Locals to compete in 'the Iroquois'

Friday, May 9, 2008
Ted Thompson on Russell Looney's Art Lover.

Eight thoroughbred horses will be traveling from Cornersville to Nashville Saturday morning to compete in the Iroquois steeplechase races at Percy Warner Park.

Four are trained by Ted Thompson, the rest by Karen Gray. The trainers are friendly rivals, and between them have links to most of racing and fox hunting history in Middle Tennessee.

Always held on the second Saturday in May, the races have been a highlight of spring in Nashville since 1941.

Karen and her husband, Johnny, moved to Tennessee from England in 1980, when he replaced his brother Bob as huntsman of the Hillsboro Hounds and she was employed as first whipper-in. In addition to hunting hounds they soon started training racehorses as well.

The Grays used to train for the public, but now all four horses going to the races belong to them. Reigning Count is one of Johnny's main hunt horses, but in racing he is a "maiden" which means he's never won a race. He's finished second in his last three starts, so he could be poised for a win.

Joining him in the maiden race are two of Karen's other horses, Cuse and Joe Dancer Too. Cuse is "really good," having placed second five or six times, but he doesn't like to run in front, which can pose problems! Joe Dancer Too is having his first race over fences.

The fourth horse, Najjm, is the most experienced of the group and is entered in the race for amateur jockeys, ridden by Michael Bordwell of Pennsylvania. Karen says that at age 11 Najjm knows a lot and can teach a jockey some things about race riding.

She is generally optimistic about Saturday, saying, "They've been doing really well; the horses are running good."

The track is great and the prize money is the largest of the spring steeplechase season, so, as Karen says, "You get to run against the best."

She explains what keeps them training, "It's a big part of our life and we love it. It's great to have a good hunt horse that also races -- it's addictive."

The Grays will leave Cornersville early Saturday morning with two horse trailers, containing a total of seven horses and 30 to 40 hounds. A parade of the Hillsboro Hounds is a traditional, and much-appreciated, part of the Iroquois.

Johnny and Karen and their second whipper-in, Leilani Hrisko, will all be riding retired steeplechasers when the hounds parade around the course before the sixth and last race, the $150,000 Iroquois Stakes.

On the other side of the hill, Ted Thompson has Say What You See, an Irish-bred horse whose owner, Calvin Houghland, has just been inducted into the Iroquois Hall of Fame. Say What You See ran successfully in England and could do well in his 2 1/4 mile race.

Another of his charges, Art Lover, belongs to Hillsboro Hunt member Russell Looney and is entered in the maiden race. Thompson also has Regal Again in the amateur race with Nicholas McMillan riding, and Woodmont in the timber race for Jubilee Stables, a syndicate of eight owners. Woodmont was second in the same race last year, and Thompson says, "We're hoping for another good effort this year."

The "timber" fences are made of heavy poles, which do not fall down if the horse hits them, while the fences for the other races are "hurdles" which look like super-thick hedges.

After graduating from Center College in Kentucky Thompson needed money to pay off his student loan and found a job with Hillsboro Hunt members Charlie and Dana Burke, first just working in the barn and then riding.

In 1993 Johnny and Karen Gray took him to work for the hunt and with their racehorses and he had his first race rides on a good horse of theirs named Avalanche Canon. For five years he asked the Grays "every stupid question imaginable," as he learned how to ride and train racehorses and whip-in to hounds.

In 1995 Thompson and Dabney Sloan were married at the Hillsboro Hounds Opening Meet. Dabney's uncle, the late George Sloan, was a top jockey in both England and America and won the Iroquois four times, twice on horses of Calvin Houghland's.

The Iroquois has raised more than $8 million for the children's hospital at Vanderbilt since 1981, so if you go to cheer on our horses from Marshall County, you're supporting a good cause as well as having fun and seeing some beautiful horses run and jump at top speed over one of the best racetracks in America.

Pickup a copy of today's edition, Friday, May 9 of the Marshall County Tribune for full photo coverage.