The Iroquois Steeplechase has been Nashville's rite of spring since 1941, and celebrated 75 years of tradition in 2016.
Tennessean retro photos of the Iroquois Steeplechase
The Iroquois Steeplechase has been a time-honored tradition of Middle Tennesseans for more than seven decades. Its rich history dates back to the pasture races in Middle Tennessee during the 1930s, creating a legacy that resonates within the Nashville community today.
Today, the Iroquois Steeplechase--run by the nonprofit, 501c3 organization The Volunteer State Horsemen's Foundation--routinely attracts more than 25,000 to the Equestrian Center at Percy Warner Park in Nashville to watch the best horses and riders in the world.
The 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 corpuscles have pulsed in the veins of more Kentucky Derby winners than your hands have fingers. He was a horse worthy of the accolades!
The Iroquois Story
As told 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-two 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 from 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.
Hall of Fame Inductees
While names of the many families associated with the Iroquois Steeplechase through recurrent generations would make a very long list, the non-profit has tried to list a few of the families--and their contributions--in the Iroquois Hall of Fame. The three-mile Iroquois Steeplechase race is one of the most celebrated races of its kind, and a daunting challenge not easily won. The names of the owners, trainers, and riders who have mastered the task read like an honor roll of American Steeplechasing. Moreover, the names of the volunteers who have made this race meeting so special for 75 years are no less to be honored.
2016 Inductee | Dr. John K. Griggs
The Iroquois Steeplechase was proud to honor Dr. John K. Griggs as the newest inductee into the Iroquois Steeplechase Hall of Fame in 2016. Dr. Griggs’ father rode in the first Iroquois and was 2nd on Bank Robber in 1942. A young John was also in attendance, riding in the pony races those first years and then in the feature and other races over the years.
His biggest successes were as an owner and trainer, having owned and trained winners in 1980 (Ready Perk), 1981 (Daddy Dumpling), and 1988 (Steve Canyon), all ridden by his son, Kirk. Dr. Griggs has owned and trained winners of most of the other Iroquois races including the Frost and won the feature race at the Royal Chase. He owned and trained 1994 Eclipse winner Warm Spell.
At one time Dr. Griggs was 4th on the all time money won list for steeplechase owners. He started the High Hope steeplechase in Lexington.
We were pleased to welcome Dr. Griggs back to the place where it all began on the 75th anniversary of the Iroquois, and were saddened to hear of his passing on October 18, 2016.
2015 Inductee | Henry Hooker
Hooker is a longtime supporter of not only the Iroquois Steeplechase, but also its beneficiary, Monroe Carell Jr. Children’s Hospital at Vanderbilt. It was his wife Alice who in 1981 suggested that the Children’s Hospital become the charitable beneficiary of the race meeting. Since then, the Iroquois has raised nearly $10 million for the Children’s Hospital.
Hooker’s association with the sport of steeplechasing is national in scope, having served as chairman of board of the National Steeplechase Association from 2003 through 2006.
“Henry has been a visionary of the Iroquois Steeplechase for years, helping us take our event and transform it into something spectacular,” said Dwight Hall, chairman of the Iroquois Steeplechase Race Committee. “It’s with great enthusiasm that we name Henry to the Iroquois Steeplechase Hall of Fame. He is truly one of the giants upon whose shoulders the Iroquois has been built.”
2011 Inductee | George Sloan
An amateur jockey with professional stature, George Sloan’s legacy of thrilling rides on both sides of the pond is surpassed only by his contribution to the sport of Steeplechasing.
Born and raised in Nashville, George’s father, John, was a co-founder of the Iroquois Steeplechase. George’s first taste of the Iroquois came at age eight when he jockeyed in a pony race. In 1961, at the age of 21, he won the 20th Annual Iroquois Steeplechase on “Local Run,” a horse owned by his father-in-law and friend, Calvin Houghland. He went on to win the Iroquois three more times: in 1964 on Calvin Houghland’s “Hidden Chance;” in 1970 on James P. Melton’s “Somaten;” and in 1976 on Carter Hills Farm’s “He’s Trouble,” becoming the first rider to win the race four times, a feat yet to be surpassed.
In 1970, George was named the US Champion Amateur Steeplechase Jockey. By 1977, he had set his sights on the most ambitious goal: becoming the first foreigner to earn the same title in England.
George’s friend and fox hunting companion, Henry Hooker, suggested to George that they form a syndicate to buy the necessary horses to compete for the England title, and so the “Jubilee Sportsmen” was born. The 1977-78 drive for the championship took 10 months, 16 horses and two trainers, Josh Gifford and George Fairbairn.
On June 3, 1987, George rode to his 23rd win of the season on “Crofter” at Stratford-upon-Avon, securing the title of Britain’s National Champion Amateur Jockey, an accomplishment often compared to having a British baseball team come to America and win the World Series.
In total, George Sloan won 148 races in the US and England, topping all American amateurs at the time.
Upon his death in 2001, George Sloan left behind more than just an impressive racing record – he left a lasting mark on the sport of Steeplechasing, as well. As founder and chairman of the International Steeplechase Group, he created the Sport of Kings Challenge series of international races and encouraged the expansion of Steeplechasing at racetracks and race meets around the country
2010 Inductee | Alan Dufton
Alan Dufton won the prestigious Iroquois in 1962 on “Navy Fighter”, owned by Guilford Dudley, Jr. Five years later, he found victory again winning the 1967 Iroquois on “Appolon”, owned by William Rochester of Virginia and trained by Michael G. Walsh.
The chance to come to America came in 1950 at the age of 24 with a job in the cotton trade out of Memphis. Here, an unprecedented Steeplechase event was scheduled to be held – a first of seven Steeplechase meetings. Dufton would later call it “the mountain coming to Mohammed” for it gave him the entre he needed to join the ranks of notable jockeys. Guilford Dudley offered him a job in 1952 and from there Dufton’s jockey career sustained a sure, steady climb. By 1961, he had become the National Champion Amateur Jockey.
Born and raised in Liverpool, England, he dreamed as a boy of becoming a jockey while riding his own pony. Just out of the army, he jumped at the chance to work at a racing stable. This experience led him to amazing opportunities in Steeplechase racing, such as the American trainer who hired Dufton to ride his horse in the most challenging Steeplechase in Europe – the Grand National in Aintree, England. So tough is this race that of a field of 35 to 40 horses often only a third of the entries actually finish. Dufton came in ninth – an admirable spot for his first time. Invited back to England to ride in the Grand National in 1962, he was ‘jocked off’ his original mount and given another horse, named “Ernest”. Dufton remembers this as a good omen since he and his wife, Lou, had chosen the name Ernest for their son. Dufton finished ninth out of 32 starters. The horse he was originally supposed to ride never finished. His return to America in 1962 lead to the Iroquois victories for which he is honored today.
His family – wife Lou, daughter Sarah and her husband Rick English, and son, Ernie — also a former jockey — are proud to share this moment of honor with their beloved father/husband who so encouraged their own love of these horse racing events.
2009 Inductee | Ernest K. Hardison, Jr.
Ernest K. Hardison, Jr. won the Iroquois Steeplechase in 1944 when he rode “Bank Robber”, after being bested by Calvin Houghland, on “Frederick II”, the preceding year. From H. Hooker’s Fox, Fin & Feather (pg. 101), “Perhaps my favorite memory from the Iroquois Steeplechase…is the year when Ernest Hardison rode ‘Bank Robber’. Sloan was announcing the race that day for WSM radio. When the horses came to the last jump, Bank Robber was challenging and Sloan was overtaken with competitiveness, he began screaming into the microphone, “Come on Bank Robber! Come on Bank Robber!!” and so he cheered him down the stretch. The crowd roared with excitement and then laughter as we realized the announcer was bringing home his own horse, the winner.”
It could not be better stated than as published in the 1983 Steeplechase program: Dedication to the Senior Stewards “evolution from foxhunters to Steeplechasers” – “Ernest Hardison, Jr.’s victory aboard Bank Robber was but one triumph in a long series of brilliant efforts as an owner, trainer and rider of Steeplechasers. His ability to find the key to a horse and call on its best down to the wire became a hallmark of the affable Hardison’s style. There was that in him which needed no spur and his horses sensed it. Not so many Phi Beta Kappa’s make foxhunters, much less Steeplechasers so it is the more remarkable to see his exploits as a canny competitor which have so enriched our racing scrapbooks.” He helped support one of Nashville’s premiere events for 44 years.
His family remembers him working hard to lose weight for the races and how much it scared his wife, Nancy, when he raced. Ernest also won the flat race aboard his own horse, “Tedder”, the day he won the Iroquois.
With fond and loving memories of their favorite Steeplechaser, equestrian, scholar, and gentleman, the Hardison family continues today to support the Iroquois Steeplechase and Monroe Carell, Jr. Children’s Hospital at Vanderbilt.
2008 Inductee | Calvin Houghland
The 2008 inductees are Calvin Houghland, Dr. John Youmans, and Austin Brown. Aside from being among the most colorful participants in the early days of the race, they were all known for their horsemanship and their enduring commitment to the Iroquois. Their legendary careers as owners, trainers, and riders remain in the memories and records of their exploits at the races.
If anyone qualifies as the soul of the Iroquois it is surely Calvin Houghland, whose success in the many facets of Steeplechasing have made him the guiding force of the Iroquois since the death of his illustrious father, Mason Houghland, in 1959. Calvin knows how to win the race. He won as a jockey in 1943 on “Frederick II” and won as an owner in 1958, 1961 and 1964. During the subsequent years he often fielded multiple entries in the Iroquois without a win, until finally his perseverance was rewarded when he won in 2002 with “All Gong”. Moreover, he experienced the satisfaction of having All Gong go on the win Steeplechasing’s most prestigious award, the Eclipse Award. In 2009, Calvin’s horse, “Pierrot Lunaire”, won the Iroquois.
If you wish to see Calvin’s monument, look around you.
2008 Inductee | Dr. John Youmans
Dr. John Youmans was the recipient of many awards during his career in medicine. He received the French Legion of Honor for his work on nutrition in unoccupied France during World War II. The good doctor (as he was called) was the subject of many anecdotes about his celebrated accolades and accomplishments. Among these was a tremendous tolerance for pain that characterized his fearless foxhunting and Steeplechaser training. One such story concerned his having sustained a broken leg in a fall off one of his chasers after which he remounted only to fall again and break the other leg. Inasmuch as he was Dean of the Vanderbilt School of Medicine at this time, this performance created a stir when the admissions nurse greeted him with, “[W]ell, John, it’s like old times, isn’t it?”
As owner of “Storm Hour”, Dr. Youmans won the Iroquois twice, in 1950 and again in 1953 when he edged out his famous rivals, Jarrin John and “Ginny Bug”, by a nose.
2008 Inductee | Austin Brown
Austin Brown rode in his first Iroquois in 1943 at age 16 and finished fourth. He rode in his last Iroquois in 1958 and finished sixth. In between he rode in 12 others, winning three times, in 1947 and 1948 on his own horse “Bluish”, and in 1954 on Harry Nichols’ “Ginny Bug”. He finished in second place twice, third place twice and fourth place three times. He finished unplaced three times and fell once. In total, he rode in 14 Iroquois races.
Brown also rode in seven Marcellus Frost races, winning four times, finishing in second place twice and falling once. He rode in the Mason Houghland Memorial Timber race four times, winning once, finishing in second place twice and unplaced once. He rode in the flat race three times with no wins, but earned one second and two fourth place finishes.
He rode in a total of 28 races overall, winning eight times, finishing in second place seven times, third place two times, fourth place four times, five times unplaced and falling twice.
Since retiring from riding, Austin still returns to the Iroquois as a spectator. He has also served at the Iroquois as a steward and a television commentator. To these responsibilities, he has brought the integrity that characterized his career as a horseman.
2007 Inductee | Marcellus Frost
The affable “Pops” Frost received permission from Edwin Warner to look around the Warner parks to locate places to put some jumps. The enthusiastic Frost, however, envisioned a Steeplechase course and had Mason Houghland enlist the aid of William du Pont, Jr. to design it. Mr. du Pont declared the site to be the most beautiful natural setting for a Steeplechase course he had ever seen in his life. Pops Frost’s vision came to fruition in 1941 with the inaugural running of the Iroquois Steeplechase. The event has since retained its original flavor, which draws huge crowds every year to this sporting event in Middle Tennessee.
2007 Inductee | Mason Houghland
In 1932 Mason Houghland founded the Hillsboro Hounds with himself as Master and John Sloan, Sr. as Honorary Secretary. The Hillsboro Hounds is a private equestrian organization of fox hunters. The first Iroquois Steeplechase was run with Houghland as chairman and the six-race Steeplechase has thrived and prospered ever since. The success has been due in large part to the interest and chairmanship of his son, Calvin Houghland, whose attention has been an enormous benefit to the race throughout its sixty-seven year history.
2007 Inductee | John Sloan Sr.
John Sloan, Sr. was a protégé of Mason Houghland who lived on to carefully nurture their equine institutions, the Hillsboro Hounds and the Iroquois Steeplechase. He managed them in excellent order for two decades after Mr. Houghland’s death. About Sloan, John Bibb, the great Tennessean sports writer, said, “If the storied bell is the sound of Nashville’s internationally famous steeplechase, then John Sloan, Sr. is surely the soul of this annual spring celebration.”
Actually, Sloan produced the most hilarious moment at the Iroquois when he was announcing the race and switched to cheering his horse “Bank Robber” on to win.
2007 Inductee | Guilford Dudley, Jr.
For forty years, Guilford Dudley had various horses in the Iroquois, a remarkable achievement. This persistence was rewarded in 1962 when “Navy Fighter”, owned and trained by Dudley, with Alan Dufton up, won the Iroquois. Moreover, Dudley won the flat race an astounding nine times. Because of his support of the Iroquois and his many accomplishments in it, the Iroquois Steeplechase Race Committee named the flat race in his honor and prompted the committee to create the Iroquois Steeplechase Hall of Fame. Its purpose is to honor the great individual contributors to this race meet so that their names and exploits as part of the Iroquois will always be remembered by horsemen and the public at large.