November 7, 2010 -- I couldn't make it to the Syracuse Sporthorse Invitational in person this year, but I did the next best thing--I watched the major classes online.
Watching isn't enough to write intelligently about anything of course, so I was grateful to be able to do my interviews and hear the press conferences, thanks to help from Rebecca Walton of Phelps Media Group.
It was certainly a different perspective, and one I hope I don't have to repeat--it's important to be at a show to get the whole story and the photos; luckily I had some shots of the right folks from Washington last week. But from this angle, in front of my computer, I was able to appreciate perhaps even better than I have in person how special this show is.
Syracuse, which has combined forces with the National Horse Show for the last several years, offers its features in a unique package. It includes a World Cup qualifier grand prix, the National's ASPCA Maclay hunt seat horsemanship championship finals and the Syracuse Sporthorse Cup, conceived by show organizer John Madden in a custom format to test speed, scope and adjustability.
Richard Jeffery, always a tough (but fair) taskmaster, designed an extremely difficult route for the $100,000 Detweiler Fenton Grand Prix, presented by G&C. The 28 starters included some big names; among them McLain Ward with his Dublin grand prix winner, Antares, and Grand Prix of Devon victor Select, ridden by Peter Leone. But they didn't even get a sniff of the ribbons.
Only three made the jump-off and Margie Engle was well situated to win going last because both Marie Hecart (Myself de Breve) and Harrie Smolders (Exquis Power Fee) had dropped rails. Her mark of 39.150 seconds on the intrepid Indigo was far more leisurely than Marie's 35.510 mark for her 4-fault trip, but leaving the rails in place made all the difference.
Indigo, a 10-year-old Dutchbred, has been competing in grands prix since March with Margie, and has won at such prominent shows as Lake Placid and Cleveland, but to her way of thinking, he's "still a little bit green," meaning "it's better to be safe than sorry."
She doesn't want to push him beyond where she's comfortable, because this is her prospect for the London 2010 Olympics.
The grey gelding came from Australia, purchased on the word of a trustworthy horse dealer (guess that's not an oxymoron) and Engle never tried him. But he rose to being special very fast.
"He's one of the best horses I've sat on in a long time," said Engle, adding she has yet to find his limit.
The Maclay is an endurance contest as well as an equitation competition. It started at 6:30 this morning over fences with 153 riders, then moved on to a flat phase for which 30 were selected, and with barely a lunch break, concluded with a final jumping test for the top 18. Don't forget that these riders and horses are wrapping up a long fall championships circuit, which would explain why some of the mounts seemed a little tired.
Scott Hofstetter, a Maclay winner himself (1986, and I was there for that one) judged the finals with Olympic show jumping gold medalist Melanie Smith Taylor. The flowing first-round course was mostly his product; the second round route was mostly hers.
Melanie explained that the idea behind the initial no-tricks course was to "make it a challenge, but make it doable. The second course was a little more of a test."
After the first round, Pessoa/U.S. Equestrian Federation Medal Winner Hayley Barnhill of Tennessee stood second. She wasn't able to hold the counter-lead to a Swedish oxer on Podest. He swapped leads, and that put her down a notch.
But Melanie told me, "it wasn't a big deal; not enough to drop her way down." By the time the flat phase was finished, she had overtaken the leader, Taylor Ann Adams, who dropped to fourth behind Michael Hughes and Lillie Keenan, winner of the Washington equitation championship last weekend.
The pressure was on Hayley, 17, going into the final phase, where the questions included a trot fence, an option of a wide fence or a skinny, and putting one or two strides in a double. A wingless centerpiece featuring two tree-trunk verticals with a natural rail oxer in the middle didn't faze anyone, nor did the ASPCA wall, a very forward four strides from the first jump, a hogsback.