Joan Lonnes doesn’t horse around, though she loves being around horses. Especially this time of year, when the storied Tryon Hunt & Riding Club plays host to its annual Block House Races, an extravaganza of pomp and partying, where nearly 100 people belong to an elite roster of fans who’ve attended without interruption for decades. For Mrs. Lonnes, this year’s 71st running marks her 49th steeplechase.
“I couldn’t believe it when Kathryn looked down on her list, and I was No. 3 on the list,” she says, referring to Kathryn McMahon, executive director of the club that started in 1925, with its steeplechases beginning in 1946. “Everything comes at a price, because I had to get this old to be No. 3!”
Field Day // For decades, the Block House Steeplechase ran at the Foothills Equestrian Nature Center. For the first time this year, it will take place at the new Green Creek Equestrian Park in Columbus, North Carolina.
During a delightful conversation that could have taken place over a sweet-tea afternoon, the self-described octogenarian was preparing for April 15’s daylong festivities. (The senior-most attendee is 90-something, currently indisposed.)
Of Mrs. Lonnes, McMahon emailed, “She came in the office yesterday and took a golf cart tour of the new race course and purchased her tickets on the front row of the TRHC section. She’s very excited about the new course.” She is, indeed.
Mrs. Lonnes and her husband, Wolfgang, relocated from Pennsylvania, where he helped found the Bucks County Hounds riding club. In 1969, they bought property in “the old hunting country of Tryon,” she says, not too far from the Block House, the Revolutionary War trading post and fort, where the steeplechases started. The races moved to the Foothills Equestrian Nature Center, then this year to the Green Creek Equestrian Park in Columbus, N.C. That’s 11 miles away from Mrs. Lonnes’ home. Her memories are even closer.
She recalls the time she broke her wrist, so she couldn’t make her famous fried chicken for the de rigueur picnic. “Well, can you believe we called it the ‘Fried Chicken Steeplechase,’ because everybody brought fried chicken!” Another Block House race, where their tailgating spot sat near a jump, she recalls: “It rained torrentially—this activity goes on rain or shine, to the end of this world—and we’re all there in the rain, and a horse landed on its side. Horse and rider, they just slid in the mud until gravity stopped them.”
Little stops Mrs. Lonnes, not even her husband’s open-heart surgery in 2003. “He insisted that we go and continue the plans as given because he said, ‘I will be in the ICU and hooked up to everything, anyway.’” He died seven years ago, but the spirit of the couple, married 51 years, lives on. Their son and daughter, now in their 50s, grew up attending the steeplechases and may go again—joining their mother and her same group of 18 to 20 friends, along with some 18,000 others. “They get themselves all gussied up, and the horses are absolutely gorgeous,” she says. “Steeplechase racing is really a fun day in the country.”
71st Tryon Block House Races, Saturday, April 15, 9 a.m. 6881 South U.S. Hwy 9, Columbus, NC. blockhouseraces.com