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Iconic Iroquois Steeplechase Rite Of Spring Since 1941

Women Intertwined With Nashville's Passionate Equestrian Community And Time-Honored Tradition

Article by Julie Brown Patton

Photography by Ali Miller

Originally published in Brentwood Lifestyle

Several loyal ladies have lent vital support to the Iroquois Steeplechase -- an annual event that attracts more than 25,000 spectators to the Equestrian Center at Percy Warner Park in Nashville to watch some of the best horses and riders in the world.

The Iroquois Steeplechase is a full day of racing whose organizers state the mission as managing and producing a world-class event that supports Monroe Carell Jr. Children’s Hospital at Vanderbilt and other local community nonprofits. The event's rich history dates back to pasture races in Middle Tennessee during the 1930s, and now fans come from all walks of life.

Meet these women who adore their special connections to these large, gentle and beautiful animals, relationships that give them undeniably inspirational solace. These ladies also have special connections with each other, as they've crisscrossed life together, often going on the same trail rides or volunteering for the same initiatives.  

Sara Jo Gill

Daughter of the late steeplechase owner Calvin Houghland, Sara Jo Gill, served as honorary co-chair at the 2010 Iroquois Steeplechase, and again in 2019. She and her husband, Don Gill, ride horses frequently and used to work as trainers at their residence, Bright Hour Farm in Brentwood. 

Sara Jo's father was a key part of the event since its inception. His father, Mason Houghland, was one of the founders and was chairman of the race for the first 17 years. Calvin Houghland rode in the first Iroquois in 1941, and won it as a jockey two years later. He captured the event five times as an owner, and chaired the race for 34 years.

As the first woman on the Steeplechase Race Committee, she also was a trustee.

"I think people love the race for so many reasons. It's such a magnificent tradition, and it's known and respected nationally and internationally," says Sara Jo. 

Virginia “Gigi” Lazenby

A lifelong dedication to the sport earned Virginia “Gigi” Lazenby, of Nashville, the 2016 honorary co-chair role of the 75th Iroquois Steeplechase. As a horse owner herself, she also serves on the organization's race committee and has been a board member of the National Steeplechase Association.

Gigi's father worked for Mason Houghland, one of the initial founders of the “Nashville’s rite of spring since 1941,” who became the secretary of the Volunteer State Horsemen’s Foundation. Gigi says she grew up around the Iroquois, as friends with Henry Hooker, who chaired the race committee for 17 years, and George Sloan, an amateur jockey whose father, John, also co-founded the Iroquois. Her brother, David Banks, also was a trainer and former jockey.

Her most memorable memory, she says, was when she, as a 16-year-old, was asked by Calvin Houghland to be an outrider at Steeplechase, which meant she had to ride side-saddle. "I borrowed an outfit and helped lead horses to the post on a Thoroughbred that Calvin gave to me. It was such an honor to be invited, and that was my first direct introduction to the event," she says. 

Another standout memory involves being an outrider when a horse blew the rail and knocked her off her horse.

Gigi's third favorite memory happened in 2014 when her brother, David, who once was one of the youngest riders at the Iroquois, and she watched one of their horses, Pleasant Woodman, win. "My brother said that was one of the happiest days of his life. He died that December after that race, and I still have the bottle of Iroquois Special Label Jack Daniels won with that race. I will never drink it," she vows. 

"I like the horse aspect of Steeplechase, and those who attend enjoy the cheering, the entertainment and being able to get outdoors for one of the first events of each spring. It's a fun party and a wonderful social gathering," she adds. 

Mary Wade

Mary and Alex Wade undoubtedly are counted among Nashville's Steeplechase royalty. They hosted the 2021 Steeplechase Eve cocktail supper in coordination with The Volunteer State Horsemen's Foundation. While Mary certainly marked that special 80th running of the event, she's celebrated most for the past five decades.

"I grew up in Belle Meade, sometimes riding bareback on Lynwood/Westview Ave., and my grandfather had a tradition of riding horses on Belle Meade Boulevard," recalls Mary. 

Alex's grandfather was the first clerk of the course, so their families are always mindful about the course's condition and irrigation needs. 

Mary's currently on the race committee. She, Alex and their daughter, DeeDee Wade, enjoy sponsoring the owner/trainer/rider tent for the event. "It's nice to be so close to the competitors, horses and volunteers, even after the race," says Mary. 

"Steeplechase is still Nashville's signature spring event. We're all ready to enjoy the beauty of the city at that point, it's typically held the weekend after the Derby so we're filled with excitement, and it's a fun way for the community to come together. It's great that this equestrian experience is open to everyone," says Mary, who admits she particularly enjoys wearing Christine Moore Millinery hats to the race. 

Whether sitting on the hill, being on the infield or gathering in box seats, Mary says there's a way for anyone to join the festivities. 

Mary is quick to applaud the wonderful cooperation everyone related to the Steeplechase event has received from the Metro Parks staffers through the years. She says it's also been a pleasure to meet other race sponsors and to make connections with the Children's Hospital representatives and doctors. 

"Because of the special ritual we've had in Nashville, I was inspired to attend other Southern steeplechases, from New Jersey to Virginia to South Carolina, and had fun at those as well. But it's the Iroquois race that gets my heart," asserts Mary. 

Marianne Byrd

As president of Iroquois Steeplechase since 2017, Marianne Byrd's only missed the Steeplechase twice since she was 10 years old. And those two absences were due to the births of two of her children. She started as a young spectator then progressed to an outrider on her "cleanest, best-braided pony" escorting racehorses to the starting line, to a patrol and then tower judge who ensures the races are run fairly and where one can "really hear what the jockeys are yelling to each other," to handing out participation ribbons and to an honorary chair of the event along with her husband, Andrew Byrd. Once tracing the history of the race for its 75th anniversary, she says they realized that their two families together had been involved since its start and the development of the course. 

"The Steeplechase has been in our family's fabric from my earliest times and from the grassroots up. My dad was on the stone crew who built the first box seats in 1940," she says. "When I got asked to be an outrider, that was some proud day in my 12-year-old life."

She recalls the years at which Steeplechase held the Diana Plate for lady riders, before women could compete equally with male riders. 

Marianne's father, Albert Menefee, raced at the Steeplechase during the 1940s-1950s. She says the first year he competed, he fell off his horse at the third fence and was trampled by the other steeds. He broke three ribs, knocked out many teeth and cracked his hand, however, he came back two years later and won in 1950.

She says she grew up on the family's Brentwood farm, learning to ride and fox hunt on horseback by having her pony follow closely her father's horses. 

"There's the romance of little girls with their horses, and The Steeplechase represents a unique continuity in my life," she adds. 

Marianne has volunteered with the event in so many capacities:  auction volunteer, chief placing judge and the race committee, moving from coordinator to treasurer to president. She and Andrew are box holders on the sixth row, seats that hold special meaning because they were inherited from her grandfather.   

A new offering at this year's race, Marianne reminds, is the new venue, Royal 615 Lounge, located in centerfield. She says it will be filled with multiple DJ entertainment, craft cocktails and a vibrant vibe.

The 81st annual race meet will be held on May 14. For tickets, contests and schedules, visit The event has donated more than $10 million to the Monroe Carell Jr. Children’s Hospital at Vanderbilt since 1981.

Tailgating vehicles must be in place by 11 a.m. that day. Opening ceremonies begin at noon, with the first race starting at 1 p.m. There are six races, with approximately 40 minutes between each race. The stick horse race will occur after the second scheduled race. Tailgate winners will be announced at approximately 3:30 p.m. The grand prize will include a topside tailgating spot for Steeplechase as well as other fabulous prizes and giveaways. A parade of hounds is slated for 4:50 p.m. At approximately 5:30 p.m., the races end with the featured race, the Calvin Houghland Iroquois. 

The Steeplechase race is named for Pierre Lorillard's beloved "Iroquois," the first American-bred horse to win the English Derby. The celebrated athlete retired at the Belle Meade Plantation in Nashville to stand at stud. He lives in glory as a horse whose DNA has coursed through more Kentucky Derby winners!

  • Mary Wade
  • Marianne Byrd
  • Virginia “Gigi” Lazenby
  • Sara Jo Gill