What is Tennessee's legacy on horse racing and the Kentucky Derby?

Profile Picture: Vance Hanson

March 12th, 2021

In early 1907 the Tennessee legislature, following the lead of other states caught up in the anti-gambling fervor of the times, outlawed betting on horse racing. Although the measure effectively killed the racing and breeding industry in a state that rivaled Kentucky in importance throughout the 19th century, Tennessee’s ties to the sport have remained in the hundred-plus years since, albeit on a much smaller scale.

After Kentucky and Tennessee entered the union in the 1790s, it became apparent that the geography and natural resources of both states were conducive to breeding, raising, and racing Thoroughbreds. Among these early devotees was Tennessee’s most famous adopted son Andrew Jackson. Not only was the future president among the most prominent owner-breeders of his day, but was also financially invested in the Clover Bottom track located in Nashville.

The Nashville area was also the center of Tennessee’s breeding industry, and at one time was home of several stallions that had come to prominence in England. Glencoe, who had captured the classic 2000 Guineas as well as the Ascot Gold Cup during the years of the Jackson administration, was imported to the U.S. and stood for a time in Tennessee. An influential progenitor, Glencoe was North America’s leading sire for seven seasons in the 1840s and 1850s.

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Iroquois (Courtesy of the Smithsonian Peters Prints collection)

Several decades later Belle Meade Farm stood Iroquois, the first American-bred colt ever to win the Epsom Derby. Campaigned by tobacco magnate Pierre Lorillard IV, Iroquois had also earned a second English classic victory in the 1881 St Leger Stakes. From his Belle Meade base, Iroquois was North America’s leading sire in 1892. Belle Meade also stood multiple leading sire Bonnie Scotland, another English import.

Although many racetracks existed in Tennessee throughout the 1800s, perhaps the most historically significant was the Memphis Jockey Club track at Montgomery Park. Located on the present-day site of the Liberty Bowl stadium and Mid-South Coliseum, Montgomery Park for two decades hosted the lucrative Tennessee Derby.

Generally held in April for much of its short history, the Tennessee Derby often served as a lead-in race to the Kentucky equivalent held at Churchill Downs. Joe Cotton (1885) and Agile (1905) were the only two colts to capture both the Tennessee and Kentucky Derbies, while Lord Murphy (1879), Kingman (1891), and Typhoon II (1897) have been the only Tennessee-breds to win the Run for the Roses. Luke Blackburn, who competed in the early 1880s, is one of only two Tennessee-breds inducted in the Racing Hall of Fame.

Although racing within Tennessee’s borders ceased generations ago, interest in racing from citizens living in its two largest metropolitan areas never fully did so. Oaklawn Park, located a three-hour drive southwest of Memphis in Hot Springs, Arkansas, has for decades attracted a loyal segment of fans from west Tennessee. For years Oaklawn entries and results could be found in the Memphis daily, The Commercial Appeal, often for the benefit of simulcast patrons at the Southland Park greyhound track in West Memphis, Arkansas.

Vehicles with Tennessee license plates have also been ubiquitous in recent years at the brief, all-turf meet held at Kentucky Downs every September. Located just off Interstate 65 in Franklin, Kentucky Downs is a short 45-minute drive north of Nashville and also serves as the closest simulcast facility for racing fans from that city.

Even though pari-mutuel wagering remains legally prohibited, live Thoroughbred racing has never completely died in Tennessee. Percy Warner Park in Nashville plays host each May to the Iroquois Steeplechase, traditionally the first Grade 1 event of the season for hurdlers. Contested over three miles, the Iroquois typically attracts a crowd of more than 20,000 and is one of the leading events on the Nashville social calendar.

In the past four decades, attendees have witnessed Hall of Fame runners such as Flatterer and Lonesome Glory win the Iroquois. More recently, Good Night Shirt, Rawnaq, and Scorpiancer have won the Iroquois en route to champion steeplechaser honors.


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Rawnaq, with Jack Doyle up, wins the Grade I Iroquois Steeplechase at Percy Warner Park in Nashville, TN. 5.14.2016 (Jamie Newell/

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