82nd Anniversary of the Iroquois Steeplechase
By Anna Robertson Ham
The bell rings, the ground shakes, and the roar of the crowd surges through the air as middle Tennessee’s rite of spring is celebrated once again. The Iroquois Steeplechase takes place annually at Percy Warner Park on the second Saturday of May, placing it on May 13th this year. This will be the eighty-second running of the race, and those involved work nonstop to make sure that every year of the event is better than the year before.
Since 1941, the Iroquois Steeplechase has brought top horses from across the country, and even around the globe, to Nashville. The day of races has grown to attract more than 25,000 spectators, dressed in the most stylish of southern spring fashion to cheer on their favorite horses and jockeys, all while raising money for Monroe Carrel Jr. Children’s Hospital at Vanderbilt - one of the nation’s leading children’s hospitals, treating and helping to prevent a full range of pediatric health issues from colds and broken bones to complex heart diseases and cancer. The event has donated nearly $11 million to the Children’s Hospital since 1981.
The Iroquois also benefits The Foundation for the Horse, which was founded in 1994 and is governed and stewarded by equine veterinarians. Their mission to improve the health and welfare of horses is supported by the expertise of many world-renowned caregivers and researchers, unequaled in their ability to identify the needs of the equine and the most critical health concerns facing the equine population. Today, they are a dynamic organization focused on delivering relevant research, education, and outreach to the equine industry.
Friends of Warner Parks is another beneficiary of the event and is dedicated to the preservation, stewardship and protection of Percy and Edwin Warner Parks. They contribute to the preservation of the Percy Warner Park grounds, and all improvements to the Iroquois Steeplechase grounds are paid for by the Foundation from race proceeds. That maintenance provides year-round benefits and enhancements for the Equestrian Center at Percy Warner Park.
Virginia “Gigi” Lazenby spoke to me about how her father, Paul Banks Jr., worked for Calvin Houghland, the former Chair of the Race Committee. Paul was involved with helping run the event and course maintenance, including modernizing the course by adding an irrigation system and drainage for better safety of the horses and riders. The track at Percy Warner Park is now known as one of the top Steeplechase racing locations across the country. Gigi has been involved with the event over the years, not only with attending since she was young but also as an outrider for the races. She would ride side-saddle during the races and be more of a “show outrider” as she describes. She even has a story about how current Chairman of the Race Committee, Dwight Hall, was riding and his horse missed the fence and knocked her off - there is even a picture capturing the moment they collided! Luckily, no one was injured, but it is quite the story.
In 2008, Dwight Hall became Chairman of the Race Committee. His history with the event has many chapters, as he was a jockey and won the Iroquois Steeplechase in 1977 riding Alvaro II. Dwight has had a passion for horses since he began riding around ten years old, from foxhunting to showing. He got his jockey’s license at sixteen and rode for many years. He retired his racing silks with his last ride at the Iroquois Steeplechase in 1986, riding Flatterer. Dwight worked with Calvin Houghland and has served on the Race Committee for many years, as well as Clerk of the Course before taking the position as Chairman, following Henry Hooker. He says every year the number one thing he looks forward to is to have a safe day of racing, good competition, great weather and that the event runs smoothly.
The races have grown over the many decades and transformed from people lining the fence and hillside. Attendees now have several options to spectate the day of races. There is the option to tailgate, which is a very popular choice and consists of the Infield, Stirrup Club, RV and Family Area. Tailgating is a great choice especially when you want the opportunity to make your own celebratory space and experience the races with the best seats in the house. With tailgating, guests can decorate, set up a feast, make their own bars and truly bring their own touch to race day. Tailgaters can also enter the 6th annual YOUR Williamson Tailgate Contest by posting your 2023 race day Tailgate photos to Facebook and Instagram with hashtag #TailgateContest and tag @yourwilliamson for a chance to win a Topside Tailgating Spot for 2024!
There are the party tents, including the Hunt Club and Royal 615. The Hunt Club has table seating and access to food and beverage catering all day. Royal 615 is the hottest party at Iroquois Steeplechase - featuring DJs, craft cocktails and food trucks, guests will celebrate in style. Guests can also do a private tent to entertain their invited guests with food and beverage options provided through catering. Choose between Railside Tent with ability to bring your own food and beverage or purchase through recommendations, or Hillside and purchase the catering and bartending packages required on the Hillside.
Attendees can also purchase individual tickets, which provide access to Steeplechase Central, all tailgating areas, Iroquois Shoppes, Vendor Village and Family Area. And, of course, there are the long-standing hillside Boxes, which are sold out but have a wait-list that you can add your name to.
The Iroquois Steeplechase is, by far, one of my favorite equine events in the area. Put on your Lilly Pulitzer and bright hat, and gather for a day at the track - in sophisticated, southern style. To learn more about this exciting event and to purchase your tailgating spot or tickets, visit iroquoissteeplechase.org. I hope to see you at the races!
Iroquois Steeplechase History
In the 1930’s, a group of fox hunting enthusiasts decided to build a permanent Steeplechase course. Marcellus Frost encouraged a small group to go look at a valley in the Percy Warner Park, land which was donated to the city of Nashville a decade or so before, where he envisioned a perfect location for a course. The land included hills and terrain changes where jumps could be installed. Most importantly, there was a hillside for spectators to be able to view the entire course from above. Frost took John Sloan, Sr., Mason Houghland, and Con Thompson Ball for a ride to see the location.
By 1937, “Pops” Frost had convinced the Works Progress Administration to provide backing for the funding and manpower to build the racecourse. With permission from the City Park Commission, Mason Houghland called upon William du Pont Jr. to design the course. Work began in 1938 and was
finished in time to run the inaugural event in May of 1941. The volunteers needed to put on the race came from the pasture race circuit members and local fox hunters. They created the Volunteer State Horsemen’s Association (now Foundation), which today remains the governing body of the race meet. The early leadership of the Association was Mason Houghland (President), John Sloan Sr., (Vice President) and Henry Hines (Secretary/Treasurer).
John Sloan Sr. chose the name Iroquois for the event, after the 19th century horse Iroquois, owned by Pierre Lorillard, who was the first American bred horse to win the Epsom Derby (1881), the preeminent race in England. Iroquois retired to the Harding farm, Belle Meade Plantation, where he stood at stud until he died in 1899. The Lorillard colors- cherry red and black- are the colors of the Iroquois Steeplechase.
The winner of the first Iroquois was Rockmayne, ridden by Dinwiddie Lampton, and owned (leased) by Miss Barbara Bullitt. The minor races, leading up to the featured Iroquois, were pony races, a grooms’ race (on Mules), the Marcellus Frost Hunter Race (named for that visionary who located the course), and the Truxton Purse, a race on the flat named for one of Andrew Jackson’s favorite horses.
Mason Hougland served many years as the Chair of the Race Committee. He handed the responsibility to his son, Calvin Houghland, who modernized the course, adding irrigation and improved drainage to make the course safer for the competitors. He also led the organization through its evolution to a Foundation. Henry Hooker took over as Chairman of the Race Committee in 1991, with Calvin heading the Board of Trustees. By 2008, Dwight Hall (formerly a winning Iroquois Jockey) became Chairman of the Race Committee.
Today, the Iroquois Steeplechase–run by the nonprofit, 501c3 organization the Volunteer State Horsemen's Foundation–routinely attracts more than 25,000 spectators to the Equestrian Center at Percy Warner Park in Nashville to watch the best horses and riders in the world.
Race Day Schedule
*TIMES ARE SUBJECT TO CHANGE*
8am - RV Tailgating opens
8:30am - Inside the track tailgating opens, which includes Topside, Centerfield, Midfield and Railside Tents.
9am - Stirrup Club tailgating and Family Area tailgating opens.
9:30am – 11:30am - Visit the Bubbly Bar in the Royal 615 Lounge for pre-party drinks.
10:30am - RV and ‘inside the track’ tailgating vehicles must be in place.
11am - Stirrup Club and Family Tailgating vehicles must be in place. Turf Club, Hunt Club and Paddock Club tents open.
12pm - Opening Ceremonies
1pm – Race 1 Begins
1:40pm - Race 2 Begins
1:55pm - Stick Horse Race. A time-honored tradition at the Iroquois Steeplechase is watching the kids compete in the Michael Stanley Stick Horse Race. Signup is located at the 99.7 WTN Tent in the Family Area.
2:20pm - Race 3 Begins
3pm - Race 4 Begins
3:40pm - Race 5 Begins
3:55pm - Parade of Hounds
4:20pm - Race 6 Begins
Approx. 5:30pm - Iroquois Society, Paddock Club, Royal 615 and Hunt Club tents close 15 minutes after the final race ends.
2023 Child Ambassador
This year’s Iroquois Steeplechase Child Ambassador from Monroe Carell is ten-year-old Rivers DeLisle. Rivers was born with a rare heart condition called tetralogy of Fallot that includes a combination of four congenital heart defects. He underwent his first open heart surgery at just one-month-old. Due to complications, he suffered cardiac arrest and was placed on extracorporeal membrane oxygenation (ECMO), a form of life support for those with life-threatening illness or injury that affects the function of their heart or lungs.
His care team at Monroe Carell provided constant vigilance and support, as Rivers would require multiple blood transfusions and intense medical management. His treatment plan included a follow-up surgery to repair a collapsed artery, and Rivers was then able to come off ECMO. At seven months old, Rivers had his last open-heart surgery. Today, he is thriving, energetic and enjoys horseback riding with his pony Jelly Bean, swimming, listening to music and dancing with his friends. He jumps at the chance to go to work with his dad at the equine hospital or run to the farm to feed the cows. Rivers’ family says that he brings so much joy to everyone in his life, and he is here because of the expert care he received at Monroe Carell.
Rivers continues to receive cardiology care with yearly ultrasounds to determine when he will need his final heart repair. He also receives care from various other teams at Monroe Carell including his ear, nose and throat team who recently implanted a specialized hearing device that allows Rivers to have full auditory access to the world around him.