When eight female hurdle horses line up for Saturday’s Iris Ann Coggins Memorial Stakes at Fair Hill, they’ll help honor someone who saw their value. Coggins, who died in 2015, was a loyal volunteer at Fair Hill and a staunch supporter of opportunities for fillies and mares on the racetrack.
“She always thought the fillies and mares were getting short shrift in the whole scene,” said her brother Dr. Peter Coggins. “She wanted to see if we could find a way to give them a race to run in. She asked me to do it, I’m her brother and I’m proud of her so that’s why we do it.”
Fair Hill’s other feature, the Valentine Memorial, has periodically been a filly/mare race, but the Coggins allowed for the creation of a second feature and an improved racing product at Fair Hill. Before she died, Iris Coggins told her brothers to support the cause.
“Fair Hill was important to her,” said Peter Coggins. “She enjoyed racing. It was in her blood.”
Iris Coggins coordinated the trophies and trophy presentations at Fair Hill, which sounds like a simple job until you factor in a full program of races . . . awards for owners, trainers and jockeys . . . perpetual cups and bowls that need to be engraved and/or updated and kept track of . . . plus silver polishing, potential foul weather, sponsors and other presenters and all the other variables involved in racing. She worked with race directors Steve Groat, Gregg Morris and Nancy Simpers through the years, and knew much about the Maryland course’s history.
When she died of lung cancer, despite never smoking, Coggins left behind instructions to support Fair Hill. Simpers held a memorial race in 2016, and it became something more official the following year. Now, her brothers (Peter and Eugene) donate to the purse of the race which this year is worth $50,000 and will be the fifth of six races Saturday. First post is 1 p.m. Saturday. On the 85th anniversary of the race’s founding in 1934 by Willie du Pont, the weekend also includes racing Friday at 4 p.m. (four races, no wagering, free admission) and a celebration dinner Friday night.
Iris Coggins was always a horseperson. She grew up in Virginia, attended Sweet Briar College (with her horse) and later lived on a farm in Chadds Ford, Pa. She rode, trained, owned and bred Thoroughbreds. Some of her earliest introductions to steeplechasing came while competing in ladies races, in pursuit of matching silver plates from the Rose Tree or Radnor race meetings. She wanted a set of six and may have gotten five, but that wasn’t the whole point. The horses were.
Her racing stable included flat horses and steeplechasers – cycling through the eras while trained by Morris “Pop” Dixon, Jack Weipert, Ronnie Houghton and more recently Ned Allard. Her horses are not household names, but they mattered to her.
“I think we inherited 43 horses from her,” said Peter Coggins. “She’d never sell them, they had a home for life.”
Some of the recent runners included The Great Bandini, a $4,700 yearling who won three races and earned $122,000 and Respighi, another inexpensive purchase by Coggins who won three times. Homebred Dame Margot won four times. Further back, Coggins campaigned steeplechase winners Senor D’or, Pied d’Argent and others.
She was always hands-on, doing much of the early work herself before sending horses to trainers for racing. Coggins moved to the Andrew’s Bridge area in Lancaster County after purchasing a farm from George Strawbridge Jr. There Coggins prepped her horses on the expansive turf gallops and used the turnout paddocks and barns to create a home for her horses.
“She was training horses right up until the end,” said Peter Coggins, now a member of the Fair Hill race committee. “She was out there watching the horses exercise and doing some herself to try to increase her lung capacity. Then she’d get in her car and watch them work.”
Fair Hill was special to Iris Coggins, for its history, its sustained place on the National Steeplechase Association calendar. In celebration, she and race committee member Andrea Collins put together an art collection of historic paintings of du Pont and Fair Hill, plus more recent work of painter Ralph Scharff. The plan was to have an exhibition, maybe a fundraiser. As much as anything, the now unfinished idea was to look ahead and push for Fair Hill’s future.
Maryland and several horse organizations led by the Fair Hill Foundation are embarking on a multi-million-dollar overhaul of the event facilities on the property with a new turf course, show rings, eventing course and ultimately a grandstand and other amenities. Iris Coggins would have loved it.
“She really wanted to get Fair Hill get back on its feet, she was all for the big plans,” Peter Coggins said. “She liked to be involved because she was giving something back.”
In a way, she still is.