Block House Steeplechase: And they’re off

Horse race breaks new ground with more glamour and gourmet than years past

By Rebecca Car
Photographs by Chip Sloan

Sleek thoroughbreds galloped across a 1-plus-mile track as the Tryon Riding and Hunt Club celebrated 70 years of its storied Block House Steeplechase Races in unprecedented style.

More than 20,000 fans came to the Foothills Equestrian Nature Center on May 7 to watch one of the oldest steeplechases in the country. Riders raced over a daunting course of fences to compete for prize money, including a $25,000 purse donated by the Tryon International Equestrian Center.

The Block House Steeplechase race is the longest running steeplechase in North Carolina, having been run since 1947. Steeplechase racing started in Ireland where riders rode from one steeple to another through the countryside.

This year’s race series was far swankier than in years past. The club erected a line of crisp white tents at the finish line to shade premiere box seat ticket holders such as Mark and Katherine Bellissimo, Jennifer and Roger Smith, and Cindy and John Boyle. Race sponsor The Cliffs and businesses such as Jaguar/Land Rover of Asheville and Bloom Business Jets were also invited to the exclusive Mint Julep Tent where men in natty bow ties and women in wide-brimmed hats sipped mint juleps and feasted on the likes of roasted ham with pineapple-bourbon glaze and skewered tortellini prepared by Pat Strothers of Impeccable Taste Catering.

It was a far cry from the race’s early days held on farmland surrounding a pre-Revolutionary War trading post and fort known as the Block House.
“We really wanted to elevate the experience of the attendees on all levels,” said Ann Troppmann, president of the Tryon Riding and Hunt Club.

And elevate, they did. The festivities kicked off with a dinner-dance on Friday evening to honor race sponsors and box holders. A-list guests were greeted by life-sized horse sculptures made by local artists as part of a public arts project sponsored by Our Carolina Foothills and the table decorations were designed and donated by Tara Brannon. The crowd danced to Free Flow and dined on beef tenderloin prepared by the chefs of Bright’s Creek Resort.

In addition to traditional draws such as the Green Creek Miniature Horses, Old Tryon Foot Beagles and Sarah Lyter’s Icelandic Horses, the club offered food for sale from Table 301, a consortium of Greenville restaurants that includes such Southern hot spots as Soby’s, The Lazy Goat, NOSE DIVE and Passerelle Bistro. A beer tent offered racing fans premium craft beer. The investment in additional food and beverage services paid off. The club raised more than $40,000 for college scholarships and to support local equestrian organizations.

Despite the upgrades, the races stayed true to its founder, Carter Pennell Brown, the dashing equestrian who was widely known for putting Tryon on the map as a horse center, by honoring local families that have been part of the races for at least 50 years. Chief among those was the Mahler family, which donated the land where the races are held today. How did they view the changes at the races?

“They ramped it up, which was very nice,” said Nancy Mahler. “It was a beautiful day.”  E

Members of the Tryon Riding and Hunt Club’s Heritage Families: the families who have at least 50 years of both supporting the club and the Block House Steeplechase.