June 3, 2011 -- The Budweiser Clydesdales have been replaced by the Wells Fargo Stagecoach, but everything else remains pretty much the same at the 2011 Devon Horse Show.
That may be a key factor in what draws people from Philadelphia's well-to-do Main Line and beyond to the 115-year-old Devon Horse Show for an annual pilgrimage that has lasted over the generations.
There may be a few tweaks here and there, but in general, you know what to expect at the Devon Horse Show; the one-of-a-kind items that can be purchased at the country fair, the fun of the mini-carnival for the kids, the Devon blue color scheme, the crustless tea sandwiches (another little change I noticed; they're using whole wheat bread now instead of white for the deviled ham and chicken.)
The biggest night is the second Thursday of the 11-day show, the evening of the new sponsor, Wells Fargo's, $100,000 grand prix. The crowd starts building by late morning, and by an hour before the class, you can't move. The compact showgrounds is filled to bursting around the Dixon Oval; it always makes me think of the English muffins advertised as having "nooks and crannies." Folks wedge themselves in everywhere for a glimpse of the action.
The luckiest are the well-dressed in the elevated boxes handed down in families like heirlooms, and at the other end of the scale, the people who arrived early in the day so they could get the coveted wristbands that allow them to set up shop for free on the ringside Devon blue benches.
With perfect weather after two days of intense heat, it seemed to me that more spectators than ever turned out.
Their enthusiasm is "the salt in the soup," said course designer Olaf Petersen of Germany, using a well-worn expression from his homeland to characterize the atmosphere that he said is replicated in few places around the world. He is impressed with how knowledgeable the spectators. Many of these folks only go to one horse show a year, but after decades of coming to Devon, they've learned a thing or two.
In contrast to the crowd around the ring, the open jumpers inside it didn't set any attendance records. Just 20 horses competed in the show's feature, with three riders showing two mounts. There's a lot of competition for competitors right now. Many U.S. riders are showing in Europe, both in the Nations' Cup and Young Rider tours; Beezie Madden and Kent Farrington, who had planned to ride here, found out they needed to catch flights for their horses heading to Spruce Meadows in Canada earlier than expected. And the Devon jumper classes are sandwiched between two HITS shows in Saugerties, N.Y., a few hours away, where riders are trying to qualify for the series' $1 million finale this September.
But there was enough quality to make a worthy grand prix, and for excitement, you couldn't beat the jump-off. Olaf, who built the routes for the 1988 and 2004 Olympics, got it just right, as he usually does.
He calls himself "the man behind the curtain," noting that the horses and riders are the actors in the sporting drama he orchestrates.
Last year's champion, Peter Leone -- who had the dubious honor of going first in the initial round -- was on track for a clear trip to defend his title on Select until he hit the Devon blue and white vertical/oxer/oxer triple combination, fences 13ABC, set before the finish line and just inches from the crowd along the rail.
He seemed to lack impulsion going around the turn to reach the obstacle, and poles toppled at the A and B elements. There was no way he could make C, and he retired. But two rounds later, local favorite Callan Solem put in a clear trip with the statuesque gray, VDL Torlando, and seven more would qualify for the jump-off before the first round wrapped up. (Actually, Blythe Marano on Urban also had a clear, but she was too slow and accumulated a time fault to miss the tie-breaker.)
Callan was fault-free again in the final round, but her time of 48.272 seconds looked eminently beatable.
"I was planning on going inside after the first jump, but my stallion got a little spooky in front of the first jump and I lost my line a little bit to go inside, so I knew that was certainly leaving the door open," said Callan.
"I had sort of a light winter in Florida not showing much, so it was nice to have him back in a bigger class and he felt like he jumped it easily."
The boldest move of the class was made by Kevin Babington on Mark Q, an Irishbred horse he began showing at the Winter Equestrian Festival. Kevin, who finished fourth in the 2004 Olympics, is an experienced hand who has been off the Irish team radar for awhile since the retirement of his old campaigner, Carling King, but his bold round here should put him back in the chef d'equipe's line of vision.
Bringing gasps from the fans, Kevin made an incredible turn to the next-to-last fence, a triple bar, cutting in front of a vertical that was in the line of fire, rather than going around it. Here's how he described his round.
Kevin was clocked in 46.927 seconds to win the class, and Callan had to settle for second, though she did get a nice boost by winning the McDevitt Style of Riding award.
The fastest time, an awe-inspiring 43.173 seconds, belonged to Todd Minikus on the swift Pavarotti, but a fence down at 13B, four jumps from the end of the course (the route was re-arranged for the jump-off) put him third.
Todd was lucky to be here at all, however. He was a bit pale for someone who is usually robust and tan, but it's understandable, considering all he's been through with his health this year. Here's the saga:
Six-time winner McLain Ward, considered a favorite to add to his record, didn't even make the tie-breaker. His very experienced Rothchild had an uncharacteristic stop at a vertical of (what else) Devon blue rails in a rather dimly lit corner of the ring. Poles went clattering to the ground and he was out of the ribbons.
McLain's second mount, Pjotter van de Zonnehoeve -- who had just won a big class at the HITS show -- faulted at the ninth fence, which ended a less-than-stellar evening for the country's top-ranked jumper rider.