attracts spectators from across the spectrum.
Whether it be college-age kids partying on the hills above the course with their $15 general admission tickets or those who’ve come dressed to the nines sitting prominently in the $840 private boxes, there is a little of something for everyone at “the Steeplechase,” as it is affectionately known locally.
“That’s what makes it so fun. You never know what you are going to see,” Iroquois Steeplechase executive director Libby Cheek said. “Certainly with the clothing, this is the one opportunity, if you are going to pull out all the stops, here’s your chance.
“ … And it’s not just the women. The men are all about looking dapper as well.”
Sure, many attendees might not even see a horse during the day’s festivities. But most do come for the serious steeplechase horse racing, especially the 3-mile main event that is a Grade 1 stakes race because it offers a purse of $100,000 or more.
“It is a very good and very deep field,” Hall said of the seven Iroquois hopefuls that include favorite, Demonstrative, the defending champion ridden by Irish jockey Robbie Walsh.
Demonstrative was the 2012 Eclipse Award runner-up as the top steeplechase horse in the country and has already won its training flat race earlier this year.
“Demonstrative currently ranks as the best horse running,” Hall said. “However, you do have some good horses in there. But he’s always a hard-knocking and very competitive horse. He is always very competitive.”
If there is a wild card for the race, it could be a soft surface caused by several days of rain, although the weather forecast calls for light rain Saturday morning followed by sunny skies in the afternoon.
“Demonstrative has not run particularly well in soft going,” Hall said. “The one bad race he had last year was on a very soft and deep course. He likes a hard and fast track. If the track is soft, that should open up the race and make it more competitive.”
A chief challenger to Demonstrative could be Slipaway, the 2010 Eclipse Award winner and runner-up that same year at the Iroquois. Hall also notes local favorite Molotof, an English horse owned by Nashville’s Mary Ann Houghland, wife of the late Calvin Houghland, a long-proponent of the Iroquois Steeplechase and whose name the Iroquois race title bears.
Last year, Iroquois winner Acadius collapsed and died just moments after the race. A sculpture commissioned by owner Ed Swyer was unveiled Friday at Percy Warner Park.
Since 1982, the Iroquois Steeplechase has aligned with the Monroe Carell Jr. Children’s Hospital at Vanderbilt as its main charitable beneficiary.
During that time, more than $9 million has been raised from the annual May event.
“It’s more than just a horse race,” Cheek said. “It is something that benefits these children and provides them with wonderful health care that is right here in our community.”