October 27, 2013 -- The Washington International is a one-of-a-kind show. That's why I love it; in the heart of a big city, you can walk a block and be in a restaurant or your hotel, and there are many interesting places to visit if you can find an hour or two to spare. I know foreign riders often include sightseeing during their time in the nation's capital. The National Portrait Gallery, for instance, is only a few minutes walk from the Verizon Center, the arena where the show is held.
So it's a treat not only to be in Washington, but to be there for such a wonderful competition. It takes a lot to make it happen, both on the part of the show and the participants. Two streets are closed for tent stabling that is not a plethora of amenities, the tiny warm-up area is threaded with poles, and depending on the tight exercise schedule, the ring may be available for schooling for your division only in the hours before dawn. But those who come feel it's a trip worth making.
This show has gone through some difficult years, and I know at one point, some pessimists were busy writing its obituary. But it has gotten a new lease on life through the hard work and real dedication of its chairman, Juliet Reid, and Victoria Lowell, its president, as well as their staff. They've made many changes but one thing is always the same: The biggest class of the show is Saturday night's $125,000 President's Cup. It never fails to tell a memorable story, though of course it's a little different every year.
The 2013 edition will be remembered for a two-horse jump-off, as entry after entry in the 25-horse field faltered among the forest of fences crowded into the tight confines of the ring, which normally hosts a basketball court or hockey rink. American Gold Cup winner Brianne Goutal on the accomplished Nice de Prissey had what would become the first fault-free round (more on that below), and the second belonged to Kent Farrington on Blue Angel, who is fantastic. You know what they say about good mares...remember Sapphire?
And after Kent, that was all there was. McLain Ward, like Kent a past winner of the Cup, had no luck with Zander, but could get some consolation from having won the show's $50,000 speed final with Wings. World Cup champion Beezie Madden, last to go, seemed a likely candidate for the tie-breaker. But Coral Reef Via Volo (another good mare) and her rider instead had to settle for being the fastest of three 4-faulters and wound up third.
With the advantage of going second, those in the know realized Kent would be impossible to beat unless he had a major problem, so it went the way you'd expect. Brianne put in a very nice effort, but Kent watched exactly what she did to jump around fault-free in 32.23 seconds and felt all he had to do was go her one better. And that's the way it turned out. Kent is a master of doing what has to be done to win, but he does it with style and this time, in 30.81 seconds.
Noting that going second in a two-horse jump-off is an ideal position, he thought he was a little faster to two fences, but commented, "then I tried to play it safe coming home." He had a hard rap on the rail over a liverpool, but it stayed up.
"You need a little luck to win these classes," he pointed out.
Asked for her thoughts, Brianne observed, "My horse is fast, but not super-fast. My goal was really to be clear and fast enough and I was hoping he was going to make a mistake or get a little unlucky, but it was his day, not mine."
It was Kent's second President's Cup victory, and that means a lot to a guy who has won everywhere.
My first question to the riders was, naturally, what made the course so tough?
Here's how Beezie saw it: "There were some jumps that were big enough; the hardest part was that it was very twisty-turny and it a lot of the jumps were off a blind approach." And she added, everything came up fast.
Two-time Olympic course designer Leopoldo Palacios, who laid out the maze, was wise enough to extend the time allowed after Brianne, second to go, logged a single time fault. Designers have the option to change the TA after the first three horses have finished. All of the first three had time penalties, though only Brianne was close to the 63-second TA, going over it by just 0.28 seconds. In this case, extending the time allowed was very important -- otherwise there wouldn't have been a jump-off, and the fans certainly would have been disappointed. There's nothing like a face-off against the clock to get the juices flowing.
So Leopoldo, who didn't want to give away the store, added just one extra second. Brianne said she was hoping he would; when I jokingly asked if she had talked to him about it, she fired back, "I sent him a text message."
It was an emotional night for Brianne. Earlier in the evening, her longtime ride, Logan, was officially retired in a brief ceremony. At 19, he is going to live at Sloane Coles' place in The Plains, Va., which sounds pretty cushy.
Brianne, who won all the major equitation championships as a junior, talked with me about sending off Logan.
Darragh Kenny, a U.S.-based Irishman, wound up sixth in the grand prix aboard Prof de la Roque but won the barrel racing teamed with Paige Reynolds, his barrel-racing partner for the evening. It was a fun exhibition and part of the diversity that makes Washington such a great show, though I suspect it didn't count toward the leading international jumper rider title that he earned. By the way, it was Darragh's barrel racing debut; I don't think this discipline is big where he comes from.
Another event that brightened up the program was the Shetland pony steeplechase. I had seen this at Olympia, London's Christmas show, which always features the Shetland "Grand National." But it was a first for me at a U.S. indoor show. The ponies scamper over miniscule hurdles as their young jockeys, dressed in proper silks, urge them on. Announcer Adam Cromarty of Great Britain, who is familiar with these competitions, did a great job explaining the format and profiling the contenders, so the crowd got it and really went wild.
One of the most popular, classes, of course, is the puissance. You don't see enough of these high jumps, but winner Tim Gredley, who cleared 6-11 with Unex Valente, seeks them out. this was another feature that pleased the ticketholders. It's not difficult to understand what's going on here--you get over the wall, or you don't.
Vicki Lowell and I talked about how nice it is to see spectators filling the seats and really enjoying themselves. You've got to think that in this location, many, if not most of the spectators, aren't horse-savvy. But they got into it. That was no accident. Here's what Vicki said in that regard.
The best example of community outreach is Kids Day, held yesterday, when yet another street was closed for pony rides and an opportunity for children to interact with equines through petting and brushing. Don't forget, they will be the base of our sport. The biggest (literally) attraction was the statuesque Klinger, a Morgan/Percheron cross who is the hero of a kid's book. He's a mascot of the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors (TAPS) that helps the families of fallen servicemen and women.
Klinger pulls the caissons of the fallen when they are buried at Arlington National Cemetery. In a moving demonstration on Military Night, the caisson entered the arena in half-light and received respectful applause as the audience stood when it passed. It's impressive that Klinger, like his fellow caisson horses, helps wounded warriors through therapy.
To hear more, listen to this:
I'll end on a lighter note about one of my fun interviews, with Major, the giant plush horse who is the Washington International mascot. Turns out the 15-year-old Mary Elizabeth Cordia is the person wearing the Major suit at occasions such as Kids' Day. Being Major takes a little practice and getting used to.
"It's really weird when you see your reflection," she commented.
Mary Elizabeth enjoys interacting with kids when she is her alter-ego.
"They grab your legs. It's so much fun for me," she said, bubbling with enthusiasm.
There's so much more I could say about Washington. I really enjoyed the costume class, won by Shane Sweetnam impersonating a beer keg. My favorite costume was worn by Candice King as a very well made-up clown. Go to www.facebook.com/practicalhorseman for photos of the costumed riders and other shots of the event. Different photos are available at www.facebook.com/equisearch.
I'll be sending you a postcard from the National Horse Show in Lexington, Ky., next Sunday, but check the Facebook sites starting Friday for photos from the show.