Usually held in May, the Iroquois Steeplechase, labeled as Nashville’s Grand Tradition, took place on June 26 this year due to the pandemic (it was canceled
altogether in 2020.) The race, held at the Equestrian Center at Percy Warner Park in Nashville, attracts more than 25,000 spectators each year. In addition to the races, there are art auctions, hat and style contests, tailgating and the Parade of Hounds.
A steeplechase is a distance horse race in which competitors are required to jump diverse fence and ditch obstacles. Started in 1941, the Iroquois Steeplechase was named by then President of the Volunteer State Horsemen's Association, John Sloan, Sr., for the 19th century horse Iroquois, who was the first American bred horse to win the Epsom Derby, the preeminent race in England, in 1881. “My family has been involved for a long time,” says Marianne Byrd, the current president of Iroquois Steeplechase. “My mother’s uncle was one of the founders of Iroquois, and my father was a part of the work crews who built the course.”
She notes that the race wouldn’t be possible without the dedication of the volunteers. Marianne herself started volunteering at the age of 12 and only missed
one race in all the years since (that year, her son was due to be born on race day and she thought it was best to stay home). “The volunteers who work Iroquois have done it for generations and come from all over Middle Tennessee and Northern Alabama,” she says. “We couldn’t do this without them.” She adds that there are easily over 200 volunteers doing everything from emergency response, to cooling down the horses after the race, and setting up the chairs in the box seats.
Since the safety and health of the horses are top priorities, veterinarians are on site. Tennessee Equine Hospital, based in Spring Hill, has donated their services for years. They bring all their veterinarians to support the horses who are running. “These horses are superb athletes, and their care and training facilities are about as careful and rigorous as they are for your professional athletes,” says Marianne. “If anyone suspects anything might be wrong with a horse, they cancel all of his upcoming races.”
Most of these horses start out on the flat track, she explains, and if they show an inclination towards the ability to jump or the desire to do so, they then go to a
steeplechase course. From there, most go into the fox hunting or show jumping world. Many of the horses taking part in Iroquois each year are from Franklin and Williamson County, but others come from Pennsylvania, Northern Virginia, South Carolina, and Kentucky. And some of the horses are shipped in. This year, one came all the way from Europe!
The Iroquois Steeplechase is run by the Volunteer State Horsemen's Foundation (formerly Association), which donates proceeds to many local nonprofits and
charities. Its main recipient is the Monroe Carell Jr. Children’s Hospital at Vanderbilt, which has received over $10 million so far, and another recipient is the
Friends of Warner Parks. “We also partner with the Boy Scouts, the Hillwood Band Boosters and lots of other nonprofits that make the Iroquois race possible, and we then make a donation to their organizations,” says Marianne.
For the most part, she says, the horses that participate in Steeplechase races are thoroughbreds, which are lighter and can run longer. “These races are much longer than the flat track races or the Quarter Horse track, and these horses have bodies that stretch and move in ways that are unique.”
Many Iroquois Steeplechase champions have connections to Williamson County. Those horses include Pierre Lunaire, All Gong, and Local Run owned by Calvin Houghland; Storm Hour, owned by Dr. John Youmans; Another Hyacinth, owned by Mrs. William D. Hale; ParShot and Block Buster from Green Pastures Farm; and Alvaro II, owned by Jesse Henley. “Other very special horses who came to the Iroquois and who’ve gone on to great things are Demonstrative, Lonesome Glory, Flatterer – and the list goes on,” she says.
The Iroquois Steeplechase consisted of seven races this year and the winners were Mighty Mark, Chief Justice, Princeville, Keri’s Find, The Mean Queen, Storm Team, and Snap Decision. Congratulations to these horses and their owners and trainers!