September 1, 2013 -- The answer is: Kent Farrington.
Everyone was wondering whether Kent, who won the Hampton Classic's $250,000 FTI Consulting Grand Prix last year, could do it again aboard Voyeur, or if six-time winner McLain Ward would make it number seven with the very game Rothchild.
Those who guessed it would be Kent may have wanted to change their bet when he rode into the huge grass arena on the relatively inexperienced Zafira. Voyeur, who was listed on the class sheet, had a swollen ankle, and Kent wisely decided to keep him in the barn, rather than taking a chance with such a lovely horse. So in went the sub.
While Guillerme Jorge's expertly designed route had yielded only three clears to that point, with just three entries to go, for a horse without mileage an equal challenge to the course is the atmosphere. When I say the arena is huge, I mean it. And the imposing jumps are set against a backdrop of a full grandstand that reaches toward the sky on one end of the field and a totally jammed VIP tent on two sides, as well as uber-elite chalets that are a caterer's dream on the other.
Zafira was up to the task, though. She's impressive, and put in the fourth clean round. In the end, there were five back for the jump-off; Irishmen Kevin Babington (Mark Q) and Richie Moloney (Slievanorra); local favorite Georgina Bloomberg (Juvina), daughter of New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who was on hand to watch, and Brianne Goutal (Nice de Prissey).
So what happened to McLain? The winner of Friday's qualifier with Rothchild was on his way to a clear round when he barely touched a rail at the final fence and it dropped to the ground. The place swelled with sympathetic groans from the crowd. There would be no victory number seven, at least not this year.
Unfortunately, McLain lost more than the class. He was in line for a $200,000 bonus, the Taylor Harris Triple Crown initative. That amount, someday, I guess, will go to the rider who wins the Devon Horse Show's $100,000 Wells Fargo Grand Prix (which went to McLain on Rothchild last spring), the FTI grand prix and the Alltech National Horse Show's $250,000 grand prix in November during the same season. It's the second year in a row that McLain has won at Devon, only to miss the top prize here.
With the advantage of going next-to-last, Kent had an edge on the opposition. He was shooting at Richie's 40-second clean round. Watching Richie brought me back to two years ago, when he made his debut at the show on the Irishbred son of Voltaire. The horse crashed at the double of liverpools and Richie went flying. Slievanorra has come a long way since then, but Kent knew how to take his measure.
"Richie and I were riding two very different types of horses," said Kent, who wrapped up his perfect trip in 38.51 seconds.
"His was a quicker mover, so today my strategy was to do less strides on the lines and try to beat him on a better gallop."
At the end of the day, I chatted with Kent about the grand prix and his chestnut mare, a daughter of Tolano van't Reithof, who moved up in his estimation in the space of a few hours.
I asked Richie whether he thought he might be able to edge Kent if he could have a do-over of the jump-off. Unfortunately, I didn't bring my magic wand to the showgrounds to make it happen, but he played along.
"If I had a later draw, I think I could have gone quicker," mused Richie, his charming Irish accent lending another dimension to his thoughts.
"Kevin was first, and he had one jump down, and I know my horse is naturally quick, so I didn't over-push in the jump-off. I tried to just make sure I left the jumps up and put the pressure on the three left to go after me."
Even so, he said, "I'm very happy, it's my biggest result in a grand prix like this, I'm more than satisfied."
And while he didn't collect the $82,500 winner's prize money, he did well enough, taking home $50,000 for the FTI runner-up berth and earning the new $30,000 Longines leading rider award. Richie said he'll put it toward paying his bills.
Oh, and Slieveanorra was the champion international jumper.
Georgina took a wisely conservative tack, turning in the slowest of the clean rounds to finish third in 44.03 seconds, ahead of Kevin and Brianne on her attractive gray mare by Cassini I. It was the perfect end of the season for Georgina, who is due to deliver a baby in December.
She looks incredibly trim, I must say, and plans to stay in shape so she can be riding seriously again early next year. It was Georgina's best finish ever in the class, and well ahead of the baby's father, Ramiro Quintana, who had 8 faults in the first round on Whitney. Georgina always felt that when her dad came to watch her, she didn't do well, so now that little curse has been broken.
The mayor had a ringside table in the VIP tent, where champagne was the drink of the day, fancy table decorations were the norm, and if you didn't have a hat that made a statement, who the heck were you? Anyway, you could see the pride shining in his face as Georgina rode to accept her ribbon, and that was a nice moment to witness.
I went up to Guillherme afterwards and said four words: "You are a genius." This master craftsman got just the right number in the jump-off.
He had a tough decision to make in the beginning. The first four riders all accumulated one fault for exceeding the 85-second time allowed; three were clean aside from that. After the first three, the designer could have chosen to extend the time allowed (which he did in the jump-off) but he took a chance and didn't extend it in the first round. So after Kevin Babington, 19th to go in the field of 36, put in the first clear, there wasn't another until Richie, number 31, got the second. It's enough to make a course designer wonder if the did the right thing, but Guillherme felt with some big names coming near the end of the order, it would be okay. And he was right.
This is a guy as lovely as he is smart, and it annoys me that the powers that be in his homeland haven't selected him yet as the show jumping designer for the 2016 Olympics in Rio. It's not like there are dozens of world-class course designers hanging out in Brazil. I'm sure they'll pick him but geez, why not make it official?
While the grand prix was the highlight of the show, the whole week is a work of art. One of the reasons is the great team that puts it on -- as Kent noted, the management is always making an effort to improve the show and work at the highest standard. Many riders, Kent included it, consider it the best such event in the country.
Shanette Barth Cohen, the Classic's executive director, is totally dedicated to her mission. I wondered if there was an adjustment to be made because of having Longines as the newest sponsor, since that certainly was a big change for the show.
Here is what she told me.
This was a long day. It started at 8 a.m. with the Eastern League Young Horse finals. Amazingly, the horse that won as a 5-year-old and a 6-year-old won again as a 7-year-old in the division for 7- and 8-year-olds, making a clean sweep. He is Bilion, by Emilion, and rider Jeffery Welles is lucky enough to own a piece of him.
Jeffery doubts the horse will compete in 8-year-old classes. He has one more show this year at the Gold Cup in two weeks, and next year, he'll be ready to move up; gradually, of course.
The rider can't say enough about his mount.
"He wants to leave the jumps up. He's really careful; he's brave. He loves a big grass field. The horse just wants to do his job. He's just a real winner."
He was purchased as a 4-year-old from the brothers of individual Olympic medalist Gerco Schroeder in Holland. I bet they'll be sorry they lost that one. Jeffery only rode him once and said "we had to have him. He's just so spectacular."
The $25,000 junior/amateur derby belonged to Michael Hughes. I have been watching the 17-year-old for six years, and it was obvious from the start that he was born to be a special rider. The son of a professional horseman has one more junior year, but he's way ahead of his peers.
Only Michael and Erin Haas made it into the jump-off, the course was that hard. Erin went first with Admiral Clover and finished in 36.77 seconds. Michael easily bested that on Luxina, despite adding a stride in one line to compensate for slippery ground, winning in 35.28 seconds.
But he had an advantage over the others in the class; he's won a $50,000 grand prix with Luxina, and experience tells. He's going to be a professional horseman when he's out of the juniors, but he already has the skill set to make it big time.
Luxina is a good partner for him.
"She tries hard all the time, and she loves to win. She can have a bit of an attitude in the barn, but in the ring she's all business," he reported proudly.
Another junior star, Tori Colvin, continued her perpetual winning ways, taking the junior/amateur hunter derby with Dedication.
"She got a 98," her trainer, Scott Stewart, told me with what I thought was a bit of awe in his voice, when I caught up with him to ask about the class, which was running simultaneously with action in the grand prix arena. Can't be two places at once.
I love the Classic, even if I don't like spending hours in traffic to get here and while I'm out on the East End of Long Island. A lot of other people like it here too, and you have to plan on taking extra time to get anywhere. But it's worth it for a visit to a truly unique competition. I wish they were all like this one.
I'll be sending my next postcard a week from today, when I'm at the HITS show in Saugerties, N.Y., to report on the big-money hunter classes and the $1 million jumper competition.