Iroquois an event to savor

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I thought I knew about steeplechase racing. After all, I’ve seen more Grade 1 steeplechase races at Saratoga over the years than I can count. And if you’ve seen the best of the best meeting at Saratoga every summer, then what more is there you need to know?

After my first visit to the Iroquois Steeplechase last weekend in Nashville, I can tell you the short answer is plenty.

From the scenic rolling hills of Percy Warner Park to the decorous social scene to the high-quality racing with furious finishes, everything about the second Saturday in May exceeded my expectations.

I only decided that taking this three-hour road trip was a good idea 48 hours before the big race. I’d heard of the Iroquois before and had an inkling it would be fun, but in the madness leading up to the Kentucky Derby it was not on my radar. Joe Clancy – one of the few people I know who follows steeplechase racing – posted on Twitter about the past three Eclipse Award winners meeting in the Grade 1.

For Joe and his people, this was the equivalent of California Chrome and Wise Dan meeting in the Breeders’ Cup. That really was all I needed to hear, and so there I was, with two friends from Lexington who were also game for a spontaneous racing road trip.

Just before the second race, a 3-mile handicap, I lean over the wooden fence that serves as an outer rail to watch a field of older horses and their riders parade in a circle on the lush grass course. Scattered behind them are festive high-point tents, and beyond those is a forest of 200-year-old trees reaching up into the clear blue sky as a cheerful sun warms up the afternoon. I text my wife a photo with the message, “Look, I’m in a Degas painting.”

About 25,000 people were taking in the day with me, and a few races later, my friends and I decide to wade into the tailgating area. Remember that HBO documentary from a while back about the Amish teenagers that party like crazy before choosing whether to join the church they were raised in? They were all stumbling around drunk in the woods with no idea where they are or how to get home. The rural setting and all of the young adults doing their best impressions of newborn foals trying to stand make me think of that.

It’s pop-up tents, pick-up trucks and cornhole as far as the eye can see. But unlike most tailgate parties, everyone is dressed up in their pastel, Garden & Gun, Southern-fried best. Completely hammered, mind you, but at least they look good.

I text a friend who now lives in Texas. He met his wife here 15 years ago, and I send him the same Degas-like photo I sent my wife, but he writes back, “What is that?!?!” I explain to him I’m at the same race where he met the love of his life, the mother of his two beautiful children. He replies, “Oh, I had no idea what that was. I never actually saw any horses when I was there.”

Of course, there are more genteel places to watch the races from once (or if) you grow out of the tailgate scene. The hillside features hundreds of reserved, roped-off boxes, accessed by cobblestone steps that lead from the course to the officials’ stand.

Up in the tower I get a glimpse of Tony Bentley, a true Renaissance man (racecaller/opera singer/actor), who was the track announcer at Fair Grounds during my formative years in New Orleans. It is nice, comforting even, to hear his voice. As much as I always liked him calling flat races or even Quarter Horse heats, his laid-back style is perhaps best suited to these longer affairs. While most racecallers feel the need to inflict their voice upon every second of a race, Bentley is content to let the action breathe.

Between races, we retire to the Owners and Trainers Tent, where it feels like a family reunion. Because there’s no wagering in Tennessee, time between races isn’t spent with heads buried in programs. My wife would love this, as her biggest complaint about going to the races is that I’m constantly distracted by handicapping. I’ll always prefer my racing with pari-mutuel wagering, but a day at the races without it is unusually relaxing and clearly encourages the social vibe.

Because there’s no betting, naturally I pick winners all day. This is done through a highly sophisticated handicapping method that involves identifying the most renowned turf sires and the trainers whose names I know from Saratoga. If a horse is a double-qualifier on those two points, take it to the pretend bank. Giant’s Causeway for Jonathan Sheppard? Winner. Dynaformer for Jack Fisher? Winner. This game is easy for me when there’s nothing at stake.

As the heat of the day starts taking its toll, we sip some kind of whiskey-lemonade-honey concoction in the shade and enjoy chatting with whoever else plops down in our vicinity – friendly owners, Hall of Fame trainers and jockeys, a Swedish reality television star. Then the bell rings and we saunter up the hill for the next race.

Despite the event’s many charms, there is still a tension that hangs in the air, especially as the horses await the flag to drop, signaling the start. At Saratoga you hold your breath and hope this is a week where everyone finishes the race. Here, with a full card of seven races, including 18 jumps in the feature, we went in assuming that at some point there would be a fall. That’s just part of the deal.

In Race 5, it happens. Hardrock Eleven, a 5-year-old gray gelding by Rock Hard Ten, goes down head-first on the final jump of a 2 1/4-mile maiden race. Jockey Gerard Galligan tumbles to the inside while the horse lies motionless on the course. Without thinking twice and with no regard for his own safety, Galligan heaves himself back toward Hardrock Eleven, leaning on his neck and clutching at him like a fallen comrade.

I assume the horse was dead in an instant, as did everyone around me. After maybe a minute of watching this gut-wrenching scene – it feels like an hour – Hardrock Eleven decides to come back to us. He pops up, prances around to a huge ovation and loads onto the ambulance like nothing ever happened.

As soon as Hardrock Eleven gets up, Galligan is back down. It dawns on me that he’s been seriously injured all along but felt compelled to comfort his mount before himself. The Irish jockey is carted off strapped to a gurney. It wasn’t easy to watch, but Galligan clinging to the unresponsive Hardrock Eleven is among the most selfless and touching moments I’ve ever seen in sport. It won’t be a Top Play on ESPN or even show up on the Internet; you literally had to be there and see it to believe it.

Before we know it, it is time for the feature. The Iroquois brings together a field for the ages with the past three Eclipse Award winners for champion steeplechase horse – Demonstrative, Divine Fortune and Pierrot Lunaire. Plus, there is the interesting Triple Crown alumnus Mr. Hot Stuff, who was third behind American Pharoah’s sire, Pioneerof the Nile, in the 2009 Santa Anita Derby, and has now reached the upper echelon of the steeplechase ranks. 

The race lives up to its billing. Defending Eclipse Award winner Demonstrative is never in front over any of the 18 hurdles, but on the final jump jockey Jack Doyle – a replacement for regular rider Robbie Walsh, who was injured earlier in the card – manages a smoother landing than Mr. Hot Stuff to his outside. Doyle and Demonstrative battle with Mr. Hot Stuff and Paddy Young through the lane, with Demonstrative finally getting up in the final strides to win by a neck.

Well before that dramatic and perfect ending, my friends and I had already decided that our Iroquois road trip will now be an annual tradition.

It’s my sincere hope that more Kentuckians, especially flat-racing enthusiasts, will discover what a special event lies waiting only a few hours south.

If Keeneland is racing as it was meant to be, the Iroquois is racing as it used to be (like, say, 150 years ago when Degas was at Longchamp).

If you already love to watch horses compete, trust me, there is room in your life for both.   

Jim Mulvihill, a former intern with The Saratoga Special, is director of media and industry relations for the National Thoroughbred Racing Association