Arts & Culture

Nashville’s Iroquois Steeplechase Turns 75

Attendees can still enjoy the race the same way they did when it began

The mythology of steeplechasing is as simple as it is symbolic: two eighteenth-century Irishmen challenged each other to a horse race from the church grounds in which they stood to the next steeple visible over the treeline. The 1752 version of “bet you can’t beat me to that stop sign” mushroomed into a cross-continental sport—one that’s found a special home in the South.

Nikk Rody

This Saturday, Nashville’s Rite of Spring—the Iroquois Steeplechase’s nickname since its first running in 1941—turns 75, and it hasn’t aged a bit. A classic steeplechase is meant to simulate a race through the countryside, forcing rider and horse to leap over obstacles at high speed. The Iroquois is a series of seven such races, each increasing in prize purse and prestige, run on three miles of Bermuda grass track at Percy Warner Park.

Photo: Courtesy of the Iroquois Steeplechase

From the race’s early days to today, the event is as dressed-up as the attendees make it.

The race takes place the Saturday following Derby weekend every year, and it’s a more casual affair than the Run for the Roses. Folks dress as far up or down as they like. “We all started out sitting up on the grass hill, and you came in whatever your level of comfort was,” says Marianne Byrd, Nashville native and veteran of more than 45 Iroquois runnings. “To some, that’s a coat and tie with a trilby, and for some, it’s jeans and a picnic blanket. Either way it’s a great place to people watch.”

Photo: Courtesy of the Iroquois Steeplechase

Early race attendees cover the grass hill overlooking the track; trilbys, picnic, and coolers blankets in tow.

One of the most popular draws is the Parade of Hounds, says race chairman and former jockey Dwight Hall. “A while back, we were being broadcast on live television, and there’s tight schedule with that,” Hall says. “The broadcasters suggested cutting out the dogs and the crowd just about exploded. We could’ve cancelled the whole day, just not the dogs.”

Photo: Courtesy of the Iroquois Steeplechase

Then and Now: The Parade of Hounds, a fan favorite at the Iroquois Steeplechase.

Nowadays there’s box seating, fully staffed kitchens, open bars, and shaded tents available for attendees who want a cushy experience. But there’s still the green grass hill, where you can throw down a blanket, wheel in a cooler (yes, you can bring your own beverages and food, too), and enjoy the race like it was 75 years ago.

Gates open at 8 a.m., racing starts at 1 p.m. Find more details on the Iroquois Steeplechase website.