NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WKRN) — Thousands of people are expected to take to Percy Warner Park this weekend to watch some of the best horses and riders in the world compete, with one horse trying to make history.
The Iroquois Steeplechase has been attracting spectators since 1941 and has run continuously with the exception of two years when the races were canceled — once during WWII and then again when COVID-19 began spreading across the globe.
“There’s a lot of history here,” said Dwight Hall, a former winning Iroquois Jockey and the current Chairman of the Race Committee. In fact, much of the initial infrastructure is still standing today, including a barn that housed the mules used to build Percy Warner Park in Nashville.
“The racecourse was built at the time that Percy Warner Park was built by the WPA, which the WPA was the public works program that Roosevelt created to bring the country out of the depression,” Hall said. “So, we were really fortunate to be able to build this course.”
Before it was Percy Warner Park, the land was a part of Belle Meade Plantation, which was a major breeding farm in the 1800s. Pierre Lorillard’s “Iroquois,” the first American-bred horse to win the English Derby, retired to the plantation where he stood as a stud until he died in 1899.
His DNA lives on in many Kentucky Derby winners and each year as riders and their horses compete for the $200,000 Grade 1 stakes at Percy Warner Park. Hall said the prize money and racecourse attract world-class competitors.
“The turf is absolutely as good as any turf course, flat course or steeplechase course in the country. When you walk on it, it feels like foam rubber, it’s amazing,” he said. “So, the owners and trainers know that their very valuable horses are going to be safe.”
A ‘full circle moment’ for owner Patrick Lewis
Patrick Lewis owns five horses that will be racing on Saturday, May 13, creating a “full circle moment” for Lewis, who has been watching the races since he was seven years old.
After his dad took him to his first steeplechase race in Louisville as a child, Lewis said he was “hooked.” He’s hardly missed a race at Percy Warner Park since.
“I have such fond memories as a kid here,” Lewis said. “I started as the boy with my dad and now here I am bringing my boys hopefully to the winner’s circle this weekend.”
While as an owner, Lewis said he still feels more like “a fan,” he rides the ups and downs with the trainers, who put hundreds of hours into preparing for the Iroquois by making sure the horses are fit, their feeding programs are correct, and their stalls are mucked.
“The steeplechase trainer does a tremendous amount more than what you see in the flat world,” Lewis said. “It’s a full-time job seven days a week. It’s a lot. If you ever want to go tour somebody’s barn that’s doing this, you’ll see it’s a labor of love.”
Freddy Flintshire, one of Lewis’ five horses that will be racing this weekend, is coming off a victory after winning the $50,000 Queen’s Cup Novice Hurdle Stakes at the Queen’s Cup Steeplechase on April 29.
The Queen’s Cup is a similar level race to the Sport of Kings Hurdle Stakes Freddy Flintshire will be competing in this weekend, which Lewis said could give him another shot at a win. It would be quite a victory for Lewis after also winning the Eight Belle Stakes at Churchill Downs.
“To win this race, if we could win something here on Saturday within the same seven-day stretch as winning the Eight Belle as a Grade 2 at Churchill Downs on Oaks Day, that would just be ridiculous,” he said. “There would be no words for it.”
Snap Decision to attempt to make history
However, Hall said there will be steep competition this weekend, especially during the Iroquois, which will be the fifth of seven races on Saturday. Snap Decision will be returning to Nashville in
his historic bid to be the second winner of three Calvin Houghland Iroquois Grade 1.
“We’ve got absolutely the best horses that are running right now,” Hall said. “Snap Decision is trying to be the first three-peat, which means three years in a row, and only the second horse to have won it three times.”
Many have tried to win the race three years in a row but have come up short. The only other jumper to have captured the 3-mile classic in successive years was Michael Sanger’s Uncle Edwin, who won in 1982, 1985 and 1986.
Snap Decision is a 12-time winner over hurdles, including 11 stakes and three Grade 1s. Still, it won’t be easy, Hall said.
Also competing in the Calvin Houghland Iroquois is Scaramanga, who traveled to Nashville from Ireland with his owner Malcolm Denmark and 17-time Irish Champion trainer Willie Mullins. Scaramanga has four wins and five runner-ups over hurdles.
“I’m really excited to see Snap Decision try to win,” Hall said. “That would be a really big story.”
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The gates open at 8 a.m. on Saturday, May 13 at Percy Warner Park, with around 25,000 people expected to attend. Guests are reminded to print parking passes at home and display them on their dashboards. Hall said the event will go on “rain or shine.”
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