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Race to the Steeplechase

A bugle sounds, calling the foxhounds to rally for the hunt. Men clad in hunting scarlets sit proudly on sleek horses and trot down the home stretch of the Iroquois Steeplechase, leading a pack of exuberant hounds. The Parade of the Hounds signals the final race of the day, the Calvin Houghland Iroquois (Gr.I) Hurdle Stakes.

This is the tradition that surrounds Nashville’s ‘rite of spring’ – a horse race that has become one of the richest events on the National Steeplechase Association spring circuit – the Iroquois Steeplechase.

The 71st running of the Iroquois is this Saturday, May 12, at Percy Warner Park, and is poised to make history if two-time Iroquois winner, Tax Ruling, is able to race away with the title of first horse to ever win the Iroquois three times consecutively. The first of seven races leaves the gate at 1:00 p.m., vying for a share of the $400,000 purses, bonuses and awards.

Held every year the week after the Kentucky Derby, the Iroquois marks the beginning of Nashville’s social season. It’s a perfect combination of beautiful women and fast horses. Beguiling sundresses, outrageous hats, the latest fashions, and the excitement of horses and riders jumping hurdles in fluid motion, muscles straining, mud flying.

“The Iroquois Steeplechase remains the last surviving example in Tennessee of what horse racing was meant to be,” said Race Committee Chairman, Dwight Hall. “And because of this, it continues to attract the crème de la crème of Southern society.”

Steeplechasing traces its lineage to County Cork in Ireland, where the first recorded steeplechase occurred in 1752 – a race between two Irish foxhunters. Church steeples were the most prominent landmarks across the green countryside, and the sport grew from a simple “chase to the steeple.” The sport came to America in 1834, when the Washington Jockey Club hosted the first steeplechase at their track in Washington D.C.

Today’s steeplechasing circuit flourishes in 12 states extending from upstate New York to Florida, and draws some of the best Thoroughbred horses and riders that racing has to offer. Millions of dollars are raised annually for charity, and Vanderbilt Children’s Hospital has been the beneficiary of the Iroquois for many years. Nashville’s race namesake, Iroquois, was the first American-bred winner of the English Derby in 1881.

For those wanting to prime their excitement before the running of the Iroquois, there are two pre-Steeplechase celebrations remaining. Peoplechase, on Thursday, May 10, at Houston Station near downtown Nashville, for a night of dancing, singing and mingling to the music of ’80s band Guilty Pleasures, or The Jockey Club Party on Friday, May 11, at the Steeplechase grounds in Percy Warner Park, with live entertainment, jockey auction, and auction of the 2012 official Iroquois painting ‘Flight.’

Pick out your spring outfit for race day and join in the excitement at Percy Warner Park to watch some of the country’s best Thoroughbreds push their speed, stamina and athletic ability to breaking point, clearing steeplechase fences in effortless strides.

The gates to Percy Warner Park open at 8:00 a.m., the first race starts at 1:00 p.m., and the last race ends around 4:45 p.m. Admission is $15, children 12 and under are free.

Look out for the Music City Waco Biplane flying overhead before the first race – you may be the lucky winner of a free flight!

Hi! I’m Dayle Fergusson. As a transplanted Aussie living in Middle Tennessee since 1986, I have been a freelance travel...Read on

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