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The Country’s Oldest Steeplechase Happening This Week

Tickets are still on sale for the 74th running of the historic Tryon Riding and Hunt Club's Block House Steeplechase, Saturday, April 16, 2022. Photo courtesy of the Tryon International Equestrian Center.

Tryon “Steeplechase horses are classic heroes,” said Tryon business man and steeplechase historian, James Cullen. “They are resilient. Most have traveled the stoniest of roads and the most difficult of circumstances to achieve their glory.”

On April 16, some of the best steeplechase horses in the United States will be running in the 74th  Tryon Riding and Hunt Club’s Block House Steeplechase. The first Block House races started in the early 1900s by Carter Brown. The depression and WWII caused the races to be suspended, but Brown and the Tryon Riding and Hunt Club (TR&HC) revived them in 1946. The meet was again suspended in 2019 and 2020 because of track conditions and Covid. 

The Track

In 2021, TR&HC brought the races back with a new irrigation system to make the track better and faster. Steeplechases are usually run over turf, which means the course is grass rather than the dirt tracks of flat racing. The Block House meet has had several homes in the Tryon area, including a track around the old historic Block House Tavern and on Harmon Field in Tryon. As it grew in size it moved to the Foothills Nature Equestrian Center, then to the 1 1/16 mile Green Creek Racecourse sponsored by the Tryon International Equestrian Center. 

Cullen said the spectator viewing at the new track is excellent, and the track is very safe for the horses. He added that the new drainage system on the Green Creek course keeps the track from becoming too soft or too hard. “The fences are kind and forgiving, are well placed and can be jumped with speed,” he said.

The Jumps

Steeplechase jumps are between three and four feet high and are made of brush or timber. The Block House jumps are brush, made of two foot high boxes filled with natural or artificial greenery sticking out from the top. Rather than clearing the jump completely, the horses typically brush through the tops. 

Timber jumps are made of solid wood and are more popular in “point to point” races. Point to points are run over foxhunting country—such as woods and fields— rather than a carefully made track.

The Horses 

The majority of steeplechase horses—often called “chasers”—were originally bred for flat racing, such as in the Kentucky Derby. Chasers usually don’t make it in the flat races, but find they shine over jumps. 

“Most people love them for reasons more compelling than their brilliance,” said Cullen who added that, unlike flat racing, steeplechasing is not so money driven. He said people enjoy steeplechases for the love of the horses, and for a fun, exciting afternoon in the country with friends.

Like the horses in flat races, steeplechase horses must be thoroughbreds registered with the Jockey Club. Rather than meaning “thoroughly bred,” the thoroughbred is a breed of horses that trace their ancestry back to three Arabian Stallions; the Byerley Turk, the Darley Arabian and the Godolphin Arabian.

With speeds up to 40 to 45 miles per hour, thoroughbreds are the fastest horses between 6 furlongs (furlong is 1/8 mile) and three or four miles. 

The Riders

Imagine standing in short stirrups (only about a foot long), on top of an 1100 pound horse going 40 miles an hour over three or four foot jumps, for two miles. One hoof placed wrong, one leg catching a jump, and a jockey can hit the ground under a falling horse or flailing hooves.

Steeplechase jockeys typically weigh between 130 to 150 pounds. It takes tremendous core strength and conditioning to handle a racehorse, especially standing in short stirrups. 

Champion American Steeplechase Jockey, Graham Watters, said riders literally take their lives in their hands when they race. Because of the dangers, jockeys, as well as owners and trainers, consider the track conditions before entering races. 

“As a rider I, analyze each racetrack differently, how to ride a race, where do I need to be at a certain point in the race, where are we going to start racing and how are the horses I’m riding, going to handle the track,” he said.

The riders typically ride in five or six races per meet. Most contract to ride with one or two different trainers during the season. Like many US riders, Watters is from Ireland. He rode in the 2018 Block House meet, and, in 2021, won the Cannon H. Memorial Race, a $10,000 Maiden Claiming Hurdle here in Tryon. He is looking forward to riding here again this April, describing Tryon as, “a fantastic little town.” 

Tickets

This year’s Block House meet will feature purses ranging from $15,000 to $30,000.

Other events at the meet include fun for the entire family, such as the tailgate contests, the “Go To Hell” pants contest and the ladies best hat contest. Children’s events include an easter egg hunt, stick horse races pony rides, face painting, balloon animals, carriage rides, caricatures, a magician, hobby horse jumps, relays, corn hole, and bounce horses.

Gates open at 10:00 a.m. with the first race beginning at 12:30 p.m. Children’s events start with the Easter egg hunt at 10:00 a.m. Spectators are advised to arrive early. Cars will not be allowed to enter the infield during the races. 

Ticket costs start at $100.00 for non-tailgating pasture passes. Tailgating space costs begin at $275 for non-rail tailgating. Tickets can be purchased at tryon/page/blockhouseraces, call 828-278-8088 or email tickets@tryon.com. For more information visit the Tryon Riding and Hunt Club at tryonridingandhuntclub.org.   

Racing Glossary

Steeplechase – Horse race over jumps

Brush jump – A jump made of two foot high boxes and filled with natural or artificial foliage sticking out the top. 

Timber Race – Horse race over solid wooden fences.

Point to Point Race – Horse race over jumps typically through the woods and fields used for foxhunting.

Handicap Hurdle Race – Weight allowances are assigned to the horses depending on the horses’ race records.

Madden Race – For horse that have never won a sanctioned race.

Jump Jockey – Riders who ride steeplechase races.

Jump Races – Horse races over jumps.

Thoroughbred – A breed of  horse registered with the Jockey Club. All thoroughbred can trace their ancestry back to three founding Arabian stallions.

Colors – The colors and pattern of the racing silks the jockeys wear for a horse race.

Furlong –  One eighth of a mile. 

Infield – The inside grassy area of a horse race track. 

Stallion – A male horse age five or older.

Mare – A female  horse age five or older.

Colt –  A male horse less than five years old.

Filly – A female horse less than five years old.

Gelding – A neutered male horse.

Purse – Prize money for a horse race. The winners are award percentages of the purse up to fourth or fifth place. 

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