September 2, 2012 -- Drinking champagne at the Hampton Classic while celebrity-spotting and watching wonderful horses leap over fences dedicated to such high-end sponsors as Hermes creates a unique mood. You can go straight from the show to a local deli, where lobster salad is $60 per pound, and not even flinch as you order.
The luxe life on the extremely posh East End of Long Island helps make the Classic a special way to end the summer. Yes, I know we still have a few more weeks to go until it's officially autumn, but this is Labor Day weekend and we're all going back to school or the equivalent in a day or two.
So the mood at the show is celebratory, making the most of the leisure time that is left. That's part of why the Classic is such a fabulous show, but it's more than that. The climactic $250,000 FTI Grand Prix, particularly, is one of the show season's highlights. It's staged in a massive grass arena (not many of those left), surrounded by VIPS and their extravagant table decor on three sides and a grandstand full of fans on the other.
Today's edition of the FTI will be catalogued with so many other memorable moments brought to us by this special fixture. McLain Ward was trying for his second straight victory in the class on Antares F, and he ramped up by winning four classes here during the past week on several different horses. He took the $50,000 qualifier for the grand prix on Friday with Pjotter van de Zoennehoeve and was third with Antares F.
McLain also was the only competitor eligible for the new $200,000 Taylor Harris Triple Crown Challenge, to be awarded to any rider who could win the Wells Fargo Devon Horse Show grand prix, the FTI and the National Horse Show grand prix in November on the same horse.
I asked McLain about it after he won the $30,000 Pilatus Cup yesterday on Vocas (a great looking horse with a flashy dash of white in his tail).
Unfortunately, the Triple Crown concept, laudable as it may be, was short-lived. McLain, in the unenviable position of being first to go in the FTI, had a lovely clean round with Antares, his Devon winner, until he got to the last fence, a skinny vertical set at 1.6 meters. It came down, accompanied to the ground by the groans of the crowd.
"I stiffed him," said McLain, who felt he had pulled up too much on the horse before the jump.
So the Crown is ended for this year. A show manager I know who shall remain nameless had told me the concept needed more flexibility, perhaps a rotation system like the Rolex challenge for eventing, which involves three events that have to be won by the same rider on any horse, and don't have to be won in the same year. Same rider, same horse, three in a row is just too tough.
Anyway, McLain's round seemed to set the pace; no one was fault-free until Kent Farrington, ninth to go on the 10-year-old Dutch warmblood, Voyeur, his newest project. Kent has had some great ones in the last few years, Up Chiqui and Uceko, and now he's working on another project. After Kent, we had to wait 10 more rounds for another clear, this one from Shane Sweetnam, a U.S.-based Irish rider, on Amaretto D'Arco.
Several people came close; Cara Raether on Saskia and Jonathan McCrea on Colorado both were clear over the fences, but each had a single time penalty for exceeding the 91-second time allowed, which was not generous. Meanwhile, riders were being caught by the last line, an oxer a tight four strides from that number 14 vertical. Eight of them had it down. The course designer, Guillherme Jorge of Brazil, one of my favorites, said he debated long and hard about whether to put in number 14, or call it a course at 13 numbered fences. In the back of his mind was the time he did the $500,000 FTI class at the Winter Equestrian Festival, when 16 riders were clear. That makes the first round boring, he noted.
By the way, everyone believes he will be the course designer for the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympics, but he hasn't been given a contract yet. And it's not like Brazil is crawling with top international course designers.
Back to the Classic: The wait was even longer for the next (and last) clear round, Molly Ashe-Cawley, 32d on the roster in the field of 35. I talked to Molly while she was walking the course earlier in the afternoon, and she told me it likely was her last class (or one of the last) with Carissimo, since he has been purchased by a client. So it would have been nice for her to win, but it wasn't to be.
First in the ring for the jump-off, Kent sped around, as he does so well, and was clocked in 47.53 seconds for a fault-free trip. Shane had fence 13 down (now the third-to-last fence on the revised jump-off course) and a time of 48.04. I thought Molly might take the $82,500 first prize, but Carissimo stumbled through fence 13. That slowed down Molly, who finished in 55.19 seconds. I talked to her after the class and she said, "I lost a sneaker," meaning Carissimo had lost his right front shoe, and that caused him to slip at the fence.
It was a special victory for Kent, because he had competed in the class 10 times and earned ribbons of all the other colors, except blue.
We talked about it afterwards.
You don't have to win $82,500 here to feel special. Earlier in the day, McLain's wife, Lauren, took the amateur-owner jumper championship on Oscar. I'm always interviewing McLain, so I thought his wife deserved equal time, or at least a little time. She is a lovely person, and it was nice to see her in the spotlight for a change. This was, understandably, a big deal for her, so we had a good time discussing it.
By the way, in case you're wondering why I cropped out the horse in the photo of Lauren, it's because she borrowed a horse for the award ceremonies. Oscar likes to win, but prefers to skip the presentation.
Lauren was second in a three-horse jump-off for the $25,000 David Yurman Show Jumping Derby for amateurs and juniors. It was won by Meg O'Mara, who also took the junior championship, on Sinatra IV. He's quite a horse; she won gold with him last fall in the USEF National Junior Jumper Championship. He has these odd blue eyes. That's why his name is Sinatra -- remember they called him, "Old Blue Eyes"?
One of the many fun things about the Classic is running into people you haven't seen for awhile. Among those with whom I renewed acquaintance was Sheila Johnson, whose daughter, Paige, is doing well in the jumpers now. Sheila is quite an entrepreneur, and has just come out with a line of silk and cashmere scarves. They will cost between $475 and $525, but part of the money will go to a good cause, a "homeless soccer team" that is another of her projects. These players are kicking addiction and some are moving from the homeless shelters to apartments they share with other team members once they can find work.
Sheila's husband, Arlington County Circuit Court Chief Judge William Newman, told me he was a consultant on the scarves, going over photos of what would be suitable and saying yea or nay. He made sure several of the scarves will be right for men, with their subdued colors and patterns; he plans to wear one with his overcoat.
I literally could write another 1,000 words about the Classic. It's a great place for people-watching (love the outrageously attired women who want to stand out in the VIP tent on Sunday; my favorite was the gal who showed up in a gown of gold sequins, so appropriate for Sunday afternoon in the country). The tree-shaded hunter ring on the other side of the VIP tent is a lovely setting, vendors have incredible wares (though I can't afford any of them) and the people who put on the show do an incredible job. I can't wait to come back next year.
In the meantime, I'll be busy with postcards this month and into December. Next Sunday, I'll tell you all about the richest day in showing anywhere in the world, at HITS in Saugerties, N.Y., a long way from the East End. Featured is the $1 million Pfizer grand prix, as well as the $250,000 HITS hunter prix and the $500,000 Diamond Mills hunter prix. I remember when a $10,000 jumper stake was a big deal!