September 5, 2010 -- Many of the people who attend the Hampton Classic lead a charmed life, spending summers in luxury on the posh East End of Long Island, going from beach to tennis to golf and back again.
The show itself seems to lead a charmed life too, continually overcoming the adversity of late summer weather in an area vulnerable to hurricanes. That was particularly true this year, when Hurricane Earl threatened but bypassed the show last week, bringing more inconvenience than wind or rain and prompting people on this gorgeous weekend to ask, "Earl who?"
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I'll tell you more about that little nightmare scenario later, but let me get to the business at hand. The qualifier for the $250,000 FTI Grand Prix was held Thursday, a day early to avoid the bad weather, which meant some horses weren't at their best. One of them was Sapphire, last year's winner, who had an uncharacteristic three rails down in the class.
Rider McLain Ward noted Sapphire was a bit rusty, since she hadn't competed in 11 weeks, but said he was surprised when she toppled a pole in the triple combination and he lost his concentration, leading to more penalties.
In the three days since, he said, Sapphire was quite unhappy that she wasn't the center of attention after the qualifier. She even tried to bite him "and she doesn't bite," he chuckled.
But it was Sapphire the Great again today over Guilherme Jorge's interesting course. McLain's Olympic double gold medal mount was right on form, earning one of four spots in the jump-off from a field of 36.
Ireland's Darragh Kenny set a medium pace in the tiebreaker with Obelix, finishing in 44.04 seconds. Margie Engle, a three-time winner of the class, toppled a pole with Indigo at the second fence in the jump-off, which put her fourth. Jimmy Torano, who seems to have a new lease on his career with the advent of the refined-looking 8-year-old chestnut, Vince, logged a clean trip in 42.93 seconds. But few doubted McLain could beat that, and Sapphire did, with the near-capacity crowd yelling, "Go, go, go" as he raced toward the final fence to score a record fifth victory over a 12-year period in the grand prix, handily beating Jimmy's time in a flying 40.85 seconds.
"Jimmy was pretty slick and that's a fast-type horse," said McLain, noting Sapphire isn't naturally fast, but has learned how to cover ground in a hurry.
"Once again, she did her job," he said after claiming the $75,000 first prize.
Dennis Shaughnessy, chairman of FTI Consulting, noted his company has sponsored $1 million worth of classes in the last year, and McLain and Sapphire have won them all. He joked that he should have bought the mare.
"Obviously, it's probably one of the greatest (horse) rider combinations. I'm delighted to see Sapphire win, and win in a venue where it's performance that counts and not politics," he said.
He was referring to Sapphire's disqualification at last spring's World Cup finals in Geneva, Switzerland, for alleged "hypersensitivity," which is against the FEI (international equestrian federation) rules. Many felt this was a very bad rap and that McLain and his mare were railroaded because they were winning at the time when she was barred from continuing in the class. Since then, she has been a big winner repeatedly, including at La Baule in France a short time after the World Cup fiasco. McLain and I talked about her success that underscores what a shame it was that he was denied his big chance in Geneva.
Course designer Guilherme Jorge, who has designed the World Cup finals several times, took over this year from longtime Hampton Classic designer Conrad Homfeld, who bowed out of this job and is busy putting together courses for the Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games. (Conrad, who is on the board of the Classic, is still around the ring, though, and told me he was doing odd jobs, such as skimming out the water jump. I didn't believe him until Guilherme confirmed it and I saw Conrad toting a bunch of plastic bags filled with equipment out of the arena. "I'm just enjoying the show," Conrad told me. While he was glad not to have responsibility for the courses, he likes to keep busy; hence his helping hand.)
Guilherme is quite clever but never unfair. The tight time allowed of 83 seconds made a big difference in this World Cup qualifier, with 15 riders accruing time faults--including Brianne Goutal on Onira, whose clear round was ruined by a tick of the clock that put her fifth and out of the jump-off, and Debbie Stephens, sixth on All Star with just two time penalties.
A big challenge on course was a rollback turn from an oxer to a double of liverpools near the end of the route. A rider who tried to avoid the rollback by turning to the left instead of the right and going around wound up with time penalties, which shows you how smart Guilherme is in his creations. After it was all over, I got Guilherme's viewpoint on his first Hampton Classic grand prix, one of the very few held on turf as opposed to an all-weather surface.
I was really impressed by Jimmy's horse, who I hadn't seen before, so I asked him about it.
This show is one of a kind, and a star of the area surrounding it. Hermes and Ralph Lauren, among the luxe shops in nearby East Hampton, do equestrian displays in its honor, and people who may not attend another show all year have made it a Labor Day tradition.
Although admission is inexpensive ($10 per person or $20 per carload) the vendor village is high-end. The economic downturn doesn't seem to have affected Classic shoppers. Vendors, who sell everything from fancy rocking horses to custom boots and shoes, artwork and lots of jewelry, were doing very well.
"It's the right crowd," explained artist Patrick Reid O'Brien, who works in multi-media and will do a 3- by 4-foot piece featuring you, your horse, or whoever you want, complete with a quote or words of wisdom, for a mere $1,125. And then there was the life-size bronze horse and rider on sale for $36,000 from $60,000.
Today, everybody came to party in the VIP tents, where security is strict and the table settings lavish.
Sponsor Sam Edelman, a shoe company, featured purple orchids and a stylish shoe under glass on its table.
Big names from the New York area who were on hand included commentator Lou Dobbs and New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, both of whom had daughters competing, as well as former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani. Hats as fancy as the table settings abounded, and the picture-taking reached a frantic pace that nearly blinded me as legions of flashes kept going off.
But going back to the beginning of my story, it all nearly didn't happen. Hurricane Earl came close to causing cancellation of the show. However, Executive Director Shanette Barth Cohen, one of the coolest heads I know, didn't panic--though safety of the horses was first and foremost in her thoughts. TV and radio around here was fraught with weather angst, but Georgina Bloomberg reached out to a friend who had a brother at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and helped save the day. He was a huge help.
Shanette and he stayed in close touch, and even when the tent purveyor suggested it was time to send everyone home, take down the canvas and call it quits, the reading by Shanette's contact was that Earl wouldn't be enough to force cancellation. But it was a crazy time. I would have totally freaked. Not Shanette, though I did ask her what was going through her mind as the crisis continued.
In the end, classes were rescheduled, most horses were sent home Friday or to nearby, incredibly cooperative farms, and after the rain and wind passed, many came back. A few amateur horses and others didn't return, but most classes were quite full yesterday and today. Everyone I talked to said the Classic folks handled the situation beautifully.
Next Sunday, I'll be sending another postcard; this time from the country's richest grand prix, the Pfizer $1 million at HITS in Saugerties, N.Y.