Will Tennessee get a regular horse racing track any time soon?

The history of horse breeding in Tennessee is long and rich. It dates to well before the civil war. The Tennessee Walking Horse or Tennessee Walker did not get its name by chance. The development of this unique gaited horse began in the late 18th century for use on farms and plantations. The first official horse race in Tennessee was held in Gallatin in 1804. The sport became wildly popular and by 1839 there were at least ten established race tracks in the state and over twenty organized jockey clubs. Fast forward nearly two centuries, to the moment when online sports wagering is about to go live in November 2020. What is the situation of Tennessee horse racing at the end of the summer? Fans of the noble sport will now be able to wager on the Internet. What about real-life competitions? 

To date, Tennessee has only two horse racing activities. One is managed by a non-profit organization and the other is, ahem, “informal”. The Iroquois Steeplechase in Nashville is a non-betting spring meet, convening at Percy Warner Park each May. The steeplechase is a very popular event that attracts a consistent, colorful audience. The initiative that brought the Iroquois race to life started when a group of fox hunting enthusiasts decided to build a permanent Steeplechase course in the 1930s. A valley in the Percy Warner Park had been donated to the city of Nashville some years earlier.  

The location was perfect for a racecourse. There were hills and terrain changes where jumps could be installed. A hillside close by would allow spectators to view the entire course from above. Construction began in 1938 and the inauguration took place in May of 1941. The name Iroquois for the race was inspired by the 19th-century horse Iroquois, owned by Pierre Lorillard, the first American bred horse to win the Epsom Derby (1881) in the UK. Today, the Iroquois Steeplechase–run by the non-profit, 501c3 organization the Volunteer State Horsemen’s Foundation  

Alas, one race a year is not much to satisfy the passion of the lovers of horse races. This can explain the success of the “outlaw” track, known as Carril de Memphis. Races here take place regularly and are openly advertised on Facebook. Interestingly, the main language of the page is Spanish.

There is a reason for the sorrowful situation of horse racing in Tennessee. Horse race gambling was banned in the state in 1905. This obviously cut the lifeline of income to the sport. Several decades later, in 1987 lawmakers approved the Racing Control Act, which legalized pari-mutuel wagering on horse racing. The Tennessee State Racing Commission was created with the task of overseeing tracks. But there were no tracks. Several venues were proposed, but all sorts of difficulties torpedoed one project after the other.  Local referendums, court litigations… in the end, no racing track was built. 

As a consequence, the State Racing Commission was disbanded in 1998. The Racing Control Act was finally repealed in 2015. Lawmakers created an advisory committee in 2016. Rep. Joe Towns, a Memphis Democrat, told the Daily Memphian. “What I’m trying to do is reactivate the horse racing commission, so maybe if we can induce people to start coming to Tennessee for horse racing, with the sports betting thing, I think it’ll help us. If we do horse racing, we’ll be able to compete.”