Now in its 74th year, the Iroquois Steeplechase has been captivating spectators for years with its traditions and liveliness. Some go with family, others go with friends, but all go for fun. Steeplechase is to Middle Tennesseans as The Kentucky Derby is to Kentuckians. The best part is that horses aren’t the only great aspect about Steeplechase!
One of the traditions of Steeplechase is the drawing for a horse’s Post Positions. Each race has it’s own drawing to see where they will line up for the race. Executive Director Libby Cheek explains, “as opposed to the Kentucky Derby where they have starting gates, we line them up according to their draw. It’s a fun thing for people to see where the horses will get started.”
This year the drawing will be held two days prior to the races. Cheek further explains, “this event is primarily for horsemen, but anyone can attend. It is an intriguing mix, but primarily people who have a strong interest in the horse racing aspect of the day.” This could be a great way to learn more before you attend the races.
Other pre-race events vary from year to year. This year a golf event was held at Golfsmith, an indoor facility in Brentwood, where people enjoyed practicing their golf swing, buying golf items, and socializing. “There will also be an after work mixer at Maggiano’s restaurant this year,” says Cheek. It is evident that pre-race events provide for a great opportunity to network and meet intriguing individuals.
When it comes to whom you can network with and meet at the track, it depends on the age group. Cheek contributes to this notion when she said “We have everything from general admission to box seats. Those holding box seats are typically 40 years old and above. The boxes are the highest end ticket and there might be families in there who have been handing the box down for generations. It’s a big tradition with a lot of Nashville families. People who are newer to town may have attended as a guest of a box holder or gotten on the waiting list and been able to get a box themselves, so there’s definitely networking going on there.”
Tailgaters, on the other hand, are primarily those in college up to about 35, Cheek explains. “Once you have your tailgating spot you’re able to mingle anywhere inside the track.” The tailgaters are usually kids who have grown up in the Nashville area and come back to visit with friends. A lot of new families to the area will come to Steeplechase having never been before. The experience is really what you make it, be it socializing or networking. Cheek elaborates, “Once you go, you’re hooked.”
Hats, dresses and bowties are very familiar to race day at Steeplechase. If you go for no other reason than to check out the fashion, it’s enough to keep you entertained all day!
“It is always interesting. It’s the best people watching ever. You will see a little bit of everything.” Cheek recalls one group that has been year after year and coordinates their attire. They have come in the past dressed as jockeys, in matching suits, and even as horses. “You just never know. Some people get crazy and others are more traditional.” Khakis, plaids, seersucker, different ties and bow ties are common among the men. The women typically wear bright, colorful sundresses.
Of course you can’t ignore the biggest fashion statement – hats. Cheek says, “It’s a great excuse if you’ve never worn a hat. This is a great opportunity to do so – it definitely ties the outfit together. I think dressing up is one of the things people enjoy the most.” It’s easy to say that dressing up and showing off your outfit is a huge draw to the event.
Would you believe it takes over a year to plan and prepare for one day of horse racing? Well, it does. The planning for the 75th anniversary of the Iroquois Steeplechase is in full swing! “There are a lot of moving parts that goes into planning,” Cheek says, speaking from experience.
Cheek recalls “It’s amazing when you look at the prime time, around 1 p.m., with everyone in there. The infield is packed and the box seats are full of people watching and there’s close to 25,000 people.” With so many in attendance, you may be wondering if it is still possible to see the horses even if you aren’t up close. Not to worry. Cheek says that there are jumbotrons scattered throughout the grounds so you can see what’s going on from wherever you are.“Race day is really something. It is always the 2nd Saturday in May. Our crew gets there around 5am and the tailgaters start coming in around 8:30. Everyone is supposed to be in by 10:30am. After the tailgaters arrive the box seat holders start arriving and then the general admission folks are usually the last to arrive. The national anthem is performed at 12:30 and the horses are called from the barn at about 12:45 and we line them up. At 1pm the flag drops and the first race begins.” There are seven races with one about every 30-45 minutes, with the day ending around 4:30pm.
Cheek sums up the day by saying, “It’s a great day. There’s a lot of color, a lot of excitement, and the racing is top notch. We are one of the premier races on the steeplechase circuit. As a result, we get a lot of the best horses in the country here to race. Seeing all the amazing horses race is cool, along with the running of the hounds which is between the last and next to last race.”
And it’s not all about the horse races. It is much more than that. Iroquois Steeplechase represents hope as it benefits Monroe Carell Jr. Children’s Hospital at Vanderbilt.
“The relationship with the Hospital is a really important one. This is Steeplechase’s 74th year, but it wasn’t until the early 80s that it was decided to use this opportunity to be a fundraiser for the hospital. Since 2009, the Horsemen have 100% of the fundraising responsibility.” The event remarkably has raised nearly $10 million over the years to help the Hospital. “It’s a wonderful collaboration for a great cause,” Cheek says with confidence.
The event also collaborates with Metro Parks and the event is held on Metro property. They want to make sure everyone has a good time but also remains safe. If you go, it is important to remember to drink a lot of water, wear sunscreen, and don’t bring glass into the park.
People have been attracted to this event year after year. They go once and can’t help but come back. So, what attracts event goers to attend Steeplechase repeatedly? Cheek believes the answer is that “Nashville as a community is very giving. The race does benefit the Hospital, and some people come for that. Some people come because it’s spring and it’s so nice out and they’ve made it through the winter and it’s the first real kick-off.
There are families that have been involved from the very beginning and brought their children. As their children grow up and get married and have children they come back year after year. We have something for everybody. We’ve got a family area with pony rides for children, a tailgating area, and if someone isn’t sure they want to make an investment in a tailgating area we have general admission. Children 12 and under in this area are free. We’ve tried to make it where there’s something for everyone.”