The Iroquois Steeplechase has been Nashville's rite of spring since 1941, a time-honored tradition of Middle Tennesseans for 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.

iroquois steeplechase history

For a thorough history of Steeplechasing in Middle Tennessee, see Fierce Rivalries and Enduring Friendships –75 Years of the Iroquois Steeplechase by Kathleen C. McWhirter, from which these notes are drawn.

In the 1930’s, a group of fox hunting enthusiasts decided to build a permanent Steeplechase course. Marcellus Frost encouraged a small group to go look at a valley in the Percy Warner Park, land which was donated to the city of Nashville a decade or so before, where he envisioned a perfect location for a course. The land included hills and terrain changes where jumps could be installed. Most importantly, there was a hillside for spectators to be able to view the entire course from above. Frost took John Sloan, Sr., Mason Houghland, and Con Thompson Ball for a ride to see the location.

By 1937, “Pops” Frost had convinced the Works Progress Administration to provide backing for the funding and manpower to build the race course. With permission from the City Park Commission, Mason Houghland called upon William DuPont, Jr. to design the course. Work began in 1938 and was finished in time to run the inaugural event in May of 1941. The volunteers needed to put on the race came from the pasture race circuit members and local fox hunters. They created the Volunteer State Horsemen’s Association (now Foundation), which today, remains the governing body of the race meet. The early leadership of the Association were Mason Houghland (President), John Sloan, Sr., (Vice President) and Henry Hines (Secretary/Treasurer).

John Sloan, Sr. chose the name Iroquois for the event, after the 19th century horse Iroquois, owned by Pierre Lorillard, who was the first American bred horse to win the Epsom Derby (1881), the preeminent race in England. Iroquois retired to the Harding farm, Belle Meade Plantation, where he stood at stud until he died in 1899. The Lorillard colors- cherry red and black- are the colors of the Iroquois Steeplechase.

The winner of the first Iroquois was Rockmayne, ridden by Dinwiddie Lampton, and owned (leased) by Miss Barbara Bullitt. The minor races, leading up to the featured Iroquois, were pony races, a grooms’ race (on Mules), the Marcellus Frost Hunter Race (named for that visionary who located the course), and the Truxton Purse, a race on the flat named for one of Andrew Jackson’s favorite horses.

Mason Hougland served many years as the Chair of the Race Committee, eventually handing the responsibility to his son, Calvin Houghland, who modernized the course, adding irrigation and improved drainage to make the course safer for the competitors. He also led the organization through its evolution to a Foundation. Henry Hooker took over as Chairman of the Race Committee in 1991, with Calvin heading the Board of Trustees. By 2008, Dwight Hall (formerly a winning Iroquois Jockey) had become Chairman of the Race Committee.

Today, the Iroquois Steeplechase–run by the nonprofit, 501c3 organization the Volunteer State Horsemen's Foundation–routinely attracts more than 25,000 spectators to the Equestrian Center at Percy Warner Park in Nashville to watch the best horses and riders in the world.

Where did "Iroquois" come from?

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 coursed in the veins of more Kentucky Derby winners than your hands have fingers. He was a horse worthy of the accolades! Watch this video from WSMV for more information on the history of Iroquois Steeplechase.

Courtesy of Unsplash

hall of fame

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 78 years are no less to be honored.

"I started attending the Iroquois Steeplechase when I was just a little boy. The sport of steeplechasing is something close to my heart, and being inducted into the Iroquois Steeplechase Hall of Fame is an incredible honor. It is certainly humbling to be placed in the company of those who have dedicated themselves to making the Iroquois the wonderful event it is today." ~Henry Hooker

Marcellus Frost

2007 Inductee

The affable “Pops” Frost received permission from Edwin Warner to look around the Warner parks to locate places to put jumps.

Mason Houghland

2007 Inductee

In 1932 Mason Houghland founded the Hillsboro Hounds with himself as Master and John Sloan, Sr. as Honorary Secretary.

John Sloan Sr.

2007 Inductee

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.

Guilford Dudley, Jr.

2007 Inductee

For forty years, Guilford Dudley had various horses in the Iroquois, a remarkable achievement. This persistence was rewarded in 1962.

Austin Brown

2008 Inductee

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.

Dr. John Youmans

2008 Inductee

Dr. John Youmans was recipient of many awards during his career. He received the French Legion of Honor for his work.

Calvin Houghland

2008 Inductee

Aside from being among the most colorful participant in the early days of the race, Calvin was known for his horsemanship and enduring commitment to the Iroquois.

Ernest K. Hardison, Jr.

2009 Inductee

Ernest K. Hardison, Jr. won the Iroquois Steeplechase in 1944 when he rode “Bank Robber”, after being bested by Calvin Houghland, on “Frederick II”.

Alan Dufton

2010 Inductee

Alan Dufton won the Iroquois in 1962 on “Navy Fighter”, owned by Guilford Dudley, Jr. He also won the Iroquois again in 1967.

George Sloan

2011 Inductee

George's legacy as a four time winner of the Iroquois Steeplechase is surpassed only by his contribution to the sport.

Henry Hooker

2015 Inductee

Henry Hooker served as Race Chairman from 1991 to 2008, and also was a supporter of its beneficiaries.

Dr. John K. Griggs

2016 Inductee

Dr. Griggs' father rode in the first Iroquois and was 2nd on Bank Robber in 1942. Dr. John K. Griggs has 3 Iroquois wins.


the green pastures challenge cup trophy

The original Iroquois trophy, retired by Mr. and Mrs. Lowry Watkins, and was recently donated back to the race meet to be presented to the winner of the Green Pastures Race (Race 1) at the Iroquois.

the p. lorillard trophy

Named after Pierre Lorillard, the owner of the American-bred horse Iroquois, who was sent to compete in England. When word came that Iroquois had become the first American bred horse to win the English Derby, trading on Wall Street was suspended and celebrations ensued!

The Lorillard Company's president Herbert A Kent (1942-55) donated the trophy, which is awarded to the winner of the 7th race at Steeplechase, the Calvin Houghland Iroquois.