Already limited by the coronavirus outbreak, the National Steeplechase Association’s spring calendar took one more hit this week with the cancelation of the Iroquois Steeplechase in Nashville, Tenn.
The richest meet on the spring circuit (and second richest annually) in terms of purses, the Iroquois had been postponed to June 27 from its original date of May 9 but won’t happen at all for the first time since 1945 due to the uncertainty surrounding the lifting of social-distancing requirements from state, local and federal health authorities.
“We did everything we possibly could to figure out how to run,” said Iroquois chairman Dwight Hall. “We ran a lot of models of different scenarios, crowd sizes and so forth but the bottom line was our local authorities were telling us social distancing wasn’t going away and there’s no real way to do that at our event.”
To generate revenue for purses, operations and its charity partner the Monroe Carell Jr. Children’s Hospital at Vanderbilt University, the Iroquois counts on hillside box seats full of thousands of spectators, crowded tailgate areas and hospitality tents full of people. Hall said organizers were hopeful to progress to the later stages of a phased-in return to normal, but that late June was too optimistic. And if the Nashville area were to show a spike in cases, the event could be canceled just days before raceday.
“That would have been disastrous,” said Hall. “We didn’t see any sense in waiting any longer just to still be unsure. That wouldn’t have been fair to horsemen, our sponsors or anyone involved. We wanted to run. It’s going to cost us money not to run.”
The Iroquois annually cards races worth $400,000 to $500,000, headlined by the Grade 1 Iroquois itself, a 3-mile hurdle stakes first run in 1941. The race is annually a prime stop for open stakes horses and has been won by three of the last four Eclipse Award winners.
The Iroquois has financial commitments to staff, course maintenance and vendors and counts on admission tickets, sponsorship sales and other raceday activity for revenue. Hall said the original postponement seemed like a safe decision early, but the impact of the virus continues to expand.
“When we talked to folks in February when we moved our date, nobody said this wouldn’t be over by then,” he said. “June 27 was far enough away that everyone said we would be OK. Who would have thought we’d be where we are now? They’re talking about canceling the football season. This is a lot bigger than the Iroquois, or steeplechasing or racing.”
The cancelation leaves just two meets, both in Virginia, from a schedule of 15 at the start of the year – the Middleburg Spring Races June 13 and the Virginia Gold Cup to follow a week or two later. The Gold Cup was slated for June 20 but is considering moving back a week to provide more opportunity for horsemen now that the Iroquois is canceled. Though all plans were tentative and dependent on the decisions of health officials and other community leaders in addition to the race organizers, NSA director of racing Bill Gallo was working on a 10-race card at each stop. In addition, Pennsylvania's Cheshire Point-to-Point was still on the calendar for June 14 with one NSA race (the Paddy Neilson Memorial) part of the card.
As for the likelihood of being able to race at all, Virginia Gold Cup race chairman Al Griffin (also the NSA president) and other racing leaders were slated to meet with state officials in the next week to determine the feasibility of the June dates, plus the Colonial Downs racing season slated to start in mid-July.
In all cases, any hope to run comes with rules on social distancing and altered protocols to provide additional space for spectators in tailgating areas, box seats, stands and other common areas. Griffin wants feedback on that altered vision, and some sort of opinion – even if cautious – to move forward.
“There’s a timeliness to the decision that will have an effect on charities, horsemen, horses, a lot of things,” Griffin said. “By next week, we hope to get that decided one way or the other. Then we can move forward.”
Griffin cautioned that any steeplechase meets, which count on spectators and sponsorship sales for revenue, would have to consider a new reality, given the likelihood that the coronavirus is still having an impact.
“We’re going to have to rethink this game from a race meet director’s standpoint,” he said of the autumn season which starts in September. “We can’t do away with the social aspect of it completely, but there needs to be two or three tiers of effort in place – minimal attendees, business as usual and something in between.”