On a blustery spring day at Percy Warner Park, thousands turn out as they do every year for a ritual that runs deep for many Tennesseans. Sleek, young thoroughbreds, the four-legged kind, get ready to run a series of races testing their strength and endurance. They prance and blow, practically floating above the ground. The colors of the scene, from the grass to the silks on the jockeys, seem to vibrate. The wind is whipping white clouds over the hill and above the 18-jump turf course.
“This is a rite of spring for us,” says Heather Vincent, Community Engagement coordinator for Bank of America (BOA), the race’s primary sponsor. “It’s worth the drive over.” The annual event benefits the Monroe Carell Jr. Children’s Hospital at Vanderbilt and BOA is in its 10th year of sponsorship.
The Iroquois race is named for a horse that was the first American-bred horse to win the Derby at Epsom Downs, UK, in 1881 before retiring to stud at General William Harding’s Belle Meade Plantation in Nashville. Many of the horses who have won the Iroquois since 1941 descended from the race’s namesake.
Last year’s race was highlighted by the return of 2014 Eclipse Award winner Demonstrative and 12-year-old Pierrot Lunaire, the horse that won the Iroquois Hurdle back in 2009. The health and endurance of these horses is impressive.
The arrival of two horses from Ireland made race day even more exciting for some. With leading European jockeys Ruby Walsh on Nichols Canyon and Danny Mullins on Shaneshill, these have become two of the top jump horses in the world, pursuing the million-dollar Iroquois Cheltenham Challenge.
Shaneshill actually took second place in the seventh race, the Calvin Houghland Iroquois Hurdle. The first place winner was Rawnaq, and the veteran Demonstrative came in fifth!
Steeplechase is a classic tailgating event! The food and beverages run the gamut from casual finger foods and beer to elaborate spreads with wine and silver candelabras. Spring colors and costumes are part of the fun. General admission on race day begins at 8:00 a.m. and by 10:30 ‘inside the track’ tailgating vehicles must be in place. By 11:30, the Stirrup, Turf and Hunt Club tents have opened and the opening ceremonies take place at 12:30.
The first race begins at 1:00 p.m. and there are seven consecutive races with about 40 minutes in between each race. Late in the day, as the races end, the hat-bedecked throng slowly makes its way from field to thoroughfare.
We headed for Hill Center at Green Hills, an upscale shopping and dining destination with 24 shops, flanked on each end of the street by a Pottery Barn and contemporary furniture purveyor, West Elm. In the middle of the street is a WholeBody Market. Nearby, we found a homegrown Nashville restaurant called Table 3, serving French comfort food. The furnishings were contemporary, the bar attractive and the beef bourguignon was excellent. With the restaurant’s own French bakery onsite, we picked up pastries for the next morning.
As most visitors soon find out, there are many Nashvilles. From country music mecca to hipster haven to the Vanderbilt campus—the rising Southern city has many faces.
Race day offered a perfect reason to explore historic, agrarian Nashville. Iroquois’ old stomping grounds at Belle Meade would provide a backdrop for the weekend and a visit to the plantation would be a typical history lesson, I thought. (Actually, the carriage collection was exceptional.)
As it turns out historic Belle Meade was not the dusty and dated place I thought it might be, but was alive with events of its own and home to a flourishing winemaking industry. Our visit on the Sunday following the race was a delight since, after brunch on the property and with the $12 admission for a tour of the grounds, we also got a free and entertaining winetasting behind the barns.
As the premier thoroughbred racing and breeding farm in the South for over a century, Belle Meade Plantation was the center of hospitality in the 1800s. Five United States presidents have enjoyed the renowned hospitality of the Harding and Jackson families, and the 5,400 acres that made up the Plantation were home to some of the greatest horses in racing history. The Plantation’s hospitality always included homemade wine, made from the harvest of its many wild and domestic grapevines. The Winery at Belle Meade Plantation opened in November 2009, ensuring its long tradition of hospitality would continue. Today the Plantation is open seven days a week for visitors.
The wine shop and its patios allow patrons time to reflect and refresh under huge shade trees near the monument to Tennessee’s most famous jump horse and sire of champions—Iroquois.