It's 8:30 a.m., 12 miles south of downtown Nashville, where the concrete loop gives way to rolling pastures. A young blonde plates three dozen country ham biscuits. Her friends, prim in seersucker dresses and high-to-the-heavens hats, put the finishing touches on a peony arrangement while their beaus raise cups filled with Tennessee whiskey. The group is getting a four-hour head start on the Iroquois Steeplechase, a 72-year-old annual rite as sacred to Middle Tennessee as tailgating is to SEC football.
To the uninitiated, a horse race by any other name is just Derby. But Steeplechase isn't that. Started in 1941 by a group of businessmen and avid foxhunters looking to make Middle Tennessee's pasture races more official, Steeplechase is composed of seven races for horses ages three and older. The animals are trained to clear hurdles, as opposed to their lean Derby counterparts who speed down flat courses. In the world of steeplechase racing, Nashville races have the most cachet and fattest purses of the spring season.
For the 25,000 devotees who parade down the turf at Percy Warner Park in May, Steeplechase is like Mardi Gras, a once-a-year chance for unapologetic revelry—with a little more style. In the early afternoon, Thoroughbreds stride down the stretch, clearing 4-foot fences with the agility of Olympic athletes. But the main event is almost an afterthought, a theatrical backdrop for a boisterous party. Polished families line up sedan-to-sedan long before the first horses leave the paddock. Gentlemen's bets are placed among friends, often with rounds of drinks on the line instead of money.
But the people who trace their roots to Tennessee's horse culture—the ones whose box seats have been passed down through generations—are there for the steeds. Just ask Margaret Menefee Gillum, whose brother was a rider in 1949 and who has missed only two races since the Steeplechase began—both times her husband was on active military duty. "A lot of people just go for the party now," she says. "But horse people still run the races."
For box-seat holders and those with high-dollar Hunt Club tickets, rainy afternoons and empty cups are no issue. Both splurges guarantee live music and coveted seating. Hunt Club tickets offer all you can eat and drink, while box-seat holders have access to the lavish Paddock Club and Iroquois Society tents. No matter where you sit, it's tradition to take a turn in the infield: the raucous, often muddy, space within the track loop where the twenty- and thirtysomething crowds swill Coors Light and jockey for the best party. "The infield is like Talladega in an upscale way," says Amy Cochran, who has adopted Steeplechase as a spring ritual since moving to Nashville six years ago. "You're expected to wear your Sunday best, but you also know you're going to get messy."
As the day goes on, Tory Burch wedges are swapped for Hunter Wellies, which hold up better in the muck. And after the fifth race, hat-adorned ladies make their way to the bell tower, where prizes are awarded for the best toppers. The fickle spring sky turns to rain, and the women wince ever so slightly as they wait for the winners to be announced. They know that to embrace Steeplechase you can't be a fair-weather fan. And so the show goes on, one mud-stained, seersucker-clad moment after another. It's tradition, after all.