The Tryon Resort: Life, Liberty & the Pursuit of Happiness
In 1775, a group of patriots gathered in the foothills of western North Carolina and signed a document known as the Tryon Resolves, demanding freedom from the British Crown. Two of these men, landowners and farmers who lived in what is now Polk County, were my third great-grandfathers, John Halton Morris and William Whiteside.
Theirs was a culture of hard work, devotion, and very much a culture of the horse. In fact, horses are a passion that has resonated with my Morris ancestors for hundreds of years. John Halton Morris’s grandson built a plantation, Fox Haven, along the Broad River in Rutherford County, where he raised horses and engaged in farming. The Whiteside family did the same along the Green River, not far from where the Green River Hounds now hunt coyotes and foxes in that most traditional of English sports, foxhunting.
The signers of the Tryon Resolves were seeking a kind of mental and political freedom, one that they felt they could find in the New World only if they were willing to full cast off the traces of the Old.
Through it all, we had horses as a source of pride and inspiration. They were mentioned in our wills, seared into our folklore, galloping through our memories. My cousin had a world champion show horse whose portrait hung over the fireplace in his home in a more prominent position than that of our esteemed relations. My Aunt Walda Whiteside Carpenter used to regale me as a child with stories of my great-grandmother, who would manage a perfectly matched four-in-hand of Hackneys in her visits to my grandfather’s farm not far away in Rutherford County. I grew up amid trophy rooms adorned with silver and blue ribbons, with midnight visits to watch foals born in the serene stillness of a mountain stable, Saturday afternoons spent riding with my father, and cleaning tack on Sunday evenings.
In 1973, I was privileged to walk the track at Churchill Downs a few days after Secretariat won the Triple Crown. His regal bearing and stunning win still haunt my memory. Years later, having married a four-goal polo player from Pakistan, I truly felt at home to see a painting to Secretariat in his mother’s drawing room. We horse lovers speak a language all our own, a language beyond the bounds of words, beyond the borders of countries, a language of the heart.
Such heart was very much in evidence this past Saturday evening as Mark Bellissimo and a group of private investors opened the Tryon International Equestrian Center in Mill Spring, North Carolina with a rousing party that included everyone from acrobats to country music legend Lee Greenwood. The CEI 4 star event offered a top prize of $210,000 and attracted 31 Olympic-caliber riders from 11 countries.
In many ways, the TIEC is the logical progression of Tryon’s love affair with the horse. After all, Polk and Rutherford County are already home to countless stables, an elaborate equestrian trail system that many local investors call their “oceanfront property,” the legendary Block House Steeplechase, horse shows at the historic Tryon Riding and Hunt Club, and foxhunts with the Tryon Hounds, Green Creek Hounds and even a smattering of polo enthusiasts. A whimsical wooden hobby horse, Morris, stands guard over Tryon’s quaint historic district.
The TIEC partners’ $80 million dollar investment is truly a game changer for this rural community, desperate for jobs in a flailing rural economy whose hopes of economic recovery were less than bleak. In a press conference prior to the inaugural Governor’s Cup, Bellissimo suggested that the investment might reap as many as 700 jobs for the region. North Carolina Governor Pat McCrory said that such private investments amplify what is best about America – ingenuity, determination, and private partnerships that put viable projects on the ground. McCrory and his wife Ann were so dazzled by the outcome that they extended their stay from a few hours to an entire evening to enjoy the event.
They weren’t alone. Almost 6,000 people were on hand for the opening. Beer enthusiasts sampled regional craft brews under a large white tent at one end of the stadium. Sales were brisk at the venue’s numerous food outlets, where options range from barbecue and pizza to sushi. The wine was flowing in the Legends Café, adjacent to the private Legends Club overlooking the main ring. Lemonade. Nachos. Countless options in the facility’s popular retro diner.
Let us be fair: Bellissimo is not without his critics in Florida, where a bitter dispute regarding development encouraged him to expand his horizons with properties in North Carolina and Colorado. In fact, it seems that he is doing everything he can to help these admittedly expensive and previously stodgy equestrian sports to shed their elitist image.
The TIEC is exemplary of his approach, with kids activities ranging from face painting, cotton candy, and free rides on a beautiful Venetian carousel, free parking, and a facility that can only be described as stunning. Everything is designed with the horse and spectator in mind.
From my seat in the stadium, the crowd was diverse and fully engaged. Young equestrians debated the merits of turnout and the strategic approaches of the riders in the ring. Aging horse enthusiasts, gold bracelets dangling from their sun-spotted wrists, admired the riders and peered out from under their hats. Couples roamed the concourse in the company of well-manicured and sociable dogs. In the VIP Legends Club, the wine flowed and a party atmosphere prevailed.
The genius of the TIEC may well be its stunning yet pragmatic aesthetics. And in this regard, they have thought of everything. Stabling areas are secure and well appointed, with fans in each stable and proper electrical hookups so that owners and connections do not have the fight the ever-menacing tangle of extension cords that are the bane of many a show rider’s existence. Further, the stabling areas are fully secure, which does much to alleviate the challenges of bringing an expensive and temperamental equine athlete into a public venue. The covered and uncovered rings afford a variety of configurations, ranging from pony club to Grand Prix. There are plenty of restrooms, beautifully appointed and very clean. There are cabins, an RV park, and upcoming accommodations ranging from the luxury Salamander Resort to less expensive options in the works.
The partners have made a serious commitment to the local community with the Charity Challenge of the Carolinas, a strategy that will do much to bridge the gap between the multi-million dollar, international sport and the local community.
Not long after 7 PM, Governor McCrory unveiled the Resort’s Rolex Clock Tower and the excitement began. Soon thereafter, the spectacular American Pharoah won the Triple Crown, as the capacity crowd watched the Jumbotron and cheered. The sun was setting over the beautiful Blue Ridge by the time a local 7th grader sang the National Anthem. NBC Sports was on hand, preparing for a Sunday broadcast of the competition.
Outside the Legends Club, I encountered a local man and his wife, along with their small infant. He was holding a Budweiser in his hand and definitely not the usual, Ralph Lauren clad spectator one sees at Grand Prix.
Having just met Lee Greenwood in the press room, I remarked that the Grammy winning country music legend was going to sing in a few minutes and was just inside the door of the club. The local man peered out from under his cap and said, softly, “I helped to build this building.”
As the former travel editor of Log Home Living Magazine, I know a few things about log lodges and soon we were engaged in the discussion of Arctic pine and tongue and groove construction. “I wanted my wife to see it,” he said. “I hadn’t worked in a long time.” His pride was evident.
Soon, Lee Greenwood launched into a rousing rendition of “God Bless the USA” as the Special Forces Skydiving Team brought the American flag into the arena.
A life around horses is about more than winning trophies and feeling the rush of wind in your hair. In the end, it is about community, camaraderie, courage, and the love of beauty. It is a global language that every rider, every enthusiast from an Olympic champion to the young girl who dreams of horses while reading Black Beauty can understand.
The crowd was invigorated, electrified, and convivial, singing in unison, “I’m proud to be an American, where at least I know I’m free.”
Palm Beach socialites and workmen from Bostic, North Carolina crowded the arena. The sun cast a gorgeous red glow as it disappeared behind the Blue Ridge Mountains in the distance. The lights on the Venetian carousel twinkled in the cool night as parents watched their children scramble for their favorite mount.
The Rolex clock tower, as expected, was perfection.
We didn’t need the clock to know what time it was.
It was the hour of the horse. A revolution of the heart. And, once again, a newly crafted resolution to revel in the hard-won right of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
For Tryon, it is a time that has come.
--Donna L.M. Khan
Publisher, Luxury Dossier