Wednesday, February 21, 2024

Sport of kings returns to Polk County

Ladies wore fancy hats, men wore crazy pants and dozens of horses took part in a day of steeplechase racing in this part of southwestern North Carolina known for its love of equestrian activities.

Sunny skies and green grass greeted the several thousand visitors who turned out for Tryon’s 75th Block House Steeplechase, an event organizers describe as the start of the spring social calendar. Exact numbers were not immediately available.

The horse racing takes place on a 1.2-mile track located on 200 acres of land surrounded by rolling hills. The track is owned by the world-class Tryon International Equestrian Center that opened in 2014 in Polk County, a rural area of less than 20,000 residents about 50 miles south of Asheville. The steeplechase track is about 3 miles away from the 1,600-acre main center, which includes a dozen horse rings, several indoor arenas, 1,200 permanent stables, restaurants and lodging.

A 75-year tradition continued Saturday, April 15, 2023, at Tryon International Equestrian Center in Polk County, located about 50 miles south of Asheville.

“This is a tradition, and it’s a tradition that needs to keep going because this is our past and this is our future,” says Nancy Z. Wilson, who’s part of the Tryon Riding and Hunt Club, which started the races 77 years ago, only missing two years during that time due to the pandemic. Five years ago, the hunt club partnered with the Tryon International Equestrian Center, to put on the event and help it grow.

The event attracts spectators from across the East Coast. Horses from as far away as New York, Kentucky and Maryland competed in four steeplechase events for purses between $20,000 and $30,000. In the fifth race, the obstacles the horses jumped over in the steeplechases were removed. 

Equestrian activities have helped define Polk County for more than 100 years, says Tryon Equestrian Center President Sharon Decker, who grew up two counties east in Gastonia, just west of Charlotte. A N.C. Secretary of Commerce for two years starting in 2013 under then-Gov. Pat McCrory, Decker says events like Saturday’s continue to help the area attract tourism dollars.

“We’re building economic development on an already existing asset,” says Decker, “and the best economic development is one built on something that already exists.”

Part of the allure of the event for spectators involves the party-like atmosphere. Event-goers were able to reserve spaces for themselves and friends along the track’s infield, where they could eat food truck fare, drink spirits and play corn hole, the popular bean bag game. There were also plenty of family-friendly activities, from a designated kids’ zone to young bluegrass musicians.

“The larger this grows, the better,” says Decker. “In a world where a lot of history slips away, it’s an honor to be a part of preserving some of that history here.”

Steeplechasing has its roots in Ireland, where legend has it foxhunters would dare each other to race to the nearest church steeple. Local lore has it that a Michigander named Carter Brown moved to the area in the late 1910s to operate the Pine Crest Inn, which included a horse stable. In the 1920s and 30s, Brown would arrange activities for local foxhunters, which grew into the first Block House races in 1946. A tin cup was the prize for the first race, says Tim Brannon, a past president of the Tryon Riding and Hunt Club.

“The activities just grew over time,” says Brannon, whose father and son have also served previously as president of the equestrian club.

Brannon says local families, including his own, now center family reunions around the races, which are now sanctioned by the National Steeplechase Association, which is based in Maryland.

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