Fun at the Steeplechase

There are lots of ways to have fun with horses.

I’ve always been partial to tossing a sturdy western saddle onto the back of a dead-broke gaited horse and heading for the woods.  But I also love rodeos and foxhunts and cattle drives and the Kentucky Derby and the Tennessee Walking Horse Celebration and watching the Clydesdales pull the Budweiser wagon.

And then there’s Nashville famed Iroquois Steeplechase, which I was lucky enough to be invited to attend last weekend.

Because my friend Tara Elmore trains steeplechase horses and is married to acclaimed jump jockey Willie Dowling, she procured a barn pass that allowed her parents and me to park right in the middle of the action at Percy Warner Park.  We could have reached out and touched the thoroughbreds as their handlers led them to and from the race course.

They are magnificent and as different from any horse I’ve ever ridden as January is from July.  For starters, most thoroughbreds are tall.  Really tall.  Some as much as eighteen hands high, meaning that their withers are nearly a foot above the top of my head.  That’s a long way to fall if you’re “unseated,” which tends to happen all too frequently to those who ride these hot-blooded animals.  Maybe because they’re always raring to go.  Or maybe because the riders use tiny little saddles designed not as a place to sit but simply to provide an anchor for the stirrups.  Jump jockeys never plant their tushes in the saddle.  They run an entire three-mile steeplechase race, which not only involves thundering across hills and straight-aways but also bounding over numerous intimidating obstacles, while standing in the stirrups.

No wonder the jockeys are as sweaty as their mounts by the time the race is over.

It’s hard for me to tell one thoroughbred from another, especially when they’re travelling at breakneck speed, because most of them look pretty much alike.  Though some thoroughbreds are gray, most are brown.  This brown ranges from very dark (called “black” in other breeds) to a reddish color (called “sorrel” in quarter horses).  Thoroughbreds can have white markings on their legs and faces but not anywhere on the body.  Meaning that you never see a paint or a pinto.  And it’s exceedingly rare to run across palomino or buckskin or roan thoroughbreds.

Racing thoroughbreds are skinny. So skinny that you can almost count the ribs on some of them.  A powerful chest narrows to a tiny waist which joins muscular but lean hindquarters.  These horses are not designed for spins or quick stops and starts.  And woe be to anyone who would consider spending a twelve-hour day checking fences or carrying eggs to market on the back of a thoroughbred.

But it sure is fun to watch them run and jump.

And just as fun to watch steeplechase spectators, dressed fit to kill in seersucker suits and flowered sundresses and gigantic straw hats.  Even when temperatures are in the low 50s and it’s raining, as it was for this year’s 70th running of the Iroquois.   As a nod to the weather, some of the fans donned slickers and rubber boots and even carried umbrellas.  But most of the twenty-something crowd did not.  The young men wore loafers and Bermuda shorts and pastel shirts and ties—pink being especially prevalent this year–while their dates chose strapless, above-the-knee dresses much too cute to cover up with a poncho.

They didn’t carry umbrellas because that would have meant having only one hand free to hold a drink.

I’ll wager that some of those hearty-partying spectators didn’t watch a single horse race.  They had fun, though, as did I.  But not quite as much fun as tossing a saddle onto the back of a dead-broke Walking Horse and heading for the woods.

(May 22, 2011)


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