Block House Steeplechase races rooted in history

Published 10:47 am Friday, April 22, 2011

The Tryon Riding and Hunt Club, founded in 1925, promoted horseback rides, picnics, maintained hundreds of miles of riding trails, hosted equestrian shows and events and was building an organization to lead in the preservation of the life inspired by the area.

The most prestigious event in the club’s annual program is the Block House Steeplechase Races held each spring on the grounds of the Foothills Equestrian Nature Center. Carter P. Brown started the first Steeplechase in 1946 at Harmon Field. There was a single race with a tin cup filled with money, and that was the prize for the winner.

Today the prize money exceeds more than $65,000 for four sanctioned races. The races are nationally recognized with the National Steeplechase Association.

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Attendance now approximates 18-22,000 with reservations received from all over the southeast.

Due to the tremendous and ongoing efforts of the Tryon Riding and Hunt Club, the surrounding countryside has been nationally recognized for carrying forth the traditions of fine horsemanship. Tryon is one of the most prominent equestrian centers of the Southeast United States.

The day of the Block House Steeplechase begins with setting up parking spots and the tailgate (this is a logistic wonder with 80 people helping all at one time).

Unloading the food, you’d think a deli was being set up as everyone brings his or her favorite snacks and beverages.

After the hat contest, it’s time for food, the parade of carriages, more food and drinks, running of the hounds, more food and after lunch the races begin. The races normally include six to 10 entries prepared to run the one-mile track along the sides of the hills and a valley.  There’s not a bad parking spot on the place and one can view 80 percent of the race from any parking location.

Sometimes when the horses come within a few feet of the fence, you can feel the earth vibrate from the pounding of the hoofs on the grass track. The horses hurdle the jumps and obstacles and try not to be distracted by the increasing number of people and the roar of the crowd. Each race is only a few minutes, but the excitement and thrilling horserace in that short time rewards every effort getting ready for this special day at the races.

As the last race ends and people start to return to their original gathering place, they wonder where the day went, and begin scheming for next year’s tailgate theme and hats of course!

The result is a full feast of fun that passes in a few hours. Tryon Riding and Hunt Club preserves this rich tradition and like the “rites of spring” it will continue every year.

World history of Steeplechase racing

The first recorded steeplechase took place in Ireland in 1752 in County Cork.  A horseman named O’Callaghan and his friend Edmund Blake engaged in a racing match covering 4 1/2 miles from Buttevant Church to St. Mary’s Church in Doneraile.

Church steeples were the most prominent landmarks on the Irish landscape, so the sport took its name from this chase to the steeple.

Cross country match races spread to England, where the first reported race involved  more than two horses in 1792. Steeplechasing then became popular and migrated to established race courses.  In Ireland, races that are run on a commercial race track are collectively known as national hunt races.

On Feb. 26, 1839 at Aintree in England the first grand-national was run.  Many steeplechase racers today can check their ancestry back to Ireland by way of North Carolina.

The popularity of steeplechasing remains a sport in Ireland today that is also big business. Trainer John Fowler of Rahinston House in County Meath, Ireland currently has about 20 horses in training for jump racing. Horses are sometimes imported from the U.S. as flat racers and they are used for steeplechasing if they are not fast enough.  Horses are never taken to Ireland from the U.S. just to jump race.

Lady Chichester, Fowler’s wife, agrees. “The footing differences are the biggest challenge, and it’s hard for horses to adjust to the difference in racing styles.”  The American bloodlines are infused into the Irish race horses, especially the Northern Dancer and Saddlers Wells lines.

The biggest connection in Irish and American racing is the people.  “If you visit any racing stable in America you’ll find Irish men galloping horses,” says Fowler.

“The Irish are constantly going abroad to find work, and horses are a way of life here in Ireland.  And they have taken that tradition to the US.”