October 28, 2012 -- The Washington International is an amazing experience, both for the horses who compete at the Verizon Center and for their humans.
As the only horse show in the heart of a major American city, it's an eye-opener even for the well-traveled. Horses often gaze in wonder at first as they go for a stroll on the sidewalk to stretch their legs or catch some fresh air. Life swirls around them, from pedestrians who are startled to see stables on the street as they exit the Metro transit system, to admirers eager to pat them, though some are a bit intimidated by their first face-to-face equine encounter.
Most of the horses are housed on the street in portable stalls behind chain link fence. The jumpers live inside the building, just off the arena floor. Their exercise and warm-up area is a tiny space punctuated by pillars. You can't bring every horse to Washington (the claustrophobic animals need not apply), but I've never seen any of them freak out. The place is in use 24 hours a day, with exercise sessions scheduled by division post-midnight and pre-dawn.
There is compensation for the inconvenience. Riders and owners have the luxury of enjoying hotels and places to eat only a block or two from the facility where the competition takes place, in an arena that usually hosts basketball or hockey (at least when the latter isn't involved in a lockout).
"This show is amazing," said Australian rider Matt Williams. "You're so close to everything, you walk outside and all the restaurants are there. It's well-publicized, so people coming in who don't know anything about horses are learning about the sport, and they've got things happening other than jumping to keep everyone entertained."
High above the arena floor, platforms at either end of the building host VIPs who have paid $25,000 for a table that seats eight guests so they can dine in style with a great view of the action. Above that, on one side, is the Acela Club, where folks fork over four figures for a sumptuous buffet and spectating privileges during the key evenings for the run of the show.
The big finale always is the $100,000 President's Cup, which over the decades has drawn diplomats and the leaders of the country or their representatives for an evening that is both gala and exciting (the Obama administration is the exception that has not sent anyone, but the Belgian ambassador was on hand last night to keep up that part of the tradition).
A look at the order of go gave a big hint as to who might win the class. Reed Kessler drew the advantageous spot as the last of 28 to ride, and she is never shy about speeding across the finish line with her Olympic mount, Cylana. Knowing the time of the other eight contenders in the jump-off was all she needed for a slam-dunk. She was fault-free in 32.62 seconds, well ahead of runner-up Paulo Santana from Brazil, clocked in 34.15 on Taloubet.
Reed wasn't quite sure how she got the perfect spot on the roster, but she made the most of it "keeping it slick," taking seven strides rather than eight to a double halfway through the shortened route, and then seven again, instead of eight, to the final fence, an oxer pointed toward the out-gate side of the arena. The victory in the World Cup qualifier (the Cup finals are her next goal) also nailed the Leading Rider and Owner awards for Reed, who marked her 18th birthday last summer by becoming the youngest member ever on the U.S. Olympic jumping team.
"It's my first year of being old enough to do all these grands prix. Last year, I was leading (for) Leading Rider going into it, and I wasn't old enough to do it, so I really wanted to come back this year and seal the deal," she said.
"I'm thrilled. I brought out the red coat for it and everything."
Whatever else happens in Reed's brilliant career, 2012 will be remembered as the time when all the big stuff happened for her.
Understandably, if you're competing against Reed, it's intimidating.
"She made us feel old," the good-humored Paulo said with a twinkle in his eye. "Two seconds in an indoor competition is a lot of a difference," he pointed out.
"I will try to get my pride back. I was afraid to try and have a rail really early," he said, explaining why he was a touch conservative in his approach.
Matt finished third on Watch Me VD Mangelaar, the 9-year-old he took to the Olympics. He now is employed by Missy Clark's North Run, and found that working equitation horses in recent weeks was to his advantage with Watch Me, giving him techniques that helped improve the horse's performance and make him more rideable. He finished the course in 36.15.
Margie Engle, right behind on 36.42 (the slowest of the clean rounds) with Indigo to claim fourth, was, as Paulo pointed out, at a disadvantage. Washington was only her second show back after recuperation from a broken angle, and Paulo believed it hampered her performance. He was probably right; she told me she may need another surgery, but plucky Margie at least picked up some World Cup points.