History of the Iroquois Steeplechase
by Henry Hooker, Iroquois Steeplechase Race committee Chairman, 1991-2008
The Iroquois Steeplechase has a rich history dating back to the pasture races in Middle Tennessee during the 1930’s. In 1936 Marcellus Frost suggested to John Sloan, Sr. that a race course could be built in front of a hillside in Warner Parks in Nashville. Mason Houghland, Master of the Hillsboro Hounds, undertook the responsibility of making this vision a reality and volunteered his foxhunter followers to help with the project. Through the friendship of an ardent foxhunter, Con. Thompson Ball, with Harry Hopkins, a confidant of President Franklin Roosevelt, the Works Progress Administration was directed to build the race course, designed by William Dupont, and to make other improvements to the Park.
The race was run in 1941 and was named for Pierre Lorillard’s Iroquois, the first American bred horse to win the English Derby before being brought back to Belle Meade Mansion in Nashville to stand at stud. The Iroquois Steeplechase has been run continuously since, except in 1945 when it was suspended because of World War II. For all of its seventy one years, the race has been held on its course in the equestrian area of Warner Parks, where it has become a celebration of spring that attracts huge crowds. The support and cooperation of the Metropolitan Board of Parks and Recreation have been essential ingredients in the success of the event.
The Iroquois has always been three miles long, weight for age, with the mature horses carrying more weight than the younger ones. The distance of three miles, together with weight for age, have made for many thrilling contests. The race to the finish line, aptly named Heartbreak Hill, sorts out the winners by the grueling effort. The list of winners includes most of the leading brush jump horses in America.
With Chairman Calvin Houghland’s blessing for the 1981 race, George Sloan and I approached the Vanderbilt Children’s Hospital, now the Monroe Carell Jr. Children’s Hospital at Vanderbilt, to become associated with the Volunteer State Horsemen to produce the race and its ancillary social functions. My wife Alice was the President of the Children’s Hospital Board of Directors that year and she obtained an enthusiastic endorsement of the combination. Thus began a long and successful association between the Iroquois Steeplechase and the Children’s Hospital.
The horsemen have benefited greatly for the expertise, energy, and commitment of the volunteers who have combined with the foxhunters to make such a success of all aspects of the race. The Iroquois has produced more than champion horses; it has produced champion people, such as Calvin Houghland, who chaired it from 1960 through 1991 and kept it going when other race meets were falling by the way. Another champion was George Sloan, who during his career was a four time winner of the race and leading amateur rider in both the United States and England. The talented women from the Children’s Hospital enhanced many aspects of the event and won for the charity substantial support while helping the horsemen improve the course, the facilities, and the purses through 2009. In 1986, the Iroquois held the first one hundred thousand dollar added steeplechase stake in America.
It would take long to mention all the names of the many families connected with the Iroquois through recurrent generations. Their names appear often in the race program along with the names of the owners, trainers, and riders, who have won the Iroquois. The list reads like an honor roll of American steeplechasing. Their participation in the annual rite of spring enriches our community while entertaining countless visitors with a world class sporting event in Warner Parks.