January 6, 2013 -- What, I wondered, was "garden glamour." That was the dress code for this afternoon's first $100,000 Trump Invitational Grand Prix, and I was pretty sure it didn't mean an outfit you'd wear for weeding or distributing compost among your flowers. Not when tickets were going for $1,250.
The answer turned out to be summery dresses, often with matching hats, though few outfits could compare with Georgina Bloomberg's short pleated orange dress that floated on her shoulders. Georgina, who told me her teen book series that started with "The A Circuit" is on the road to being a TV show, was more focused today on co-chairing this event with Paige Bellissimo, daughter of FTI Winter Equestrian Festival mastermind Mark Bellissimo. The money raised benefits the WEF's FTI Great Charity Challenge jumping competition at the end of the month, when 32 local charities get funding that can make a huge difference in their mission.
The idea for this invitational blossomed after Donald Trump visited the Palm Beach International Equestrian Center, home of the WEF, last year and saw the possibilities of holding a competition in Palm Beach. I mean, you can call PBIEC Palm Beach, but it's really Wellington, about 35 minutes west of the glittering island that is synonymous with wealth. The Donald (are we going to have to start calling Mark "The Mark"?) offered his fabulous Mar-a-Lago as the venue. This landmark mansion was built for cereal heiress Marjorie Merriweather Post, known for her lavish taste, and The Donald refurbished it after he bought it in 1985.
I asked asked him about his familiarity with the sport.
He also told me that he has ridden, and yes indeed, has fallen off. (Who of us hasn't? Now I have something in common with Donald Trump.) He was very cordial, incredibly enthusiastic and really promoted the invitational, joined by his wife, Melania, and their son, Barron.
A poolside reception featuring Veuve Cliquot champagne paved the way for a magnificent buffet in the tent built around a former golf course turned grand prix arena. The feeling was intimate; it was a small space that Rodrigo Pessoa compared to riding in an indoor ring--except one line of jumps ran alongside the intracoastal waterway. Someone even pulled up a boat to watch the competition; that's my idea of a great afternoon.
Still, it's not as easy to put on a "ship-in" show jumping event in a new venue as it is to cater it or pour lots of bubbly. The grass field wasn't grown to withstand steel shoes and caulks, so it started slipping away rather quickly. Divot replacement became the raison d'etre for the crew on the turf, but the ground still kept giving way, making it difficult for horses to get a good push off, especially later in the afternoon.
Anthony D'Ambrosio had a heck of a task designing a course that wasn't too difficult under the circumstances, but also wasn't a give-away. The jumps topped out at 1.5 meters, yet the footing made them ride harder than they would have otherwise. Beautiful fences included rails flanked by giant bottles of Veuve Cliquot (remember the giant beer bottles from the days when Budweiser sponsored the sport?) and a special Trump Invitational obstacle in striking black and gold.
The starting field of 36 yielded four for the jump-off, but several of those near the end of the order--including Margie Engle (Indigo), Reed Kessler (Ligist) and Great Britain's Nick Skelton (Belmont) decided to call it quits after faulting, rather than pushing their mounts. However, Kent Farrington, 28th to go on Dynamo, did manage to make it around without trouble and went last in the jump-off.
Rodrigo, who had the advantage of going fifth in the first round on HH Let's Fly, set quite a nice pace for the tie-breaker considering the circumstances, but he was cautious.
He didn't want to go too slowly to "make it too easy for the other riders. But also, under these conditions, you can't go like you would normally. This ground is not designed for show jumping. It's designed to be pretty. It was a tryout, and it will be something they'll think about for next year. It was nice to be part of this first Trump Invitational."
Going last after rails were dropped by the other two in the jump-off, Charlie Jayne (who wound up third on Waldman Z) and Schuyler Riley (fourth on Waterloo), Kent took direct aim at Rodrigo's mark of 44.31 seconds and produced a fault-free effort.
"With the footing not being great, there wasn't top speed today, it was more about just going fast enough to win," said Kent. "One thing I had to be aware of was that I didn't get lulled into thinking it would be an easy jump-off."
He finished in 42.62 seconds, balancing his horse beautifully on the turns that were as tight as he dared make them.
Dynamo "is a great horse" who has won many classes for his owner, Megan Nusz, one of Kent's students. He was giving a break to his horses after they showed in Europe, but he still wanted to try the invitational and was happy to be able to borrow Dynamo.
"I knew the setting would be pretty impressive here with the crowd and on the water, so I wanted to make sure I brought a horse that was brave and I knew I could count on to march right in there," Kent said.
Asked about the invitational, he said, "I thought they made the best of what they had and put on a great event."
We talked a little more after the press conference.
The Mark and The Donald agreed that there will be a second Trump Invitational, but Donald wants to move it to a different section of the property, which would make the most of the mansion's vista. There's no question the footing will be improved.
The event was everything Mark had hoped it would be, and we talked about that.
The Trumps gave $100,000 to the Great Charity Challenge in honor of the Bellissimos, which is pretty amazing. A round of golf with The Donald was put up for auction, with the bidding starting at $5,000, and that yielded $35,000. If I played golf, I'd like to play with Donald Trump. He's very pleasant and forthcoming, quite different from the character he appears to be on television. I was impressed that he and his wife stood attentively at the railing of their tent and watched Olympian Tina Konyot perform a dressage exhibition on Calecto V. They really seemed interested.
All of us had to be bused to Mar-a-Lago from a nearby bank parking lot because of parking issues on site, and even the riders were included in that. So it was fun to chat on the bus with the likes of McLain Ward and Candice King.
Candice, who is very down-to-earth, wanted to emphasize that the invitational was about more than show jumping, it was about charity "and giving something to the people in need and the animals in need." It is easy, as she said, to get too focused on the competition itself as opposed to the broader purpose of giving back.
The invitational wasn't the only horse-related thing going on in Palm Beach County this weekend. The PBIEC had a show, the last before WEF gets under way this week. Although the grand prix was only $25,000, it drew 43 starters, with Aaron Vale turning in the winning round on Zippo II. He has had the horse only a week, but they obviously get along. He saw a videotape of Zippo, flew to England to try him out and made the deal. The horse came out of the program of British team gold medal Olympian Scott Brash, but Scott--a WEF regular--won't be able to see his former mount around PBIEC. Aaron was packing up and heading home to Ocala, where he competes in the HITS shows. He said he might return to WEF for a grand prix at some point, but with the many horses he owns, it's too expensive to keep them at WEF. A number of other riders do the same, competing in Wellington in the fall and early winter before setting out for Ocala or Gulfport, Miss., which are less pricey venues.
PBIEC was getting spruced up when I visited Saturday. Workers were everywhere, putting the finishing touches on a carousel near the entrance (a gift to Mark from his wife, Katherine); rebuilding the International Club and putting in new sidewalks. Unfortunately, Wellington Equestrian Partners, which owns PBIEC, is tangled in seemingly endless litigation involving the Global Dressage Festival grounds a half-mile away. The litigation affects the future of that property, which was designed to make Wellington the key winter dressage destination of the world. WEP has pulled out of settlement talks with the village on the matter, which is making lawyers rich but not helping the sport. People seem to have forgotten what the showgrounds were like before WEP took over; I still remember being horrified as horses slipped on the awful footing. The facility now is one of the world's best, so why not enable the dressage grounds to be the same? It's hard to understand.
I'll be back in Florida on the last weekend of the month for the World Dressage Masters. Look for my postcard Jan. 27. In the meantime, as soon as I can, I'll post photos from this weekend at facebook.com/equisearch.