Steeplechase promises fashion and fun

Wednesday, May 6, 2009 at 9:35pm

Since 1941, the Iroquois Steeplechase has been a traditional rite of spring for Nashville. But if you think the Steeplechase is just about fast horses and fundraising, you’re missing out on half the fun.

“The Iroquois Steeplechase has become a real Nashville tradition,” said Libby Cheek, executive director of the event, which benefits Monroe Carell Jr. Children’s Hospital at Vanderbilt. “People look forward to it all year. It’s just a wonderful opportunity to get together with family and friends and have a good time.”

The Iroquois draws more than 25,000 spectators each year and features a variety of hospitality options — from elaborate box seats and tailgating to hillside picnicking.

“It’s an all-day extravaganza, and people like to get started early,” Cheek said. “They decorate their boxes and set up tents and grills in the tailgating area. The first race doesn’t start until 1 p.m., so there’s plenty of time to play games and socialize. It’s a great atmosphere.”

For those who turn their eyes to the race course, there’s much anticipation this year to see if Good Night Shirt, who won the Iroquois — the top race which nets a prize of $150,000 — in 2007 and 2008, can pull off a third consecutive victory. The competitors are Isti Bee, Cradle Will Rock, Swagger Stick, Chivite and Pierrot Lunaire.

And let’s not forget the fashion. From linen suits and straw boater hats to every kind of sundress imaginable, the Iroquois Steeplechase is the place to see and be seen.

“There’s a little bit of everything,” Cheek said. “The general admission area tends to be a younger crowd and a little more casual, although a lot of ladies still go for sundresses and hats. Most gentlemen wear shorts, but they still like to make a statement with seersucker or bright madras plaids. The box seats offer a whole other level of fashion with ladies in beautiful dresses and even gowns, and gentlemen in coats and ties.

“It’s a great day for people-watching,” she added. “Some people see Steeplechase as a chance to wear something that they wouldn’t normally wear — bright colors, fancy hats, you name it.”

Of course, no self-respecting Steeplechaser would show up without the perfect hat.

“On one hand, it’s a question of practicality,” Cheek said. “It’s a long day, and it’s important to protect yourself from the sun. But then the hats also are just a lot of fun. Again, you’ll see a little bit of everything. Some ladies spend months putting together their outfits and shopping for that perfect hat. Others prefer to create their own look, decorating a basic hat with ribbons and bows or flowers. Some use moss and live flowers to create a sort of wearable floral arrangement — anything goes.”

Gentlemen tend to express themselves with stylish neckwear, featuring all sorts of color combinations and often incorporating an equestrian theme. In fact, local designer Jimmy Griscom of Cacties has created a special line of accessories — including neck ties, bow ties, scarves and pony tail scarves — commemorating the Iroquois Steeplechase.

“I had worked on some designs with Vanderbilt Children’s Hospital in the past, and they put me in touch with the Steeplechase folks,” he said. “I feel really fortunate to be able to provide a great product for such a great cause.”

Vanderbilt Children’s Hospital has been the recipient of more than $9 million since being designated the official charity of the Iroquois Steeplechase in 1981. And despite the slow economy, the Iroquois continues to thrive.

“There are so many worthy charities in Nashville, but there also are a lot of generous people,” Cheek said. “And this is such a unique event that it’s easy to get people involved. We have volunteers that have been working with us since the 1980s, and local families that have been around since the very beginning, passing the traditions and pageantry from generation to generation. It’s wonderful to walk through the box area and see grandmothers holding their grandchildren, or even great-grandchildren — they come back year after year.”

And whether you grew up in Music City or are new to the area, Cheek says the Steeplechase offers the perfect way to build your own traditions with family and friends.

“Everyone has their own reasons for coming back each year. Some are really into the horses, some are here to help support the hospital, and some just look forward to spending a beautiful day in the sun,” she said. “I had an email just last week from a woman in London, who is looking forward to another Steeplechase. As the community has grown, so has the event. It’s wonderful to see people coming from all over to take part in this Nashville tradition.”

What: The 68th running of the Iroquois Steeplechase
When: Saturday, gates open at 8 a.m. with the first race at 1 p.m.
Where: Percy Warner Park, 2500 Old Hickory Blvd.
Cost: $10 for general admission, free for children 12 and under
Info:, 591-2991