This Saturday, the tranquil beauty of Percy Warner Park will exuberantly erupt into the 64th Annual Iroquois Steeplechase, beloved by the equine set, and one of our city's premiere social events. Hundreds of cars and tents and thousands of people will smother nearly every inch of this bucolic terrain, clad in linen, khaki, seersucker, silks and, on nearly every headblueblood or blue-collara hat. For many, the races are incidental to the socializing, whether that takes place in the most prestigious and exclusive club, The Iroquois Society Tent, or on a blanket spread on the ground of the small hill area set aside for general admission.
Henry Hooker has been going to Steeplechase since he was "a small boy in short pants," and now serves as honorary chair with his wife, Alice Hooker, who's as ingrained in this event as her husband. Mr. Hooker says the course and the race have evolved over the years, with more jumps and more purses. But that evolution pales in comparison to the revolution that has transformed the Steeplechase from a simple day at the races to a grand event of colossal scale, with attire, location, food and colored wristbands defining attendees' place in the social milieu.
When the Works Progress Administration constructed the seating area on the hill overlooking the course decades ago, it built seven levels of boxes, each box defined on three sides by green-painted iron pipes, each level fronted by a short wall of stonework. Since the beginning, most of the boxes have been owned by the area's horse set, as well as members of Nashville "society." Many of those boxes remain in the same families today; Hooker says that they are among the assets hotly contested when divorce splits the box-owning family asunder.
Nashvillians of lesser means assumed the grounds above and to the sides of the boxes, though few seemed to suffer pangs of envy, the land being a lovely place to partake of a leisurely picnic lunch, the view of the course no less magnificent. Those on the hill became known over the years as the "Hill People." Aside from the prestige of having a box, there were few amenities the box holders boasted over the Hill People, aside from the possibility that the rich folks' household help had cooked and assembled their al fresco repasts.
Away from the course, the social opportunities consisted mostly of breakfast parties in private homes and, on the night of the race, the Hunt Ball, always held at The Club (Belle Meade Country Club, as if there were any others worth mentioning).
And thus it remained for about 40 years, until the Hookers proposed that the Steeplechase might be an opportunity to raise money for Vanderbilt Children's Hospital. Mrs. Hooker had long been a volunteer, then a board member. "It just made sense," says Mr. Hooker. "It was, for one thing, a very attractive charity. And there was a huge volunteer base of young mothers and women who had an area of expertise that horsemen were lacking."
And so, beginning in 1981, the Iroquois Steeplechase proceeds went to the Children's Hospitalmore than $6.5 million in all since then. The fund-raising endeavors were quite small at first, limited the first couple of years to some tents that required a fee for inclusion. The few tents were barely noticeable to most of the thousands who attended the race, the great majority of which were Hill People.
The metamorphosis of the Steeplechase from that first year of partnership with Vanderbilt can be traced through the (sometimes conflicting) memories of volunteers, former chairs, box holders and the support system, which has grown exponentially through the past 24 springs.
Lisa Hooker Campbell, the Hookers' daughter, says, "I literally grew up in the Iroquois. I started going when I was 3 or 4, and rode the pony races [no longer a part of the day] when I was 10 or 11. I've worked on every part of this event and now I work more as an advisor. In reality, I suppose I'm stepping into my mother's shoes."
As she recalls, the Paddock Clubthe tented bi-level wooden platform set with bars and buffets for drinking and dining out of the searing sun or inclement weathercame about in 1985 or '86. The platform, set well above the original boxes, is a permanent structure, though the vinyl roof is not erected until a few days before the event. Members of the Iroquois Society, a group of Steeplechase patrons who paid $1,000 per couple, were the original guests of the Paddock Club, its location and view of the course in concert with the notion of their status as Steeplechase Royalty.
A couple of years later, another five levels of wooden boxes were constructed above the original ones to accommodate the Royal Chase. The fall event only lasted a couple of years, but the additional boxes came in handy for the Steeplechase's "new people," as bluebloods describe all health-care millionaires with the exception of the Frist family, and anyone else who can't find some familial or marital connection to a McGavock, Demonbreun or Acklen. While many in the upper boxes think theirs superior to the lower boxes, the original box people don't even argue the point; they know better.
As Paddock Club access was extended to box holders who paid the additional fee (now $140 per person), members of the Iroquois Society put on the stiff upper lip and crossed the track to the Owners/Trainers/Riders tent, within the infield.
Sometime afterward came a large tent erected on the hill adjacent to the Paddock Club, on the Old Hickory Boulevard side where the Pavilion Picnic and Winner's Circle celebrations were staged; the first served brunch before the races, the second was a post-race cocktail party where attendees waited out the traffic. Again, admission was limited to box holders who paid an extra fee.
Tailgating, Campbell believes, also began in the '80s with the Stirrup Club, which was first located on the hill, below the Pavilion Picnic tent. For a fee that included up to eight people, Stirrup Club members could park their car in that section, erect small tents, and set out their Steeplechase feasts on their own tables and chairs, decorated as simply or lavishly as the host desired. Immensely popular from the start, the Stirrup Club followed the tradition of boxes and sold out quickly. Indeed, many Stirrup Club people are box people who wanted a place for their college-aged offspring to gather their Greek brothers and sisters without having to mix it up with the Hill People.
It was only a matter of time before someone saw the great potential of the unused grounds in the center of the course, and the tailgating option expanded there. This year, there are four separate areas within the oval of the race paths: Infield, with space for 503 vehicles; Infield Stretch, with 49 slots; Midfield, with 244; and Topside, accessible to 93 cars. The cost for one parking space, including eight guests, is $375.
The more desirable Stirrup Club, which sold out again, is $475 for one parking space and eight people. This year, to the chagrin of several longtime members, it has been moved to the farthest border of the hill, which some grumble might as well be Siberia for its now limited opportunities to see and be seen. The controversial shift was made to accommodate the new royalty of the steeplechase: Big Business.
Big Business requires big tents, and that's just what they find when pitching a tent in Iroquois Village, designed for corporate hospitalitya schmoozatorium for the company's executive staff, clients and guests. Vanderbilt University has one, WSMV another. Amenities include buffet tables, individual tables and chairs, linens, race day programs, a limited number of Hospitality VIP parking passes, access to covered and upgraded rest rooms and "tasteful signage at the entrance provided by the Steeplechase." Food and beverages are the responsibility of the client, and must be coordinated in advance through the official Iroquois Steeplechase caterer.
All of the Village tents are sold out, with the exception of the Hunt Club, a tent catering to smaller firms who want the private tent experience but are not sizable enough to invest in the larger abodes. Ten guest passes can be purchased for $1,900, which includes 10 gourmet lunches and all-day beverage wristbands provided by the official caterer.
Finally, the Iroquois Society is moving out of the Owners/Trainers/Riders tent and back up on the hill, to their own tent behind the boxes. "This is an improvement, in that they won't have to cross the track anymore to get from the OTR tent to their boxes," Campbell says.
But what has become of the Hill People? There is still an area set aside for them, between the far side of the boxes and the new location of the Stirrup Club, with tickets priced at $13 per person in advance, $15 on race day. Though hardly big enough for the thousands who once covered the hill with their blankets and coolers and picnic baskets, the option no longer draws the spectators it once did, the theory being that the Hill People are now the Infield People. While box holders will entertain out-of-town guests that night at home or dine out, infielders look more likely to segue to Hillsboro Village, the Demonbreun Street corridor or Second Avenue.
Still, even with the influx of "new people"which has pushed the event's attendance to the limits of its capacitythe Iroquois Steeplechase remains uniquely Nashville. "People who move to Nashville from other places make so many wonderful contributions to our city," Campbell says. "Still, they want to do something that is truly traditional Nashville, and you can't get much more traditional than the Steeplechase. It has changed a lot over the years, but we have always accommodated and welcomed anyone who wants to come, and we hope they have a good time, and come back next year."
Breaking news related to Morton's in Nashville Double-Dippin' on Constituents Pocketbooks Provided Government Gluttons Free…
While the steps taken by Morton's are certainly warranted, apologizing and making a donation do…
All the Tea Party wants is for the Country to be ran in a fiscally…
The Tea Party could care less about the 99%. They are short sighted racists who…
Mark, it's OK to formally admit you don't know shit about this. Your posts already…