Written by Dasha Morgan | Photos by Anthony Harden
It’s a beautiful spring day in Polk County at the Block House Races. Cars are searching for their reserved spots on the hill, near the track, or even off-track. Is this row F or G? Visibly, some of the vehicles are packed with friends taking advantage of the one-entry-fee-per-vehicle tradition. Others are already unloading their picnics with a wide variety of potluck dishes, along with the folding chairs and card tables. The gates open at 10am, and everyone is getting ready to cheer the horses on when the first race begins at 2pm. Many are elegantly dressed, some of the ladies wearing flowing sundresses donned with creatively decorated hats.
You may see an airy wide-brimmed bonnet or perhaps something more sporty with a small horse and rider atop. Picnics are being put out with silver candlesticks and flowers—hoping to win the tailgate contest; some choose a simpler fare and decide not to compete but just enjoy the sun, atmosphere, and camaraderie. Here in Tryon friends and family of all ages gather for the steeplechase and have been for what will be 69 years this May. Some are deeply involved in the horses and the races; others just enjoying themselves with friends and family on a beautiful spring day.
Tryon’s Equestrian Tradition
The Block House is North Carolina’s longest running steeplechase and will celebrate its 69th running on May 2, 2015. It is the biggest annual event produced by the Tryon Riding and Hunt Club (TR&HC) and largest single day draw of visitors to the Polk County area, with crowds ranging from 12,000 to 20,000 each year.
The equestrian roots of Tryon date back for almost a century. Many Northerners recognized that the climate in South Carolina favored equestrian events. When the freezing winters hit the Midwest and Northeast, they began to bring themselves and their horses to the South. Tryon is on the edge of the Blue Ridge Mountains and as such is in what is known as a Thermal Belt. This unique climate normally has less frost or freezing temperatures and a longer growing season between killing frosts. There is little need for an indoor arena for three seasons of the year. In 1956 the US Equestrian Team prepared and trained for the 1956 Olympics in Tryon.
The TR&HC was founded in 1925 by Carter P. Brown, who had moved to the area from Michigan, and The Club has run the Block House Steeplechase as an annual event since 1947. Brown began welcoming guests at the Pine Crest Inn in 1917, which is still considered a quiet, charming, and relaxing place to stay. When Brown became the director of the TR&HC, he began promoting riding and equestrian events and helped maintain hundreds of miles of riding trails. The Club was incorporated in 1960 as a nonprofit organization, whose mission was to enhance the equestrian tradition of the Tryon area. Nancy Z. Wilson is the current president of the Club, which has approximately 285 members, comprised of business people and members of the general public, many of whom volunteer to organize and prepare for the Block House Steeplechase year after year. According to Gerald Pack, a noted Tryon horseman: “A lot of the people who are members are non-riders. However, they are great supporters in many ways.” As a member they receive advance selection for reserved parking spaces at the Block House Races, can find shade and refreshment in the Club tent on the day of the race, and can participate in many other activities held throughout the year.
The executive director of TR&HC, Kathryn Cunningham, begins preparing for the next year’s race the day after the present year’s race is completed. Sponsors for each race must be obtained, next year’s volunteers need to be found, the program needs to be prepared, the commissioned artwork to commemorate the Block House event decided upon, all advertising decisions begun, and souvenirs (hats, tee-shirts) ordered. These are only a few of the tasks on hand. People come from all over for this race. Charles “Chuck” Lingerfelt III, former president of the Tryon Riding and Hunt Club for 12 years, said: “It is a labor of love. No doubt about it.” The Block House race is a fundraiser for the Club. In 1982 a college education scholarship for students from the area was started. It is administered by the Polk County Community Foundation. Since then other scholarships have been established. Over the last five years the Club has given approximately half a million dollars to the community.
[quote float=”left”]Harmon Field was home to Tryon’s first Steeplechase, “The March Hare,” started by Carter Brown before World War II. It was run on an improvised course, with an old tin cup as its trophy.[/quote]The Block House race is part of the National Steeplechase Association’s Race Meets. For years the race was held the last Saturday in April, but due to a conflict with the Atlanta race last year, officials moved the race date ahead a week to the first Saturday in May. Owners, trainers, and jockeys plan their spring and fall race schedule well ahead and follow the circuit up and down the East Coast, traveling with their horses from places like Aiken and Camden, South Carolina, Middleburg, Virginia, and Lexington, Kentucky, to Unionville, Pennsylvania, or Monkton, Maryland. The entourage usually arrives the day before the race to have a little time to find its racing legs. For the past 30 years, the Block House race has been held on the grounds of the Foothills Equestrian Nature Center (FENCE). The 8-furlong (just over a mile) grass course is relatively narrow in comparison to other tracks, such as the track in Aiken, but it has the advantage of rolling hills, which allow racing fans to have a wide sweeping view of the horses as they gallop over the fences. Race patrons can hopefully see the colors of the silk jacket and possibly the numbers worn by the jockeys to learn if “their horse” is winning. If not, from the observation tower, where the placing judges stand, the announcer will let them know. This spring race is nationally sanctioned by the National Steeplechase Association in Maryland. The prizes today for four races can exceed sixty-thousand dollars. Twenty-thousand dollars is given for the celebrated Block House race, which is for four year olds and upward, and horses who have never won twelve-thousand dollars.
Harmon Field was home to Tryon’s first Steeplechase, “The March Hare,” started by Carter Brown before World War II. It was run on an improvised course, with an old tin cup as its trophy. That race ran every year until the outbreak of the war, when the race was discontinued and the tin cup trophy retired. After the war ended Tryon’s steeplechase tradition was reinstated with the introduction of the Block House Steeplechase in 1947. It was run at the historic Block House property for 41 years, then moved in 1988 to the newly built Sandlin Track at FENCE. The center hosts a variety of horse show and community events, and connects to one of three dedicated equestrian trail systems that comprise hundreds of miles of riding trails through Polk County.
Readying for the Races
The National Steeplechase Association (NSA) trucks the fences to the track in advance of the race. They require that all jumps be uniform and standard. These are man-made fences with a steel frame stuffed with artificial brush. They have a foam rubber roll, covered with green canvas on the takeoff side. Safety of the horse and rider is always first in the order of things planned for race meets. The horses are checked by veterinarians before each race to be sure they are fit and sound enough to race. As accidents can, and do, happen, emergency personnel and equipment are present for both horses and riders. A judge is at each jump to watch for any possible race violations, which might be a cause for disqualification. According to Gerald Pack: “The horses are really the competitors, not the jockeys. The jockeys only help pace and guide the horse around the track.”
The steeplechase jockeys are mostly professionals, but there are a few amateurs too. Many of the leading jockeys (perhaps 70%) are from Ireland, and there are some well known women jockeys, such as Danielle Hodsdon, who rode last year at the Block House. She is one of only two women to have won the NSA’s season-long Champion Steeplechase Jockey title. According to Gerald Pack: “There is no steeplechase training in Tryon, horses, jockeys, and riders come from out of town to ride in the race.” However, many well known trainers do come to Tryon for this steeplechase, such as Hall of Fame thoroughbred horse race trainers Jonathan Sheppard and Mike Berryman. In 2010, 2012, and 2013 the Block House winner was William L. Pope’s horse, Divine Fortune, which was trained by Sheppard. It is said that Sheppard could have been a successful trainer and rider anywhere in the world, except his native England. His father, Don Sheppard, was the senior handicapper for The Jockey Club, and as a result his family could not participate in racing as a profession. Thus Jonathan came to the United States where he has made his mark here as an outstanding trainer. On September 25, 2010, he achieved the milestone of getting his 1,000th steeplechase victory as a trainer—quite an accomplishment.
Steeplechase: A race for Thoroughbred horses over fences. By all accounts it began in Ireland in the 18th century. This form of cross-country match racing—“my horse against yours”—soon spread to England and later found its way to the United States through the fox hunting field. It is also called a point-to-point.
Steeplechase Start: Steeplechase races don’t start from a gate. Instead, horses are lined up in post position order and start from a standstill or a walk.
Steeplechase Jockey: Professional jockeys are traditionally adults of smaller physical dimensions—contrary to popular belief there are no height limits on jockeys, only weight limits. Weight limits for “jump” jockeys, as they’re known colloquially, are traditionally higher than for flat jockeys (roughly 140 pounds compared to 110 pounds), though some well known jockeys, such as Jacinto Vasquez and Jean Cruguet, have ridden in both types of races.
Sound horse: A “sound horse” has no injuries with would interfere with his performance and/or health.
Maiden: A horse that has never won a race. In steeplechasing, a horse that has won on the flat is still a steeplechase maiden, meaning even a champion on the flat would “start over” as a maiden in steeplechasing.
Thoroughbred: A breed descended from three Arabian stallions imported into England in the 17th and 18th centuries. They are bred mainly for racing, but excel in competitions that emphasize strength, stamina, and agility.
Hand: This measures how tall a horse is; one hand equals four inches.
Farrier: This is the blacksmith who does horseshoeing.
Fences: The obstacles used in most races are known as National Fences. They are portable obstacles that are used in steeplechase races up and down the East Coast, where most steeplechase races are held. The man-made fence consists of a steel frame stuffed with plastic “brush,” and it has a foam-rubber roll, covered with green canvas, on the takeoff side. Horses jump the fence in stride, much like human hurdlers in track and field events.
Wings: The panels on either side of a steeplechase fence, which are designed to guide a horse to a fence.
A Weekend of Entertainment
The festivities for the weekend of the Block House races are many. Friday, the night before the race, a spirited Calcutta is held from five to seven, with an open bar and refreshments. Sponsors and participants in the race are invited, as they anticipate the big day to follow. The appealing theme for the evening is Denim and Diamonds. Years ago a black tie event with dinner was the usual fare. The next day, on Saturday prior to the two o’clock opening race, there are festive activities around the track. Tents and booths are scattered within the course perimeter, many offering refreshment to their friends or customers. Starting at noon is a parade of the Tryon Hounds, a handsome noisy pack of tri-color American foxhounds from old Virginia bloodlines. Last year the Green Creek Miniature Horses paraded, which was followed by the full-maned Hulinndalur Icelandic horses. Beautifully attired gentry sometime drive a stylish carriage around the course—possibly members of the Carolina Carriage Club. Paso Fino horses have shown their impressive gait to those watching. Sometimes before the races, there have been smaller dogs, perhaps a terrier breed, running in an enclosed area, with obstacles like bales of hay for them to jump or run quickly around. Last year, following The Blessing of the Day, there was a release of 68 white doves in honor of the 68th year of the races, which fluttered and then soared off into the sky. The Polk County Veterans Honor Guard then came forward, and the National Anthem was sung by Emily Kocher.
Fox Hunting in the Area
There are two hunts in the area: The Tryon Hounds and the Green Creek Hounds. The Tryon Hounds is one of the oldest hunt organizations on the East coast, dating back almost 100 years. Louise Hughston and Bonnie Lingerfelt (who was in fact last year’s co-chairman of the Block House steeplechase with her husband Chuck) are together joint masters of the Tryon Hounds and have been active for many years in fox hunting (Louise, for close to 40 years). The Tryon Hounds kennel looks after and takes care of between 70 and 90 hounds, taking out approximately 25 to 40 hounds on a hunt. These foxhounds are well known for superb noses and musical voices.
Both organizations fox hunt regularly during the season, depending on the weather of course. The actual sport of fox hunting depends on the skill and training of the hounds and the ability of the huntsman to work with them. It is also dependent on the field of riders not to interfere with the fox, the hounds, or the staff. The Master of the Hounds must ensure that all this is done correctly. Many social activities surround a hunt, such as the hunt breakfast and hunt balls. All of this requires considerable organization by many responsible individuals. In addition, fox hunting across field and hillside requires that farmers and land owners allow the horses and hounds to cross their property in pursuit of the fox. This was more readily available in the early 20th century, when large tracts of land in both North and South Carolina were owned by just a few individuals who opened their property to the hunt.
However, Gerald Pack and his wife, Betsy, of Stoney Knoll Farms, have seen many things happen in the Polk and Rutherford counties over the years, which limit an equestrian’s ability to ride cross country. He commented that too many riders today just go around a ring and never experience the beauty and enjoyment of a cross country ride. Dirt roads have been paved; farmers began putting up more fencing and not allowing galloping horse and hounds to ride across their property. In addition, more houses were built, which took away from open hunting land. People bought a home because they love the equestrian activities, but then wouldn’t allow the horses, riders, and hounds to cross their property!
A New Chapter Beginning
However, another chapter is beginning in the Polk and Rutherford county area. Those who built the equestrian facilities in Wellington, Florida, have decided to invest in Tryon. A Tryon International Equestrian Center will be bringing horse shows, jumping events, dressage, and other equestrian activities to the area. The facility was officially dedicated on Sunday, October 5, 2014. The long-established equestrian community and the newcomers to the area will find new life brought to the town and surrounding counties, all centered around world class equestrian activities. Investors have found a home in the foothills of the Blue Ridge and are building a world class resort and equestrian facility of 1,400 acres.
Plans include a hotel, restaurant, RV park, cabins, golf course, resort, and spa. It is estimated that will create an additional 600 jobs. The equestrian facility so far has five riding arenas and 500 permanent stalls. Once completed, it will have double that amount and will employ up to 300 people. Sheila C. Johnson’s Salamander Hotels & Resorts is developing and managing the hospitality and golf operations. “Very few times in your life you get an opportunity to have such a great impact on a community, and we are seeing it every day as people are coming up to us and thanking us,” said Mark Bellissimo, managing partner of the investment group behind the high-end facility. “People are going to come here from all around the world, and everybody will know the name of Tryon,” says rider Lisa Sprigg from Campobello. The entire property is expected to be fully operational within three years.
The impact on South and North Carolina will be enormous. By attracting so many equestrians, The Block House Steeplechase has brought an even greater “win” to the residents of the area. They have laid the foundation for a bright future and a new era.
National Steeplechase Association 2015 Schedule
My Lady’s Manor
Maryland Hunt Cup
Mineral Springs, NC
Virginia Gold Cup
The Plains, VA
Radnor Hunt Races
Fair Hill, MD
Hunt Valley, MD
Far Hills, NJ
International Gold Cup
The Plains, VA
Pennsylvania Hunt Cup
Pine Mountain, GA
Montpelier Station, VA
For more information and dates, visit nationalsteeplechase.com
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